Wagner Die Walküre Decca

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Die Walküre (1870)
Brünnhilde: Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Siegmund: Jon Vickers (tenor)
Sieglinde: Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano)
Wotan: George London (bass)
London Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. September 1961, Walthamstow Town Hall, London
Full libretto available as separate download
Only available as download
Decca 4834113 [215]

The irony of having this recording to review as a download around the same time as yet another slightly-better-than-the-last issue of Solti’s Ring Cycle, has not been lost on me, not least in light of the overlapping history of these two recordings. Originally issued by RCA, it is – again, ironically – now available on Decca’s ‘Opera Series’ as a download only, although you will need to access Decca’s website to download the libretto separately. I am happy to report there is little difference between the new formats and the previous issue on compact disc, especially with FLAC; there are forty-one index points as well, which I felt was more than enough for me. For the purposes of comparisons for this article, I selected the two other studio recordings made in the 1960’s of Die Walküre, namely the aforementioned Georg Solti on Decca and Herbert von Karajan’s on Deutsche Grammophon.

It almost goes without saying that Solti’s is generally the more celebrated, perhaps the most celebrated Die Walküre recording of all. Maybe this is not surprising – the final instalment of the “Decca Ring”, a recording that Gramophone Magazine called, with some justification, the greatest recording of all time, has a cast of singers which quite simply beggars belief. With Hans Hotter as the Ruler of the Gods, we have what is probably the greatest Wotan/Wanderer, from the post-war years; few would disagree that Nilsson’s Brünnhilde is in the same category. You could also make a convincing case for Régine Crespin’s Sieglinde and Christa Ludwig’s Fricka, as well as Gottlob Frick’s Hunding for being the best on record too – and what a set of Valkyries! With Helga Dernesch, Brigitte Fassbaender and Helen Watts in the ranks, it is hard to imagine a better line-up. Okay, James King’s Siegmund perhaps falls a little short here – but only in this company. Additionally, with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, one of the world’s greatest Wagner orchestras, possibly even the greatest, as well as the superb Decca recording engineers, no wonder it has garnered such a reputation. However…

If Nilsson is not quite my most favourite Brünnhilde on record (Frida Leider and Astrid Varnay would perhaps get the nod), I have to concede that she is utterly magnificent here as well as on this Leinsdorf set – although she is even better live at Bayreuth with Karl Böhm a couple of years later, so this is not quite the plus point for the Decca after all. Likewise, Hans Hotter; by 1965, the wobble in his voice cannot be considered a positive, whatever insights he may bring to the role. This disappointment is further highlighted since we now also have him in better voice in Bayreuth on the Keilberth complete Ring Cycle (on Testament), as well as (best of all, in my opinion) on the Krauss Ring Cycle also from Bayreuth in 1953; in both these instances being onstage means he is even more caught up in the action than in the studio, even if the sound inevitably is not quite as good. Furthermore – and to just hammer the point home once and for all – the wily Walter Legge recorded both Nilsson and Hotter together in 1958 in excerpts of Die Walküre with the Philharmonia under Leopold Ludwig for EMI; once you have heard Hotter on this recording kiss away Brünnhilde’s godhead, then nothing else will quite do – including the 1965 Decca recording with the same singers. And whilst James King will never banish Jon Vickers as Siegmund in my mind’s ear, I could quite happily overlook all of this if it wasn’t for one other thing: Solti.

Now there is no doubt in my mind that Georg Solti was clearly a very good conductor of operatic recordings – just reading stories of all the crazy egos around opera houses at the best of times, especially in the 1960’s, means that a lot of credit has to be given for someone who was involved in so many highly regarded opera sets with fabulous casts, even if I am not always convinced by his conducting on them. The same applies here – the phrasing is too often choppy, the sound coaxed from the orchestra, brassy. Even at those points where you’d expect him to be at his best, for example at the opening of Act III, both Leinsdorf and (surprisingly) Karajan are far more exciting. Disappointingly too, the climax of Wotan’s Farewell is brass dominated and crude, whilst the whole thing lacks a sense of sweep and unity, qualities which, to be fair, he displayed with considerably more success in the other instalments of the Tetralogy.

This was particularly brought home to me when listening to the download of this Leinsdorf set; how it came about is the source of some amusement, especially with RCA’s Loge-like double-crossing. In the early 1960’s, RCA did not have a European distribution arm and nor did Decca in America, so it was mooted that the two forces should join to correct this. Decca were particularly keen, since such an arrangement would allow them to market and profit from RCA’s Elvis Presley recordings, which in turn would fund their ambitious opera-recording plans, while the two companies were able to share the various artists and recording engineers on their rosters. There was only one caveat from RCA – they wanted to make an opera recording in London of their choosing; “No problem” replied Decca. So the contract was duly signed. And then RCA advised Decca of which opera they wished to record. Die Walküre. With Nilsson. In the middle of Solti’s projected cycle. Decca’s executives had no option but to comply. Thereafter, there was much rumoured subterfuge and nefarious dealings used in order to undermine the credibility of this recording in favour of Solti’s which, for many years succeeded, especially in Europe.

So that is the story of how this unusual ‘standalone’ set of Die Walküre came into being. Erich Leinsdorf at the time was a highly experienced Wagner conductor, having been responsible for the Metropolitan’s Wagner performances from the late 1930’s onwards, many of which have since been released on recordings, revealing some of the greatest Wagner singing perhaps ever heard on the opera stage, with conducting that is somewhat fast and furious, if true to the score. By 1961, Leinsdorf was also an experienced opera recording conductor too, arguably more so than Solti at that point – if not, perhaps, as much as Karajan. His contribution to the overall success of this recording is not to be underestimated.

His Act I opens fast and tense, the wind machine making its ghostly presence felt. Vickers, in fresher voice than for Karajan some five years later, bursts on to the scene as only he can. His may not be the most beautiful of voices, but the intensity and characterisation he brings to the part of Siegmund makes him, in my opinion, the finest exponent of the part post war. His sister is Gré Brouwenstijn, rich of voice, warm and womanly in her portrayal of Sieglinde; they make a passionate pair. The only problem here is David Ward’s kindly Hunding. “Need a roof for the night, Siegmund old chap? Look no further! Need a wife – here have mine!” Comparing Ward to Frick with Solti, or Talvela for Karajan does him no favours, but if you can look past this, we have a very fine Act I. Leinsdorf’s conducting has greater sweep than Solti and is perhaps less controversial than Karajan, who adopts a smaller-scale, more intimate approach to the music. I do not think this is necessarily wrong – this is the world of humans after all, with a small hut illuminated by the dying embers of the evening’s hearth. If Vickers is more inclined to “croon” in the later recording, then maybe this is appropriate, given the fact he is trying to impress a lady. Gundula Janowitz at the time might have been controversial casting as the object of his adoration but there is plenty of logic behind it – with both Solti and Leinsdorf there is the laserlight demi-goddess of Nilsson as Brünnhilde, which contrasts nicely with the warm, womanly Sieglinde’s of Crespin and Brouwenstijn. So with Crespin ‘stepping up’ to the part of Brünnhilde in the Karajan set, it makes sense to have a Sieglinde like Janowitz – pale, frail and vulnerable. It makes Siegmund’s protection of her all the more believable too and I enjoy her contribution very much, even if she perhaps comes across a little “cool” when compared to Crespin and Brouwenstijn.

So at the end of Act I, surprisingly, the Decca loses two points for the conducting and for James King’s somewhat wooden Siegmund, even if the Hunding and Sieglinde restore parity and some. The RCA drops points with its weaker Hunding, whilst the Karajan reveals itself to be the strongest of all three, with no points dropped.

Act II on RCA starts excitingly – Nilsson’s entrance here was always spectacular and she does not disappoint – nor, to be fair, does she on the Decca. Crespin for Karajan is not bad either – hers is a warm and witty Brünnhilde, very different from the seemingly fearless Nilsson. In fact, I would go so far as saying Crespin’s is a brilliant assumption – except when comparing her to Nilsson. Her exchanges with Wotan are more obviously witty than with Nilsson, even if she does inevitably lack the power and heft of her Swedish colleague. Nilsson is amazingly consistent, both vocally and interpretatively, whether her Wotan is the aforementioned Hotter, or the magisterial George London. The latter sounds magnificent, firmer of tone than Hotter, if perhaps, at times, a little four-square. There is none of the Hotter-wobble in evidence either with Thomas Stewart for Karajan, even if for me, his warm and humane voice sounds more like a master-cobbler than king of the gods. That said, I do at times find him to be subtler than London – listen to the way he kisses away Brünnhilde’s godhead at the end of Act III, sad and gentle, whereas London by comparison sounds as if he is ordering dinner in a restaurant. So it continues; the Ride of the Valkyries is more exciting both in the hands of Leinsdorf and Karajan, than with Solti, which is something of a surprise. The London Symphony Orchestra on RCA are also on inspired form, galvanised by Leinsdorf’s direction – there is terrific tension generated by the conductor during the Ride, which he is able to maintain all the way through to the Valkyries confrontation with Wotan. While Karajan is not able to match such tension, he is able to extract more detail from his orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic – listen to the way the strings “swirl” around the brass during the Ride, for example. Both orchestras are easily the match of Solti’s Vienna Philharmonic. However, if nobody has ever matched the team of Valkyries assembled by Decca, then there is little to grumble about on the two rival sets either. To cap it all, both Leinsdorf and Karajan are more successful than Solti in conveying Wotan’s great personal tragedy, too, and for me they bring the opera to its close more satisfyingly.

The sound on the RCA was produced by a recording team from Decca – need I say more, except the balance between orchestra and voices is probably more natural than the one achieved by Culshaw some three years later? Karajan on DG, the last recorded of the three, is curious insofar that the orchestra in comparison is more backwardly balanced – the first releases both on vinyl and CD were a little “bass-light” too, although the most recent CD issue on DG Originals and on Blu-ray seems to have addressed this with some success, even if it will never be quite as good as the Decca or RCA.

In the end, it must be said that all three of these recordings are exceptional achievements, the likes of which – beyond a shadow of a doubt – could not be replicated today. Leinsdorf’s reading is always a surprise – it is so strong. Looking back over my old Penguin Stereo and Record Guides (from 1983 to 1999), it is not mentioned once as they mindlessly pedalled out the myth that the Solti was the best and was untouchable. It isn’t and I daresay It is by far the weakest instalment of that, otherwise superb, cycle. By contrast, the more I listen to Karajan’s, the more I think it is the strongest part of his Ring Cycle, a conclusion also drawn by BBC’s Record Review the last time the tetralogy was featured on it, which counted the Karajan as the strongest of the lot. Mention too must be made of Böhm in Bayreuth 1967, released by Philips – I found this to be the best of his cycle there too, the conducting fast and exciting, if inevitably missing some of the more reflective moments of the score. His cast has some notable achievements, not least the best of Nilsson’s officially recorded Brünnhildes, as well as Rysanek’s Sieglinde; James King is considerably more involved here than he was for Solti, too. It is just a shame about Theo Adam’s dull Wotan and Nienstedt’s light-voiced Hunding; that said, I still prefer it to Solti’s recording – as I do with Leinsdorf, Karajan and Furtwängler – also with the Vienna Philharmonic, from the previous decade for EMI (now Warner Classics). Indeed, the Leinsdorf, with its stunning Brünnhilde and Siegmund, excellent Wotan and Sieglinde, as well as more-than-decent remaining cast, captured in super sound (with no compromise with the download), with the LSO on white-hot form, could well be the finest studio Die Walküre of all. So to close – and to borrow from JRR Tolkien – there will always be one Ring Cycle to rule them all, the one Ring Cycle from Vienna, that one Ring Cycle above them all and in Decca’s Soundstage bind them – but you ignore the potent magic of Leinsdorf’s studio Die Walküre at your peril.

Lee Denham

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