C1884. KLAUS TENNSTEDT Cond. London Phil.: Die Meistersinger - Prelude to Act I; Siegfried Idyll; w. Jessye Norman, Robert Schunk & Marius Rintzler: Die Walküre - Act I (all Wagner). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1171, Live Performance, 25 Oct., 1981, Royal Festival Hall. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“The rarest genre in Klaus Tennstedt’s discography is opera, which makes this inspiring Act I of DIE WALKURE from 1981 cherishable. I haven’t run across a complete Wagner opera under him, but a handful of excerpts recordings indicate Tennstedt’s deep personal involvement with Wagner’s idiom, an impression only deepened by this performance. As with Furtwangler, not a bar of music goes by that isn’t considered in its phrasing, tempo, and balance. A decade later Tennstedt led Act I again in a 1991 London Philharmonic concert, and I reviewed its release on the orchestra’s house label (FANFARE 40:4). But in every way, and particularly in the singing, this 1981 version is preferable by a good deal.
What stands out at first glance is the presence of Jessye Norman as Sieglinde. Her commanding portrayal is familiar from the complete WALKURE in the Met Ring cycle conducted by James Levine (DG), but here Norman is, to my ears, much better. Her huge, resplendent voice is a given, but in London she has dropped much of her imperious manner. This is her Sieglinde showing more than a touch of vulnerability and tenderness. She shades her phrases with nuanced musical instincts - one recalls Norman’s vast experience in Lieder - and her majestic solo passages ring out in recorded sound that competes favorably with DG’s.
Under Levine she had Gary Lakes, an American tenor who was a standi-in for a genuine Heldentenor, as most Siegmunds are. Lakes had a bigger voice than the German tenor Robert Schunk (b. 1948), but in every other respect Schunk is preferable. Besides native German pronunciation and very clear diction, he has absorbed the role dramatically and has musical instincts to match Norman’s. The timbre of the voice is quite attractive, and up through Siegmund’s cry of ‘Walse, Walse!’ and ‘Wintersturme’, Schunk is exemplary.
Yet clearly this is a lyric-dramatic voice that has its limits of reserve, and Schunk begins to fade toward the end of the Act. The singer realizes that his voice is flagging, but he never shouts or loses his musicality. The only real disappointment for me is ‘Nothung, Nothung!’ which is done without the ability to ring out or even sing very loudly. The partnership with Norman is satisfying. Overwhelming as she is, Schunk doesn’t seem to be the minnow swallowed by the whale, vocally speaking, until the very end.
In 1991 the performance had a genuine Hunding voice in John Tomlinson; this is a role that traditionally requires the blackest of basses. Martin Rintzler doesn’t fit the bill, and there are moments, as in Hunding’s entrance, where he sounds fairly light. Timbre isn’t as important as characterization, and perhaps out of a (misplaced) desire to make Hunding sympathetic, or at least more human, Rintzler downplays the character’s menace - he’s the only Hunding I’ve heard who is merely grumpy at finding a stranger in his house. But Rintzeler improves somewhat, and a notable unsteadiness in his first entrance is soon corrected.
Because Tennstedt was let down by his cast in 1991, I’ve reviewed the singers first, but as glorious as Norman is - I like her better here than in a high-profile Wagner program she did with Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic in 1987 for EMI - the chief attraction is the conducting. In many passages Tennstedt brings up memories of Furtwangler in his patient pacing, which he employs to find emotional and musical depth. There is more vulnerability in Siegmund than anyone might anticipate. This marks a somewhat startling change in the character, but Tennstedt’s conducting views Siegmund as bewildered and lost rather than defiant. As a result his discovery of his sister has a more human meaning.
The first part of the program is devoted to the Act I Prelude to DIE MEISTERSINGER, which Tennstedt recorded at least twice, and SIEGFRIED IDYLL, which he never recorded commercially so far as I know. Both readings are up to his high standards, and the SIEGFRIED IDYLL, done in the full orchestration, is at once rapt and tender.
This is Vol. 37 in St. Laurent Studio’s invaluable Tennstedt Edition. The label doesn’t disclose its sources, but there is apparently a BBC broadcast of this concert. Another version I heard online is considerably inferior to Yves St.-Laurent’s very clear, clean, full remastering. The balance between orchestra and voices is quite good, even if Schunk is occasionally too recessive. The audience bursts into cheers at the end.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“Jessye Norman, the majestic American soprano who brought a sumptuous, shimmering voice to a broad range of roles at the Metropolitan Opera and houses around the world, who also found acclaim as a recitalist and on the concert stage, was one of the most decorated of American singers. She won five Grammy Awards, four for her recordings and one for lifetime achievement. She received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 2009.
In a career that began in the late-1960s, Ms. Norman sang the title role in Verdi’s AIDA, Wagner’s heroines, characters in Janacek, Bartok and Strauss operas, and Cassandre in LES TROYENS by Berlioz, in which she made her Met debut in 1983. She went on to sing more than 80 performances at the Met. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, on Monday called her ‘one of the greatest artists to ever sing on our stage’.
A keen interpreter as well as a magnificent singer, Ms. Norman had a distinctly opulent tone that sounded effortless, never pushed. It was especially suited to Wagner and Strauss. In a review of a 1992 recital, Edward Rothstein of THE NEW YORK TIMES likened her voice to a ‘grand mansion of sound’. ‘It defines an extraordinary space’, he wrote. ‘It has enormous dimensions, reaching backward and upward. It opens onto unexpected vistas. It contains sunlit rooms, narrow passageways, cavernous halls. Ms. Norman is the regal mistress of this domain, with a physical presence suited to her vocal expanse’.
As an African-American, she credited other great black singers with paving the way for her, naming Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor and Leontyne Price, among others, in a 1983 interview with THE TIMES. ‘Look, it’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice’. In her memoir, StanD UP STRAIGHT AND SING! (2014), she recounted meeting instances of racism. ‘Racial barriers in our world are not gone, so why can we imagine that racial barriers in classical music and the opera world are gone?’ she told THE TIMES in 2014.
Ms. Norman was born into a musical family on Sept. 15, 1945, in Augusta, Ga., growing up there in a segregated but close-knit world. Her mother, Janie King Norman, was an amateur pianist; her father, Silas Norman Sr., was an insurance broker. Jessye especially enjoyed visiting her maternal grandparents, fascinated by one particular piece of furniture. ‘My grandparents were the only people I ever knew who had one - a grand pedal organ, or more accurately, a harmonium - right there in their house’, she wrote in her memoir. ‘It lived over in the corner of the front room, and I remember thinking that it was the most exotic thing I had ever encountered in my entire life. As far as I can recall, we were never stopped from playing it, nor admonished for disturbing the adults’.
She began listening to opera on the radio as a child. ‘I remember thinking that opera stories were not very different from other stories: a boy meets a girl, they fall in love, they cannot be together for some reason, and most of the time it does not end happily ever after’, she wrote. ‘For me, opera stories were grown-up versions of stories that were familiar to me already’.
Appearances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and other major opera houses followed, and she quickly became one of the busiest opera divas on the scene, a fixture of galas and benefits. An accomplished recitalist, she made records of vocal works by Mahler, Debussy and Strauss. She also ranged backward in time to the Baroque, displaying a remarkable command of a broad range of styles. She was famous for saying ‘pigeonholes are for pigeons’.
It was not until 1983 that she made a belated Met debut, opening the company’s centennial season singing the role of Cassandre in a starry revival of Berlioz’s LES TROYENS. By all accounts she stole the show, winning over ‘Monday night’s audience and Tuesday morning’s critics’, as THE TIMES reported in its account of her ‘triumph’. She rose early the next day to appear on NBC’s ‘Today’ show. ‘The only person in my family who couldn’t come on Monday was my mother, who is ill and at home in Georgia’, she said at the time. ‘I wanted to give her a look at me’.
Her imposing stage presence and large, voluptuous voice made her ideal for certain parts. When she sang the title character of Richard Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, one of her defining roles, John Rockwell described her in THE TIMES as ‘one of our most musicianly singers’ and added: ‘She has just the right voice for this role: a smoothly knit-together soprano that reaches up from plummy contralto notes to a powerful fullness on top’.
In a sign of her international stature, Ms. Norman was tapped to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ in Paris on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day - which she did, in dramatic fashion, at the obelisk on the Place de la Concorde before an array of world leaders, wearing a grand tricolor gown designed by Azzedine Alaïa. She also sang at the second inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
She became a major recording artist at the dawn of the compact disc era, leaving a rich catalog of opera, lieder, spirituals and recitals. One of her most acclaimed recordings was a classic account of Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, backed by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. ‘Her generous heart, dignified manner and noble voice seem ideally suited to Strauss’ valedictory utterances’, GRAMOPHONE wrote in its review.
In person she cut an imposing figure, dressing dramatically and speaking with a diva’s perfect diction. When she entered a room, heads turned. And even after she left the opera stage she remained a restless, probing artist. She was socially engaged. In 2003, Ms. Norman and the Rachel Longstreet Foundation created the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a free after-school arts program in her native Augusta for underserved students. That city will rename a street Jessye Norman Boulevard in October; she had planned to attend the ceremony.
Among her final projects was ‘Sissieretta Jones: Call Her By Her Name!’, a tribute to Jones, who in 1893 became the first African-American woman to headline a concert on the main stage of Carnegie Hall - and who had bristled at her stage name, ‘the Black Patti’, which compared her to the white diva Adelina Patti. ‘Thirty years out of slavery for African-Americans in this country, here she was on the stage of Carnegie Hall’, Ms. Norman said in an interview last year.
In her memoir, Ms. Norman recalled one of her own earliest stabs at singing opera in front of an audience. She was in junior high school when, at a teacher’s urging, she performed the aria ‘My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice’ from Saint-Saëns’ SAMSON ET DALILA. She had been singing it in English at church functions and supermarket openings, but for the school performance her teacher had her learn it in its original French. ‘I do think that if you can stand up and sing in French in front of an assembly full of middle-schoolers’, Ms. Norman wrote, ‘then you can do just about anything’.”
- Daniel J. Wakin & Michael Cooper, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 30 Sept., 2019