|Music and Arts, 664-3
Excerpts from Walküre (San Francisco,
1936), Siegfried (New York, 1938) and Götterdämmerung
(New York, 1939) with Kirsten Flagstad.
Review by Dalia Geffen|
Tannhäuser is a difficult opera to stage, not least because of its
inconclusive story line. Wagner was dissatisfied with it, in spite of
having revised it. It is the story of a minstrel torn between his so-called
profane love for the seductive Venus and his purer, more noble love for the
self-effacing Elisabeth. Tannhäuser taunts his fellow minstrels with his
sexual love for Venus, and when he is about to be killed, Elisabeth
intervenes and saves him. He repents of his deed and makes a pilgrimage to
Rome in the futile hope that the pope will absolve him of his sin. Tragedy
is the inevitable result, but meanwhile we are treated to some beautiful
music, the most famous of which is the thrilling overture.
Unfortunately, in this recording the thrill is missing. This is a fast-paced
but pedestrian performance. Despite his much-vaunted perfectionism, Szell's
conducting is unimaginative, blunt, and hard-edged. There is very little
lyricism to be found here. And some of the singers seem miscast. For
instance, Kerstin Thorborg, a singer I have admired for many years, seems
to be longing for some heroic action that never materializes. Singing the
role of a woman whose only aim in life is to seduce does not seem to be her
forte, so she ends up sounding passive rather than lush and enticing. The
same can be said for Elisabeth, who is supposed to be sweet and
self-sacrificing. Traubel's singing, however, sounds anything but that.
Imagine Brünnhilde singing Elisabeth and you'll get the picture.
With Kipnis and Janssen, however, we are in for a treat. I have yet to hear
Kipnis sing badly. Here he sounds powerful and noble, as befits a Landgraf.
And Janssen is sensitive to every nuance in the music. Wolfram is the ideal
role for him and one he has made his own. Hearing him sing "Elisabeth,
Elisabeth" so tenderly in Act 2 is a real pleasure. For me the high point
of this opera has always been Wolfram's "Wie Todesahnung" and "O du mein
holder Abendstern." Unfortunately, in this performance, the volume has an
annoying tendency to alternate between loud and soft during these excerpts.
It's not clear whether this is intentional on Janssen's part or whether
someone was fiddling with the volume control. I haven't heard Janssen do
this in other Tannhäusers, so I can only assume it's the latter.
Melchior at first sounds hurried and barely able to keep up with Szell. But
he is a very convincing Tannhäuser, ardent and expressive. By the time we
reach "Inbrunst im Herzen", however, he is starting to fade. He sounds
tired and fitful. He seems to be making a valiant effort to inject some
poetry into his narration, but the necessary orchestral support is just not
there. This long excerpt contains not a single coherent flowing melody.
'Tis a pity.
This is a frustrating performance, with only a few redeeming features. If,
like me, you have to have everything that Kipnis ever sang, well, you must
get it. Otherwise this set is only for Wagner aficionados. I wouldn't
recommend it as a first or even a second Tannhäuser. You might, however,
want it for the bonus tracks (see below).
The liner notes, written by "Alberich von Fafner", are very entertaining.
The division of the tracks, however, is not done very sensibly, making it
more difficult to find a particular excerpt. In some places it is downright
misleading. At the end of the first CD, Kipnis has hardly begun to sing
"Dich treff ich hier in dieser Halle" (Act 2, Scene 3) when he is cut off.
This is sloppy editing.
The bonus tracks contain an excerpt from Act 3 of Die Walkure (San
Francisco Opera, 1936) starting with "War es so schmälich" and ending soon
after the beginning of "Leb wohl" (conducted by Gaetano Merola). It's not
clear why the whole excerpt wasn't recorded. The liner notes suggest that
it may have to do with Schorr's problematic high notes. Nevertheless,
Schorr sounds fine and fatherly, but Flagstad's singing is distorted.
The next bonus track finally regales us with a good conductor, and it's
about time. Here I let out a big sigh of relief. I knew I was in expert
hands (Bodanzky's). In this Prologue to Götterdämmerung, the Norns (Doris
Doe, Lucielle Browning and Dorothee Manski) are lovely and musical,
compensating nicely for the dull sound of the recording (Met, 1939).
Flagstad and Melchior sing sumptuously, leaving me wishing for more. But
all we get in this excerpt is thirty minutes, the time allotted for the
broadcast honoring the first New York World's Fair. The liner notes claim
that this is the only Flagstad/Götterdämmerung broadcast available from the
The next two tracks are from Act 3, Scene 3, of Siegfried, also ably
conducted by Bodanzky (Met, 1938). The first of these, "Heil Dir, Sonne",
definitely passed the goosebumps test. Flagstad and Carl Hartmann sing very
ardently. This is a gem.
The second track, "Oh, Siegfried, dein war ich von je", also with Flagstad
and Hartmann, has considerable surface noise, which makes for frustrating
listening. But the quality of the singing comes through nevertheless.
This set is strictly for collectors of historical performances. Those
willing to put up with some mediocre conducting and singing will find many
This review is from the now closed Wagner on the Web and it is published
without the author's consent. I haven't been able to get in touch with him.
If the author reads this, please contact me as soon as possible. If you
don't want it here, I'll take it of the site immediately.