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Flagstad and Melchior star in classic 1940 performance of Die Walküre
"Much of the recording sounds like a Met broadcast from last week, rather than 75 years ago. To
hear Melchior and Flagstad in close to their peak vocal primes, with
this kind of three-dimensional fidelity, is a gift no Wagnerian should
be without" - The Washington Post, 2016
This classic performance of Wagner's Die Walküre
can be heard in a number of incarnations, not least at the Metropolitan
Opera's own website. Alas it would appear that none have had the
benefit of the transfers passed on to me by an anonymous benefactor.
Originally recorded onto 33rpm acetate discs, they have preserved with
often amazing quality this legendary recording which, after XR
remastering, offers unparallelled sound quality often quite above and
beyond anyone one might expect from a live stage performance of this
The discs were not perfect. One would not expect perfection 75 years after they were made. Wear was apparent on most sides, though generally confined to the opening minutes of each side, and I've done what I can to render these sections in as high quality as possible, which has required many hours of slow, painstaking work. Elsewhere the sound is often excellent, and does full justice to the amazing cast and production. Two exceptionally small patches, each lasting less than a second, were necessary to patch an incomplete side change, and a very small section of damage. These were taken from the Met's own version of the recording and I've done what I can to mask the otherwise dreadful drop in sound quality.
Finally I chose, for technical reasons, to omit the lengthy (over 6 minute) introductory radio announcement to the broadcast. However the third disc does include two additional speech items - we visit the dressing rooms of the stars, Flagstad and Melchior, who both recorded appeals for donations to the Metropolitan Opera, and reflected on their own personal musical experiences. A rare treat to hear indeed!
WAGNER Die Walküre WWV 86B
Siegmund - Lauritz Melchior
Sieglinde - Marjorie Lawrence
Hunding - Emanuel List
Brünhilde - Kirsten Flagstad
Wotan - Julius Huehn
Fricka - Karin Branzell
Gerhilde - Thelma Votipka
Ortlinde - Maxine Stellman
Waltraute - Doris Doe
Schwertleite - Anna Kaskas
Helmwige - Dorothee Manski
Siegrune - Helen Olheim
Grimgerde - Irra Petina
Roßweiße - Lucielle Browning
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Live broadcast stage performance from The Metropolitan Opera House, New York City|
19 February 1940, NBC Radio
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor
FIRST NIGHT REVIEW: WALKUERE’ GIVEN AT METROPOLITAN
The special matinee performance of "Die Walkuere" yesterday in the Metropolitan Opera House, the second performance in the Wagner cycle, was one of exceptional interest and brilliancy. Marjorie Lawrence took the role of Sieglinde for the first time with the Metropolitan, and this proved a singularly fortunate casting. She is singing better this season than ever before since she joined the New York company. She brought to her impersonation the beauty of plastic and the spontaneity and abandon which made plausible Siegmund’s apostrophe to the Spring and the blossoming of the Volsung blood.
We have implied that Miss Lawrence, in this role, was gladsome to the eye and of the type Nordic! And that is true. Also, her relatively modest stature was harmonious with the femininity and the tenderness and fire that one expects of Sieglinde. The voice may in its essential quality somewhat belie her nature of Sieglinde, for it is essentially bright, rather than rich and lyrically sensuous. But this did not prevent the audience’s quick realization and response to the wealth of feeling, the warm impulse and dramatic intensity of the interpretation.
The other interpretations of the afternoon were familiar, but never merely routined. For some happy reason most of those on the stage appeared to be in rare fettle. Lauritz Melchior did some of his best singing—indeed a good deal of it—as the afternoon went on. He had so much breath at command that, doubtless by intention, he delivered a Parthian shot at Erich Leinsdorf in the conductor’s chair.
It will be remembered that Mr. Leinsdorf has been accused, among other things, of taking tempi prevailingly too fast for the singers. Arrived at the moment of Sieg-mund’s great cry for aid, the long-sustained upper tone that is repeated in a mounting sequence on the words “Waelse,” "Waelse,” Mr. Melchior seemed to have his conductor where he wanted him! He prolonged his tones inexorably, while the orchestra kept furiously vibrating the chord, and the world waited to see how much breath the tenor had at his disposal and whether his throat or the muscles of the violinists playing their tremolo would tire the sooner! What would a Farinelli, whose crescendo rivaled that of a trumpeter, have said to this? Then Mr. Leinsdorf swept on with extra momentum.
With a notable cast about him, Friedrich Schorr’s interpretation nevertheless towered over the scene. The delivery of the long narrative to Bruennhilde in the second act was in and by itself a masterpiece of rhetoric, tone color and grand emotion. Then indeed did Wotan’s passages with Frieka and with Bruennhilde appear as the crux of the whole dramatic development. The final scenes with Bruennhilde, which Kirsten Flagstad also interpreted magnificently, had wholly exceptional significance.
Kirsten Thorborg as Fricka
Mme. Flagstad sang with her wonted nobility and breadth of style, if not with invariable tonal opulence. Seldom have we heard her interpret with richer effect. Kerstin Thorborg’s Fricka was as rewarding as usual, and Emanuel List’s heavy bass fitted well the music of Hunding.
It is a pleasure to add to the above that Mr. Leinsdorf achieved what was by all odds his best “Walkuere.” The score held together better than ever before under his direction. The second half of Act I, as it swept to the concluding measures, had line and continuity, and was not a series of chopped episodes which inadequately anticipated the climax. The accompaniment of Wotan’s narrative, an orchestral passage apparently simple to the point of bareness, was given a rare measure of salience. Orchestra and cast were infected with the conductor’s enthusiasm. The long applause and repeated curtain calls demonstrated the audience’s satisfaction.
The New York Times, February 9, 1940
N.B. Some cast members changed between performances. This review was for the opening night - the present recording was made of the performance eight days later, with other singers taking some roles.
Reviews: Washington Post & Fanfare
Probably the most significant recording to come along since the recent Wagner bicentennial
I would be remiss if I didn’t steer listeners to what is probably the most significant recording to come along since the recent Wagner bicentennial. Andrew Rose, that miracle worker among audio-restoration engineers, at his company Pristine Audio, has recently unearthed a 1940 Met recording of “Die Walküre,” featuring a high-octane performance under Erich Leinsdorf, with a golden-age cast: Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Marjorie Lawrence, Emanuel List, Karin Branzell and a barely remembered bass-baritone, Julius Huehn, whose mahogany-voiced, vividly dramatic Wotan deserves a place with the very finest.
Available on mail-order CDs or as an audio download from Pristine Classical’s website, this archival recording features remastering that has to be heard to be believed. There are certain tracks on these CDs, drawn from especially worn portions of the Met source material, where Rose has been able to restore the sound to a remarkable level of vividness and warmth. But most of the opera goes well beyond that mere excellence to audio quality that is simply jaw-dropping in its clarity, depth, range and sheer sense of presence. It would be no exaggeration to state that much of the recording sounds like a Met broadcast from last week, rather than 75 years ago. And to hear Melchior and Flagstad in close to their peak vocal primes, with this kind of three-dimensional fidelity, is a gift no Wagnerian should be without.
The Washington Post, December 2016
For anyone impatient with those of us who talk about “the good old days” at the opera house, here is exhibit A. Wagner singing such as is heard in this Saturday afternoon performance from 1940 simply no longer exists. Period. End of debate.
Richard Caniell, on his admirable Immortal Performances label, issued parts of this performance in his “Dream Ring” set, but he combined it with another broadcast so that he could get, among other things, Friedrich Schorr as Wotan. Both Colin Clarke and I reviewed that package very favorably in Fanfare 37:2. But for those who want a single, unedited live performance with whatever cast happened to be on stage, here it is.
Sony and the Met, in their set Wagner at the Met, issued this same performance, and one might wonder why Pristine would bother. After all, the resources of the Metropolitan Opera Company and Sony should permit the transfer to be as good as technology is capable of. And indeed I have enjoyed that edition for the year or so that I have owned it. I am sure Sony and the Met did the best they could with what they had, but Andrew Rose of Pristine was given a different source (he is discreet and doesn’t indicate from whom), a set of transfers on a completely different plane from the Sony release, not to mention inferior earlier issues. He had to make two tiny patches (each lasting less than a second, and covering side changes) and used the Sony/Met version.
An A-B comparison of this with the Sony set is shocking. The difference is not subtle. The Sony set sounds like a 1940 AM broadcast. This sounds like a professional studio commercial recording from 1940, and a good one at that. Pristine’s XR stereo remastering gives a sense of the space of the Met, and the result is thrilling in a way one never thought this performance would be.
And what a performance it is! Leinsdorf was taking over Bodanzky’s performances at the Met and he opened up Bodanzky’s cuts in the Ring. And he also conducted with a passion and energy that did not always mark his work in the later stages of his career. He had a fairly famous feud with Melchior just prior to the series of performances in early 1940, with Melchior complaining about Leinsdorf’s fast tempos. Some attribute the ulterior motive to Melchior of attempting to get Flagstad’s favorite conductor, Edwin MacArthur, to the Met pit. Fortunately, the Met administration was having none of that, and it would seem from listening to this performance (and others that have circulated) that differences were patched up. Leinsdorf lets Melchior hold “Wälse” as long as he wishes (it is quite astonishing), and then takes off like a bat out of hell immediately following. The effect is thrilling.
Thrilling is the word, in fact, that comes to mind as the easiest way to describe this performance. To have two great Wagnerian sopranos in the same performance (and in other performances they switched the roles) along with perhaps the finest Wagnerian tenor since recordings were first made is something unique and very special. Add List’s dark, growling Hunding as something also up to that level. It is true that Julius Huehn does not sing with the imagination of Friedrich Schorr, nor does he have Schorr’s mastery of line and phrase. But his Wotan is more than acceptable. The voice is capable of a variety of color, and he interacts with Brünnhilde and with Fricka with a specificity of inflection that makes it a real and dramatic performance, not a singing exercise. He and Leinsdorf combine for a particularly moving final scene, captured here in glorious sound. Those who like to say that Leinsdorf did not conduct with warmth need to hear the plastic, supple phrasing the orchestra supplies here.
About Melchior there is really little one can say. He pours out golden tone, he clearly relishes the role of Siegmund, his enunciation is crisp, he conveys real passion in the first act, and the old canard about sloppy rhythm proves (as it so often does when one listens to him) to be nonsense. The voice has power and beauty in equal measures, and we have not heard anything like it since his career ended.
Lawrence’s Sieglinde is beautiful. There is no other word for it. The voice glows, and she phrases with delicacy and grace, singing with real tenderness toward her Siegmund. When power is needed, it is there, but it is the warmth of her singing that stays in the memory. I suppose with Flagstad’s Brünnhilde it is the power that stays in the memory, but in fact her performance too has a humanity and beauty about it that we don’t always associate with her. Her final scene with Wotan before his farewell is deeply moving. Karin Branzell’s Fricka is one more item on the plus side, sung with a rich, dark tone and a clear knowledge of the role. Branzell sang for over 20 years at the Met, and it is clear from this just how valuable an asset she was to the house.
Anyone who loves Wagner should own this set. It would be unthinkable to claim a representative collection of Wagner performances that lacked this. Even if you have the Sony set, the difference in sound quality is too great to ignore.
Pristine includes two little speeches, recorded for the broadcast in their dressing rooms, by Flagstad and Melchior. These are both appeals for funding, and are quite personal and touching. The timing in the headnote includes 10:40 for those speeches, so the opera itself is 198:15.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:3 (Jan/Feb 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.