|About this Recording
8.110725 - FLAGSTAD, Kirsten: Songs and Arias (Philadelphia Orchestra, Ormandy) (1937, 1940)
Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962)
It would not be altogether surprising to find this, or some comparable anthology, entitled Flagstad: The Early Years. It draws, after all, on the years when she was new to the opera houses and concert halls of the world, and that is a time long before those years in retirement during which she made the recordings through which she is most commonly remembered. Those, with their Wagnerian excerpts, Lieder, Mahler cycles and songs by Grieg and Sibelius, recorded for Decca between 1956 and 1959, do indeed constitute a rich legacy and we must always be grateful for them, but it is not an uncommon experience to meet people who speak with that kind of respect which tells you they have not quite entirely enjoyed themselves; and what you then find is that those are the only Flagstad recordings they have heard. The postwar series made for EMI catch her in fresher voice, singing with all the authority of her mature art and often with none of the most sumptuous nobility, but these heard now, coming from 1937 and 1940 and made in the United States, present her in her vocal prime, the prime which had such resplendent freshness that it renewed a faith in greatness just at the time when the operatic world most needed it. She had come newly to international notice, and this was part of the splendour. She was, nevertheless, in 1935, a woman of forty.
The early years were spent elsewhere. She made her début on 12 December 1913. This was as the boy, Nuri, in the Norwegian première of d'Albert's Tiefland; it was an important occasion at the National Theatre in Oslo, with King Haakon in the audience and nineteen further performances scheduled. The critics observed that the newcomer had a small voice, but they encouraged her to go ahead on the basis of a sweet tone and a genuine feeling for music.
Now, a record album entitled The Early Years would have to concentrate on this period, or, more specifically, the 1920s. A number of records made in the pre-electrical era do exist; they are, however, disappointing not so much in the quality of the singing as in that of the material. What the gramophone company failed to do was to provide the missing volume, for which we would now give so much. What we would have liked is that they should have taken her up in 1919, given us Nedda's song from Pagliacci, then in 1921 have added Desdemona's Willow Song and Prayer (and if possible the Otello Love Duet with Leo Slezak). Amelia's arias from Un ballo in maschera, and Minnie's 'Laggiù nel Soledad' from La fanciulla del West (think of that!) should have followed that same year. Then, after a break for operetta, the records should have started up again in 1928 with Agathe's solos from Der Freischütz and a memento (never mind how short) of her Mikal in Nielsen's Saul and David. Aida, Mimì, Tosca, and Magda in La rondine could have been sampled, and then, at last, the genuinely early Wagner: Elsa (1929) and Eva (1930). These would be the source-material for Flagstad: The Early Years, and alas, they do not exist.
Such, in outline, was the career which had been prospering in Norway. There were times when she nearly called it a day, and would probably have done so in 1932 had she not then received the call to Bayreuth. There, Oslo's Isolde (she sang the rôle first in 1932) was reduced first to a Norne and a Valkyrie, then, in 1934, allowed a bigger opportunity with Sieglinde and Gutrune, which proved to be the springboard for the great leap forward. Yet her contract with the Metropolitan was arrived at with dismal formality, her entry in the United States passed without interest, and nothing much seems to have been expected of her début. But that was before she sang at rehearsal: then everybody present knew. And on Saturday 2 February 1935 not only the house itself but the listening nation (for the matinée was broadcast) understood that something phenomenal was happening. The opera was Die Walküre and Flagstad was singing not Brünnhilde but Sieglinde. In Box 42, acting as commentator for the broadcast, was Geraldine Farrar who told listeners that they were hearing 'one of the greatest events that can happen during an opera performance. A singer completely unknown to us has transported the audience to ecstasy with her marvellous voice and artistic personality. A new star is born.'
One wonders if it could happen today: that a talent so great as Flagstad's could be allowed to mature steadily at its own pace, suddenly to expand into international stardom when its owner had reached the age of forty. But then, it was as an heroic, dramatic soprano that she emerged, a rarity and one in whom any touch of the ingénue would be out of character. A forty-year old Mimì, however gifted, might not have been so enthusiastically received as was the fully-fledged Brünnhilde. Paired with Lauritz Melchior, she retrieved for Wagner nights at the Met an excitement they had hardly known since the legendary names of Lilli Lehmann and Jean de Reszke in the 1890s. It was something the older generation of critics, with W. J. Henderson in the lead, had given up hope of experiencing in their latter days. Surveying the Isoldes he had heard since the Metropolitan's first in 1886, the crusty old critic of the New York Sun concluded: 'Because Mme Flagstad is first and last a singer, she gives us the true meaning of Isolde and proudly takes her place beside the great singers of the rôle who gave glory to the Metropolitan' (2 January 1937).
The glory shone around throughout the United States for the next five years. As well as Tristan und Isolde and the three operas for Brünnhilde in the Ring Cycle, Flagstad also sang in Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Parsifal and Der Fliegende Holländer. At one time there was talk of Bellini's Norma, and that remains one of the most fascinating non-events. The single opera allowed her outside Wagner in those years was Fidelio. The recording of the great solo included here shows the splendid resources of voice and spirit she brought to it in the early years, for she went on to give magnificent performances in postwar years including those at the Salzburg Festivals of 1949 and 1950 under Furtwängler and a still peerless final return to the rôle in New York under Bruno Walter in 1951.
The other opera represented in this collection, Weber's Oberon, had an almost forgotten place in her career, though the aria itself was a fairly regular concert-piece for those occasions when she appeared with orchestra. She did, however, give two performances on stage at Zürich. This was a wartime assignment undertaken after she had left the United States and returned to her native country. In neutral Switzerland, Zürich was a summertime haven, and she went back the following year. Oberon was given in 1942, with Flagstad's performance praised especially for its skilful adaptation of the Wagnerian voice and style. With Gluck's Alceste, learnt for the festival of 1943, Rezia in Oberon was Flagstad's last new stage rôle but one, the unforseeable and unforgettable Purcell Dido.
In concert-work with the orchestra, she generally found that it was the Wagnerian 'set-pieces' (Liebestod and Immolation above all) that were most in demand. But Beethoven's concert-aria, 'Ah, perfido!', was a welcome variant, also a scarcely less formidable alternative to the Fidelio Abscheulicher, which, with its intitial outburst of accusation, it somewhat resembles. It requires the vocal weight and emotional intensity of an experienced dramatic soprano, but it also makes considerable demands upon range and technique. The 1937 recording heard here has Flagstad in distinguished association with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; it is also one of a number of items (the reader will observe) all recorded on the same day, a remarkable achievement by any standards.
From 1940 - and also, apparently, the product of a single day's recording - comes the item with which our programme begins. This is the song-cycle Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid) by Grieg. When first released over here, it was announced in the monthly HMV supplement as a rarity, Grieg's songs being then to most listeners something of a closed book. They were enthusiastically received (Alec Robertson in the The Gramophone graciously saying that these were the first records by Flagstad he had really enjoyed). A second version, also with Edwin McArthur as pianist, was made in 1950, and yet a third in 1957. The first set remains treasurable, for the exuberance and humanity shared with its successor are matched by an incomparable fullness and freshness of voice. The tale of Veslemöy, the country-girl from the Blue Mountain, appealed strongly to Flagstad, with its mixture of high spirits and sensitivity to Nature. The happiness of young love and the heartbreak of desertion give the cycle a stronger emotional force than might be expected, and the songs are soon found to lodge in the memory, inseparable (to the present writer at least) from the voice which introduced them. Indeed, speaking now for myself, I come to find that it is in this area of her repertoire that I most enjoy hearing the great Wagnerian soprano, so that, even if Haugtussa had not opened this present recital, it is probably the part of it that I would have selected to play first.
© John Steane
GRIEG: Haugtussa, Op. 67
BEETHOVEN: Ah, perfido!, Op. 65
Fidelio, Op. 72: Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?
WEBER: Oberon: Ozean, du Ungeheuer
WAGNER: Lohengrin: Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen
WAGNER: Die Walküre: Du bist der Lenz
WAGNER: Götterdämmerung: Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort
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