OP3280. DIE WALKÜRE, Live Performance, 2 Dec., 1944, (replete with Milton Cross’ commentaries), w.Szell Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Rose Bampton, Helen Traubel, Lauritz Melchior, Herbert Janssen, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Kipnis, etc. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1081. Notes by Dewey Faulkner & Richard Caniell. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Elaborate Edition features numerous lovely photos & 38pp. booklet. [In every respect, this is a breathtaking experience!!!] - 019962666018
“George Szell’s WALKÜRE is at the opposite end of the spectrum from what you would hear from Furtwängler, Walter, or even the fairly quick Böhm. What Szell provides, in addition to fast tempos, is an incisiveness of attack that adds a tough rhythmic spine to Wagner’s music. In addition, Szell clearly has a deeply embedded sense of theater and is alive to the text and drama at all points. We hear it in the very opening storm music, and we hear it throughout. The orchestra interacts with every character, and even adapts the psyches of those characters. The word that springs to mind when hearing this performance is ‘ensemble’. It is a performance in which every singer and every orchestral musician is interacting with a similar mindset, and that mindset is firmly established on the podium. Of all the Melchior performances of this role that have been preserved (and I have seven), the tenor is at his most heroic, even bellicose, here. The whole performance is marked, vocally and orchestrally, by crisp rhythms, sharp orchestral attacks, and drama at white heat. The opening of Act II conveys the frenzy of the wild ride of the Valkyries with a sharp rhythmic snap and prominent timpani. When things do relax (‘Winterstürme’ for example) it is all the more effective.
Melchior is a miracle. This performance took place after he had been singing Wagner’s heaviest roles for two decades, and when he was 54 years old. But the tone remains firm and centered, the top rings brilliantly, and he never phones in a single phrase. He ranges widely between tenderness and intimacy to bold and heroic, even fierce. Melchior defined for the second quarter of the 20th century what a Heldentenor was supposed to sound like, and we haven’t heard his like since. The heroic brilliance he brings to the end of the first act is irreplaceable.
What is somewhat astonishing about this performance is that the two female leads, great as they are, represented the second level of Wagner singing in their time. These were the ladies who performed when you couldn’t get Kirsten Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, and Marjorie Lawrence to sing! One would happily encounter this pair in any performance of DIE WALKÜRE today and feel fully gratified at the experience. Bampton may not be the most feminine of Sieglindes, but her voice rings gloriously, and she is dramatically sensitive as well. The upper-middle part of her range shines brilliantly while never thinning out. The richness of color it retains gives her portrayal a warmth and femininity that balances the power of her singing.
As for Traubel, the beauty of her voice is a well-known commodity. She equalized brilliance and richness of tone more evenly than almost any dramatic soprano. Her one weakness was an unreliable top, sometimes sounding forced. This problem appears hardly at all in this performance, and it didn’t stand in the way of a major career at the Metropolitan. Although she preferred the role of Sieglinde, Traubel sang Brünnhilde about 40 times with the company, and this performance documents the strengths of her interpretation. Unfortunate cuts in the score, surprisingly permitted by Szell, deprive us of important parts of her role (and Wotan’s), but there is much here to admire. One’s attention is first drawn to the sheer glamour of the sound; even in the opening battle cry she sings the music more than shrieking it, as often seems the case. In her big scenes with Wotan, Traubel enters the drama fully, inflecting with meaning. In her final scene before her punishment is imposed, she almost breaks our hearts with the sincerity of her pleading her case.
Herbert Janssen’s voice lacked the heft of most Wotans, a point noted in Dewey Faulkner’s superb essay about this performance included in the accompanying booklet. And of course one cannot help but compare Janssen to the standard Wotan of that era, Friedrich Schorr. What is impressive is that every bar has meaning and direction, and leads inevitably to the next. Faulkner points out a passage in Wotan’s scene with Fricka, beginning ‘Not tut ein Held’, as an example of perfect expression, and he is right. What seems so evident here is that Janssen and Szell are working together, in concert with each other, creating a dramatic and musical momentum that is quite extraordinary. His softened tone as he closes Brünnhilde’s eyes is heartbreakingly touching, and then hear the deeply touching string playing in the orchestral interlude after that moment. This is Wagner at his most poignant, and Szell captures it perfectly.
If there has ever been a greater Hunding than Alexander Kipnis, I haven’t encountered him. The dark depth of tone of which he is capable, combined with the extraordinary insight of a great Lieder singer, he creates a character of pure evil but one who never spills into caricature. His specificity of inflection of every phrase make the character a real person. Kerstin Thorborg’s rich contralto voice, long experience as a Wagnerian singer, and intelligent musicality add up to a sixth wonderful characterization (as Fricka) in this cast. Like the other two leading ladies, Thorborg’s tone has an inner glow at its core that defines an operatic ideal.
While Szell is often accused of ‘coldness’, nothing could be further from the truth here. He brings an almost unbearable humanity, warmth, and heartbreak to the final scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde, to Wotan’s farewell, to the ‘Todesverkündigung’. It is a quite unique balance between precision and clarity on the one hand, and dramatic intensity and humanity on the other, that makes this unique among recorded performances DIE WALKÜRE. The only criticism one can rightly make is his agreement to make the cuts he did.
One might ask why Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, would bother with this broadcast, since the Met had issued it on a fundraising series of high-priced releases. The answer is that Caniell has improved significantly on the Met’s edition (and on Myto’s apparent copy of the Met’s work). The voices are notably richer here, and there is more color and richness to the orchestral sound. The original is still on the hard-toned side (Caniell himself uses the word ‘coarse’ to describe the original sound), but he has given it a life that it has never before had. Also included, to bring us all back to our youth and the experience of sitting at the radio on Saturday afternoons, is Milton Cross’ commentary (separately tracked for those who wish to bypass it). Add to that the usual level of informative and insightful notes and beautiful historic photos in the accompanying booklet, and you have a release of great importance.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, Sept. / Oct., 2017