24 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DIE WALKÜRE (A. Välkki, H. Hotter, C. Watson, J. Vickers, R. Gorr; Testament SBT4 1495 & A. Varnay, H. Hotter, L. Rysanek, J. Vickers, R. Gorr; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0247)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DIE WALKÜRE (Testament SBT4 1495)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Walküre—Anita Välkki (Brünnhilde), Hans Hotter (Wotan), Claire Watson (Sieglinde), Jon Vickers (Siegmund), Rita Gorr (Fricka), Michael Langdon (Hunding), Marie Collier (Gerhilde), Judith Pierce (Helmwige), Margreta Elkins (Waltraute), Joan Edwards (Schwertliete), Julia Malyon (Ortlinde), Noreen Berry (Siegrune), Maureen Guy (Grimgerde), Josephine Veasey (Roßweiße); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Sir Georg Solti, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, 2 October 1961; Testament SBT4 1495; 4CD, 224:00; Available from harmonia mundi USA, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre was first performed in Munich on 26 June 1870, the enthusiasm of Bavaria’s eccentric King Ludwig II preempting the composer’s intention that the opera should première alongside its Der Ring des Nibelungen brethren in the first Bayreuth presentation of the complete Cycle, one of greatest works of art in musical form was introduced to a tumultuous world that was in so many ways altered by it. Also springing to life for the first time was Brünnhilde, the heroine emblematic not just of Wagner but of idealized Teutonic Romanticism in general and a rôle that after 144 years still plants fear in the hearts of aspiring Wagnerians. Though Das Rheingold has recently gained traction in the international repertory, Die Walküre has traditionally been the Ring opera most frequently encountered beyond the context of productions of the full tetralogy. Even among the bounties of musical invention and metaphysical depth in the Ring, Die Walküre possesses special qualities. It is Verdi whose explorations of the relationships among fathers and their daughters are most celebrated by opera lovers, but there is no more heart-rending study of the fracturing of the relationship between a father and his favorite daughter than in Act Three of Die Walküre. This performance, given two days after the première of a new production of the opera by the Royal Opera House, was also intended to be part of a complete Ring, an inaugural Cycle planned for Covent Garden’s then-new Music Director, Sir Georg Solti, who was already engaged in the recording of a complete Ring with the Wiener Philharmoniker for DECCA. Ultimately, the Covent Garden Ring ran aground, but this performance is evidence both of Maestro Solti’s familiarity with Wagner repertory in the opera house as well as the recording studio and of the dramatic self-sufficiency of Die Walküre.

Testament’s meticulous restoration of Wagner performances of the past to sonic standards competitive with much more recent recordings is widely acclaimed, and the remastering of the monaural sound from the original BBC broadcast recording of this performance allows these Valkyries to ride as never before. It is not true that, as stated in press materials and on the physical CD set, this performance is being made available for the first time with this release, but it has not been previously circulated in sound of the quality achieved by Paul Baily’s remastering. The drop-outs and periods of static that marred earlier, unauthorized editions of the broadcast are absent from Testament’s release, which has natural if somewhat dry balances—nicely reflective, that is, of the acoustics of the Royal Opera House. The enthusiastic and occasionally very prominent prompter still intrudes distractingly, however, and the increased clarity of the sound enables stage noises and coughs from the audience to emerge more noticeably. Offsetting these very minor blemishes, the exemplary playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra can be heard with considerable immediacy; more so than in a number of more recent broadcasts and issues on Covent Garden’s own house label, in fact. Why the Royal Opera House Chorus is credited when there are no choral passages in Die Walküre is slightly perplexing: perhaps a few of the Valkyries, all of whom were engaged for solo parts in contemporaneous Covent Garden productions, were also members of the chorus. In this performance, the Covent Garden brass and wind players distinguish themselves with playing of laudable accuracy. Surprisingly, there are passages of uncertainty from the strings, but the musicians follow Maestro Solti’s leadership instinctively. This is a more spacious, relaxed reading of Die Walküre than would become typical of Maestro Solti in the decade after this performance, but the expansiveness permits many details of Wagner’s orchestrations to be emphasized with unusual profundity. One example among many is the delicacy of the woodwind figurations that accompany the beginning of Brünnhilde’s and Wotan’s conversation in Act Three, music that Maestro Solti and the Covent Garden players deliver with particular concentration and sensitivity. In general, the conductor’s Wagner interpretations were notable for their drive and energy, and these qualities are in evidence in this performance. There are also many moments of repose, and this, on the whole, is one of Maestro Solti’s most openly emotional performances of a Wagner opera.

Valkyries Marie Collier (Solti’s Chrysothemis opposite Birgit Nilsson in his DECCA studio recording of Richard Strauss’s Elektra with the Wiener Philharmoniker) as Gerhilde, Judith Pierce as Helmwige, Margreta Elkins as Waltraute, Joan Edwards as Grimgerde, Julia Maylon as Ortlinde, Noreen Berry as Siegrune, Maureen Guy as Grimgerde, and Josephine Veasey as Roßweiße are as imposing a family of warrior sisters as can be heard on any recording of Die Walküre. Individually and in ensemble, each lady manages her part capably, and this is the rare octet who prove capable of producing sounds of real beauty. In pleading with Wotan for mercy for Brünnhilde, the musicality with which these Valkyries intertwine their voices is tremendous: the enormity of Brünnhilde’s betrayal is made all the more clear by Wotan’s refusal to yield to such a radiantly-expressed argument. The terror and understated sadness with which these girls, unused to affairs of the heart, turn their backs on their errant sister is unexpectedly touching. It is as though they are seized, if only for a moment, by the humanity to which Brünnhilde is condemned.

Already a Covent Garden stalwart for a decade at the time of this performance, bass Michael Langdon is a menacing, mean-spirited Hunding who seems intent on exterminating Siegmund from the moment he finds the meddlesome male Wälsung in his home. The nastiness of his voicing of ‘Ich weiß ein wildes Geschlecht’ in Act One is startling, and he leaves little doubt that Sieglinde’s life with him is one from which any self-respecting woman would be eager to flee. Such is the impact of Mr. Langdon’s pitch-black timbre and gleefully hateful portrayal of Hunding that Wotan’s slaying of the character at the end of Act Two inspires a sigh of relief.

At the particular request of conductor Erich Leinsdorf, the powerhouse Belgian mezzo-soprano Rita Gorr sang Fricka in the nearly-contemporaneous studio recording of Die Walküre for RCA Victor (and eventually DECCA), replacing the singer originally engaged for the studio sessions, Grace Hoffman. For Leinsdorf and RCA’s microphones, Ms. Gorr was a bold, unrelentingly magisterial Fricka: for the Covent Garden audience, she was nothing short of definitive. Though the character lurks in the orchestral Leitmotivs throughout the opera, Ms. Gorr was obviously keenly aware that Fricka has only a quarter-hour or so in which to leave her mark on a performance of Die Walküre. Leave her mark this granite-toned singer does with a vengeance. At her first entrance, Ms. Gorr credibly conveys Fricka’s annoyance at finding Brünnhilde with Wotan, and the growing impatience in the subsequent scene with Wotan is compellingly enacted. Many singers make Fricka’s demand that the adulterous Sieglinde and Siegmund—the products of her husband’s infidelity with a mortal woman—must be destroyed seem irrational and impetuous. With Ms. Gorr’s Fricka, there is no question that her commandeering of the Wälsung’s fate is vindictive, but the force with which her argument is made allows no dispute of the legitimacy of her mandate: it must be, and Wotan is powerless to deny her. The visceral impetus of her singing in ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern’ is astounding. Ms. Gorr takes leave of her crestfallen consort with palpable satisfaction, knowing that she has prevailed in the contest of wills. Vocally, Ms. Gorr is among the few recorded Frickas able to reflect in her singing every dramatic point of her portrayal. The part’s range does not trouble her, and she here sings with greater steadiness and accuracy of pitch than in almost any other of her preserved performances. The voice was a true dramatic mezzo-soprano instrument, a thing of great rarity then as now, and this recording is a worthwhile memento of this cyclonic artist at the summit of her talents.

Solely in terms of tessitura and vocal weight, few if any rôles suited Canadian tenor Jon Vickers better than Siegmund. In this performance, his Siegmund emerges from the tempest with a primordial ‘Wes Herd dies auch sei’ that sets the tone for his impersonation of the impetuous Wälsung. Mr. Vickers’s recounting of the misfortunates that befell Siegmund in the years since his separation from his sister is harrowing and inspires true sympathy for the character. ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ is sung with such enchanting intensity that even the incestuous love between Siegmund and Sieglinde seems not just an instrument of fate but a star-crossed union. Many Siegmunds convincingly impart either the character’s desire or his self-righteousness: few combine these sentiments as plausibly as Mr. Vickers manages to do here. His immediately-identifiable voice never sounded better in studio or in theatre than in this performance, and his voicing of the famous cries of ‘Nothung’ are less self-indulgent than in many outings, including a number of the tenor’s own efforts. The ringing security of his top A in the final moments of Act One is rousing, but he is in phenomenal voice throughout the performance. His rejections in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ of Brünnhilde’s promises of glory in Valhalla if Sieglinde cannot remain by his side are affecting, and his interactions with Sieglinde in Act Two are remarkable for their vocal sheen and emotional directness. His singing of ‘Zauberfest bezähmt ein Schlaf’ is superb, one of the finest recorded examples of Mr. Vickers’s artistry. Ultimately, his Siegmund is the ideal foil for Mr. Langdon’s Hunding: when this Siegmund falls, the loss is potently felt.

In 1958, New York-born soprano Claire Watson both débuted at Covent Garden as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and joined the company of the Bayerische Staatsoper, where she also sang Sieglinde. It is not for singing Wagner that she is most remembered, but her portrayal of Sieglinde in this performance is unforgettable. There are problems, foremost among which is the size of the natural instrument: it was not a small voice, but in comparison with many of the Twentieth Century’s best Sieglindes Ms. Watson is a ‘leaner’ presence in the rôle. In Act One, her singing of ‘Müd am Herd fand ich den Mann’ details an acutely painful life with Hunding, and the exuberance of ‘Du bist der Lenz’ is evocative of a burgeoning sense of freedom. The simple elation in ‘Wehwalt heißt du fürwahr?’ is uplifting. In the world to which she has been subjected, not even freedom is to be trusted, and Ms. Watson’s utterance of Sieglinde’s doubt and trepidation in Act Two is forceful without being forced. Ms. Watson was an intelligent singer who knew how to project her voice, and she achieves extraordinary heights of passion in Act Three without pushing the voice beyond its limits. Her singing of ‘Nicht sehre dich Sorge am mich’ abounds with humility and despair, but her account of ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!’ is rightfully an outburst of maternal euphoria. Ms. Watson’s Sieglinde is far more engaging than a conventional operatic damsel in distress: rather than ‘saving’ her, Siegmund provides her with the wherewithal to save herself. She is a Sieglinde who seems capable of preserving her bloodline even without Brünnhilde’s intervention. Despite a few moments of stress, Ms. Watson’s warm, womanly singing is a joy.

Hans Hotter was one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated Wotans, and though this 1961 performance did not find him in best voice—he had been singing the part for nearly three decades by the time of the opening of this Covent Garden production, after all—it documents one of his finest preserved performances of the rôle. Few singers convey as much of Wotan’s inner torment in ‘Nun zäume dein Roß,’ the brief passage before Fricka’s entry in Act Two, and Mr. Hotter’s Wotan tangles with Ms. Gorr’s Fricka with immense dignity that might prevail in a contest with a weaker adversary. In Wotan’s subsequent scene with Brünnhilde, Mr. Hotter’s singing of ‘Was keinem in Worten ich künde’ courses with shame and weariness. In this performance, it need not be taken on faith that Brünnhilde is Wotan’s favorite offspring: the tenderness that Mr. Hotter exudes reveals the emotional core missing from so many Wotans. The explosive anger of ‘Steh, Brünnhild’!’ in Act Three is quickly replaced with misery when Wotan and Brünnhilde are left alone. The heartbreak of Mr. Hotter’s performance of ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ is complemented by the stark sincerity of ‘Loge, hör! Lausche hieher!’ The erosion of his wife’s trust and respect is debilitating, but the despondency with which Mr. Hotter traverses the final minutes of Act Three suggests that separation from his daughter is as distressing a plight as his own demise. Vocally, Mr. Hotter is neither as firm nor as authoritative as in earlier performances of Die Walküre, but all of the rôle’s notes remain within his grasp. The voice is that of a man, the phrasing that of a god, and Mr. Hotter confirms his status as a Wotan for the ages, one whose divinity is too burdensome to bear.

Finnish soprano Anita Välkki creates a Brünnhilde who deserves the affection lavished on her by her father. From her first ‘Hojotoho,’ she backs down from none of the demands of her music, and the steadiness of her voice up to top C is formidable. She possesses elements of Nordic coolness, but her timbre is touched by heat and allure. In ‘Schlimm, fürcht’ ich, schloß der Streit,’ her interrogation of her father is both lighthearted and deadly serious, and it is apparent in her imaginatively-phrased ‘O sag’, künde’ that her Brünnhilde senses both the impossibilities of her father’s predicament and the depths of his anguish. Ms. Välkki sings ‘Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!’ enthrallingly, the solidity of the lower octave of her voice matching her resplendence on high. It is in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ that a prescient Brünnhilde sees her future before her and makes the conscious decision to defy her father in order to honor him. This is imparted in few performances as tellingly as in Ms. Välkki’s. Her desperation in Brünnhilde’s petition to her sisters in Act Three intimates that she is fleeing from Wotan not because she fears his wrath but because she knows the part that she must play in his downfall. Her singing of ‘War es so schmählich’ glows with affection rather than defiance, and her capitulation is one of acceptance, not defeat. In this performance, Ms. Välkki has every trait needed to be a legendary Brünnhilde: thanks to Testament, a new generation of Wagnerians can make her acquaintance.

Three years before Maestro Solti conducted Die Walküre at Covent Garden, three members of his London cast assembled at Bayreuth to sing their rôles in the opera under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch. Newly available in Walhall’s Eternity Series, the 1958 Bayreuther Festspiele Walküre is also a performance of incredible histrionic power. The slightly younger Hans Hotter, Rita Gorr, and Jon Vickers sing almost as well as in London three years later. Mr. Hotter was in better voice at Bayreuth, but his Covent Garden Wotan is the more moving—and, on the whole, almost as well-sung. The band of Bayreuth Valkyries is suitably august, with Ms. Gorr doing double duty as Grimgerde and such fine singers as Lotte Rysanek, Maria von Ilosvay, and Grace Hoffman also donning Valkyrie attire. Josef Greindl was a practiced, well-known Hunding, and though his vocalism is less smooth he is no less sinister than his British counterpart. Leonie Rysanek was one of the most renowned Sieglindes of her or any generation, and at her best she fully justified that reputation. She is here an involved participant in the drama but is not the firebrand that she would become in subsequent productions. The lower range of the voice—where much of Sieglinde’s music dwells—was never the most comfortable territory for Ms. Rysanek, but when the vocal line climbs so does her confidence, and the meteoric top notes are predictably spectacular. Interestingly, though, she is not clearly superior to Ms. Watson, vocally or dramatically. The greatest contrast between the Bayreuth and Covent Garden performances is provided by the respective Brünnhildes. In 1958, Astrid Varnay had as much experience in Die Walküre as any singer in the world. She famously débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Sieglinde on 6 December 1941: six days later, she sang Brünnhilde in the same production. Interestingly, she only sang the Walküre Brünnhilde four times at the MET over the course of slightly more than twelve years, but she sang the rôle in consecutive Bayreuth Ring Cycles from 1951 through 1958—and in the ‘54 and ‘55 Cycles alternated as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde!—and again in 1960, 1961, and 1962. [She also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in Cycles in 1963 and 1964 in which the Walküre Brünnhilde was sung by Ms. Välkki, who in turn sang the Third Norn in Ms. Varnay’s Götterdämmerung performances.] Ms. Varnay was a more stately, sheerly powerful Brünnhilde than Ms. Välkki, but the Finn had the lovelier timbre. In these performances, they are relatively evenly matched. Always a shrewd performer, Ms. Varnay was in 1958 a Brünnhilde to be reckoned with, and she and Mr. Hotter easily dominate the performance. The specially-selected members of the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele play wonderfully, and Maestro Knappertsbusch presides with easy command. It is intriguing to note that, in what would be his final Bayreuth Ring, he lingers over the score ten minutes longer than Maestro Solti at his most unhurried, but the older conductor’s pacing is no less vital than his younger colleague’s. [Maestro Solti would not conduct at Bayreuth until 1983, when he led a Ring with Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde and Siegmund Nimsgern and Bent Norup as Wotan.] Walhall’s sound is excellent, and the performance contains a host of admirable elements.

With a very high retail price, the Testament issue of the 1961 Covent Garden Walküre likely will not be heard as widely as its virtues warrant. That is truly a pity as it is one of the finest performances of the opera ever released on compact discs. Both the Testament recording and Walhall’s reissue of the 1958 Bayreuth performance divulge anew how engrossing Die Walküre can be. They also expose with demoralizing perspicuity how precipitously the standards of performing Wagner’s operas have declined in the following half-century.


Richard Wagner - DIE WALKÜRE (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0247)RICHARD WAGNER: Die Walküre—Astrid Varnay (Brünnhilde), Hans Hotter (Wotan), Leonie Rysanek (Sieglinde), Jon Vickers (Siegmund), Rita Gorr (Fricka, Grimgerde), Josef Greindl (Hunding), Marlies Siemeling (Gerhilde), Charlotte Rysanek (Helmwige), Elisabeth Schärtel (Waltraute), Maria von Ilosvay (Schwertleite), Hilde Scheppan (Ortlinde), Grace Hoffman (Siegrune), and Ursula Boese (Roßweiße); Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele; Hans Knappertsbusch, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Bayreuther Festspiele, August 1958; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0247; 3 CD, 234:12; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]