V1437. EILEEN FARRELL, w.Stokowski Cond.: Wesendonck Lieder – recorded 30 Dec., 1947; EILEEN FARRELL & SET SVANHOLM, w.Leinsdorf Cond. Rochester Phil.: Siegfried – Act III, Scene 3 – recorded 9 April, 1949 (both Wagner). (England) Testament SBT 1415. Final copy! - 749677141523
"This recording of the songs with Stokowski retains its place in the affections. The closing scene from SIEGFRIED with Set Svanholm suggests vividly, and tantalisingly, the Brünnhilde she might have become. Such anomalies have been known, but it is hard to think of one more glaring than this: that a Wagnerian soprano who might well rank among the finest of her century never sang a Wagnerian role on stage. There was no physical disability. Like many others she was of generous build, but she was quite personable and ablebodied and appeared in other roles, such as the Leonoras of both IL TROVATORE and LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, where the dramatic conflict and subsequent catastrophe are scarcely credible without some physical attractiveness being there for all to see in the heroine. A reasonably well-informed listener to this present recital who happened to come upon Eileen Farrell’s voice for the first time might be expected to think along these lines: ‘I’ve obviously missed something. Let’s see. Born 1920, 30 in 1950, and American. With such a voice she must by then have made her début at the Met. Perhaps with Melchior in his last seasons. Sounds as though she would have been a great Isolde. Covent Garden presumably? And Bayreuth? Did she sing Kundry for Knappertsbusch? The RING under Furtwängler, or Karajan perhaps?’. The answers, sadly, are all negative. There was no Kundry or Brünnhilde, Bayreuth or Covent Garden. America’s national opera house never heard her in Melchior’s time and when it did it was in Gluck, Weber, Verdi, Ponchielli, Mascagni and Giordano: no Wagner.
Various explanations have been offered, including the antipathy of Rudolf Bing, General Manager of the Metropolitan at the time, to both Wagner and Farrell. She herself told an interviewer many years later that she would have liked to sing Isolde but was never asked. The truth is more likely to be, as she states in her autobiography, CAN’T HELP SINGING (Boston, 1999): ‘I kept getting pushed to do Wagner roles on stage, but I wasn’t interested. Doing Wagner excerpts in concerts was as far down that road as I wanted to go; building a career round Wagner had killed off too many sopranos.’ She added that she regarded her voice as ‘too schmaltzy for Wagner’, and that anyway now that Birgit Nilsson had come along she was ‘happy to leave Wagner territory to her’.
The recording of the Wesendonck-Lieder heard here was the outcome of an early encounter with Wagner’s music. She writes about it vividly in her book. She knew nothing of the songs, she says, until introduced to them by Leopold Stokowski, henceforward ‘Stoki’. ‘Stoki’, she explains, heard her singing on the radio and ‘sent word that he wanted me to record Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder with him’. He taught them to her ‘line by line for over four months’. The coaching sessions were long and arduous, sometimes concentrating on a single phrase for a whole afternoon. Then ‘when Stoki finally pummelled me into shape’ they fixed a date for the recording only to find that the engineers were due to go on strike. Everything had to be finished by midnight, after which they would down tools and away. They reached the end of the last song, ‘Träume’, with just minutes to go. ‘Not the best way to make my recording début with Stoki’, but they managed it. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have guessed. The performance is one of the most luxurious in sound and one of the most unhurried. This Wesendonck has something oceanic about it. With more turbulent waters in the second and fourth songs, it moves as upon a deep, gentle swell. Never is there a hint that someone had an eye on the clock. This was a famous recording in its time. The association of the legendary conductor (he had taken up his appointment with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912) and the soprano, known to a wider audience as a singer of popular music on the radio, created an interest almost irrespective of the work and the performance. But the performance was a distinguished one by any standards. Stokowski’s flair for the dramatic shows up in the opening of ‘Schmerzen’ and his imaginative appreciation of the composer’s meaning is evident in the finely tapered string playing in ‘Im Treibhaus’. Farrell’s breadth of phrasing, the firm richness of her voice throughout its range are those of a singer of real stature; and to this majesty of utterance is added the gentleness of strength and the care of a true artist (hear her shading of the ‘Wesen in Wesen’ phrases in the second song). She recorded the Wesendonck-Lieder once again, this time with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and this, too, is fine though the voice has lost something of its freshness. She coupled them with Isolde’s Liebestod and Brünnhilde’s Immolation, which she had also recorded with Charles Münch. ‘Lenny’, she wrote, ‘was opening up a whole new world to me’, and their recording won the Grammy Award of 1962. The earlier version described as sounding like a concert performance, Farrell’s lack of stage experience in the part being responsible. I wonder if that is not an example of critical wisdom ‘after the event’. It’s true that Leinsdorf’s tempo [in the SIEGFRIED closing scene] is very measured, and there’s not much feeling of adventure. True also that Farrell’s greeting of the sun, the air and the day wants a sense of wonder and mystical exaltation. But this is very assured singing, masterful in its accuracy and eventually, with the solo ‘Ewig wär ich’, moving in the sincerity of its conviction. And at all times the rare quality of the genuine Brünnhilde voice deserves our equally sincere gratitude. ‘It was a funny career’, she says when the time comes for summing-up. And so (‘funny’ meaning ‘peculiar’) it was. Here was a great operatic voice for a long time not singing on the operatic stage at all. Then, although there probably did not exist a voice in the United States to match it in quality and amplitude, her début took place one afternoon in San Francisco and another four precious years of prime elapsed before she sang at the Metropolitan. She made 45 appearances in six roles and left the company after as many years. She found Bing’s managerial style and the atmosphere it produced uncongenial. And yet after retirement she would sometimes speak of the nostalgia, the smells, the grains of dust caught in the lights, the excitement as the curtain rose. And she ends her book with a line from a song from that non-classical world which was also home-ground: ‘All in all, it was worth it’. She adds, in characteristic tone (that American directness, with something of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath about it, that would have made Rudolf Bing wince): ‘Well – yes. It sure as hell was’. Suppose she had not said it herself: there would (sure as hell) have been a vast chorus of admirers to say it for her, augmented, one would hope, by a new generation who come to her afresh, hearing these recordings for the first time."
- John Steane, Liner notes
“This recording of the ‘Wesendonck Lieder” [is] from 1947 when the singer was in her 20s. As she relates it in her autobiography, Stokowski coached her, line by line, for four months until both were satisfied. They should have been: this performance ranks with the best. In some respects – as in Stokowski’s lush, colorful, and beautiful accompaniments – it is the best. John Steane, in the booklet, describes the performance as ‘ecstatic’, and that’s no hype. Farrell’s voice is fresh, youthful, plush, and brilliant, and her singing as ardent as you could wish.”
- Kurt Moses, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Jan./Feb., 2009
“Svanholm made his début in 1930 as a baritone, as Silvio in Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI, and became a member of the Royal Opera’s ensemble in 1932. All on his own, he began reworking his vocal technique to make the transition from baritone to tenor roles. He was a lyrical Italian baritone, known as ‘Kavalierbariton’ in German, and had always had an easy high register. One day he telephoned his old teacher John Forsell and announced that he had a promising new tenor that he would like to present – and surprised Forsell by coming to the appointed meeting all on his own!
Svanholm made his début as a tenor in February of 1936, as soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. His operatic début followed on 22 September of the same year with Radames in Verdi’s AIDA. In the fall of 1937 he began to sing Wagner, with Lohengrin as his first role. In a short time he added Siegmund in DIE WALKÜRE, Tannhäuser, Stolzing in DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG, and both Siegfrieds to his Wagnerian repertoire.
Kirsten Flagstad, the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the age, remarked in her memoirs: ‘For me there was only one Siegmund . . . that was Set’. It is hard to disagree with her. The baritonal, metallic quality of Svanholm’s voice was a perfect match for this role. A commercial recording from 1957 (Decca) of DIE WALKÜRE, Act I, also presents Svanholm at his very best and Flagstad as a surprisingly youthful and convincing Sieglinde – at the age of 62!
Svanholm’s career outside Sweden began in 1938, on the eve of World War II. Bruno Walter had heard him in Stockholm, and invited him to Vienna where he made his début in LOHENGRIN. Performances in Germany, Austria, Zürich, Budapest and Prague soon followed. In 1942 he became the first Swede ever to sing at La Scala in Milan (TANNHÄUSER) and, in the same year, became the only Swede to appear in a major role at the Kriegsfestspiele in Bayreuth. Many vocal artists from politically ‘neutral’ Sweden sang in Germany during the war years: Jussi Björling, Sigurd Björling, Torsten Ralf, Sven Olof Sandberg, and Zarah Leander are names that come to mind. But apart from Leander, who was criticized severely after the war for her activities, Svanholm was probably the Swedish artist most active in the Third Reich during these years. He was a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and did not leave the German stages until 1944. There is no real indication that Svanholm was sympathetic to the political policies of the Nazi regime. One plausible explanation for his desire to remain in Germany was the opportunity of developing his interpretations of the great Wagnerian roles in collaboration with Heinz Tietjen, artistic director of the Bayreuther Festspiele from 1931 to 1944.
But Svanholm also had invitations from the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric and San Francisco operas and in 1946 finally crossed the Atlantic for a glorious decade as the foremost Wagnerian tenor of the post-war era. Svanholm’s trans-Atlantic career began in South America, where he sang Siegmund and Tristan in Rio de Janeiro. His début at the Met was on 15 November, 1946 in the title role in Wagner’s SIEGFRIED. Svanholm was to remain under contract to the Met until 1956. The American critics and audiences saw Svanholm as the self-evident successor to Lauritz Melchior, who was nearing the end of his career. To an international public, Svanholm is recognized primarily as a great Wagnerian, but in fact, his repertoire, both in terms of art song and opera, was broad and diversified.
During his decade in the Americas Svanholm continued to sing at home and performed many roles from Italian and French repertoire, as well as Swedish rarities such as De Frumerie’s SINGOALLA and Atterberg’s FANAL. By 1956 he was weary of traveling, wanted to spend more time with his family, and thus accepted the position as General Manager of the Royal Opera in Stockholm.
In the aftermath of World War II Svanholm’s main repertoire was, with a few exceptions, ignored by the major record companies. A Wagner ‘Renaissance’ eventually occurred partly thanks to the commercial success of the Solti RING, in which Svanholm participated only as Loge in DAS RHEINGOLD. Many live recordings of this important musician, however, have been preserved.”
- Edmund St. Austell