, April 2007
Kirsten Flagstad must be ranked as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos ever. No one in her wake – apart from Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson – has come anywhere near her in majesty, power and general excellence.
She made her début as early as 1913 at the age of 18 but it was another 22 years until she became an international ‘name’. Slowly developing her initially small lyrical voice during the 1910s and 1920s, finally reaching early Wagner in 1929 and 1930, she was invited to Bayreuth in 1932, singing some minor roles. In 1934 she returned as Gutrune and Sieglinde, the latter role awakening the interest of the Metropolitan. She arrived at the Met in February 1935 and had a tremendous success, helped in no small degree by the fact that the performance was broadcast nationwide. From then on she was the dramatic soprano and as such she was quickly typecast in the great Wagnerian roles, a fate that has ruined many promising singers. The great difference with Flagstad – and Birgit Nilsson a couple of decades later – was that she was already in mid-career. By then her voice had already settled and – of course – she was endowed with exceptionally strong vocal cords. Her career lasted in fact up to the end of the 1950s. Her official farewell concert took place on 7 September 1957 at the Royal Albert Hall – a concert that was recorded by the BBC and recently issued on CD. In her native Norway she continued singing for another few years and even recorded Fricka in Das Rheingold for Solti in 1959.
Besides the Wagnerian heroines and some other Hochdramatisch roles, the songs of her fellow-countryman Grieg were always close to her heart; surprising perhaps since these are lyrical miniatures composed with quite another voice-type in mind. But Flagstad was able to scale down her instrument to meet Grieg’s requirements, as we can hear in the Haugtussa cycle on this disc. This was her first recording of three and the one that comes closest to the mark in sheer voice quality. Her insight is just as deep in the later efforts but there her voice took on a more matronly quality that became more and more prominent during the later part of her career, not surprisingly since by then she was well past 50.
Back in 1940, when this first Haugtussa was recorded, we also sense a whiff of the matron, especially in her imposing contralto-like low register. The upper part of the voice shines, but not steely cold – there are streaks of softer metals, lending warmth to the sound and even a certain frailty, whether intentional or not. I sometimes feel that the slight vulnerability in her tone may be due to her efforts to ‘shrink’ the voice down from her orchestra-riding dimensions to balance the piano. This feeling is reinforced here through the close recording of the voice – she is almost on top of the microphone. The piano, though well reproduced, is further back. But it isn’t only a matter of her holding back, she has many of the finest attributes of a good Lieder singer: expressive with words – she sings in her native language, willing to colour the voice. In some of the songs she exhibits a girlish liveliness not expected from a great Isolde. Blåbaer-Li (tr. 3) is masterly with Edwin McArthur’s piano part contributing to the light and glittering impression.
Tempos are generally on the slow side. Comparing her to three latter-day Nordic singers, both Anne Sofie von Otter (DG) and Monica Groop (BIS) are several minutes faster. The third singer, Siv Wennberg (EMI) with Geoffrey Parsons, recorded in the 1970s and to my knowledge never issued on CD, is actually even slower than Flagstad. Wennberg, who gradually moved into Flagstad repertoire – I heard her as an impressive Isolde some twenty years ago – can even sound a bit lethargic, which Flagstad never does. Such is her concentration and involvement that she doesn’t feel slow – unless one makes direct comparisons with the two mezzo-sopranos. Objectively both von Otter and Groop are to be preferred but as so often more than one approach can be valid. The only disfiguring element is her over-generous use of portamento, that sliding from note to note that was a common feature with some singers and violinists of an earlier generation. I have recently made the same comment on Elisabeth Schumann.
That Flagstad’s voice was in an aging process – or to modify the verdict: maturing – becomes obvious when we move three years back to the dramatic arias with orchestra, miraculously all of them, with a playing time of 50 minutes, recorded on the same day: 17 October 1937! Here she is at a fair distance from the microphone. There is more ambience around the voice. But the most interesting and fascinating aspect is the difference in the actual sounds she produces. This is a voice that is infinitely brighter, even lighter and more lyrical. It is a voice that would fit the Figaro countess like a glove. It is indeed a marvellous instrument and she even produces some decent runs in the Beethoven aria (tr. 9). She has all the power required for this testing repertoire and the blazing top, gleaming like Aida-trumpets and not a trace of the hooting sounds one remembers from her later recordings. Her Fidelio has a lyrical warmth that places it in a class of its own, the portamenti notwithstanding. The Oberon aria, a real challenge, has her pouring out regal tones of exceptional beauty. Elsa’s Euch Lüften (tr. 12) is lyrical and inward and hearing her glorious reading of Sieglinde’s Du bist der Lenz (tr. 13) gives a clue to her tremendous breakthrough that historical night at the Met two years earlier. Of present day singers, there isn’t one who can challenge Flagstad, with the possible exception of Nina Stemme, who was just as magnificent in the role in Stockholm a year ago. Now that is a reading that I would wish to have recorded, maybe more than anything in this world!
Starke Scheite, the finale from Götterdämmerung (tr. 14), is also remarkable for the abandon and the warmth. Again Varnay and Nilsson are the only competitors within arm’s length. She recorded it again more than ten years later for EMI with Furtwängler, still impressive but some of the youthful freshness was gone. She even recorded the complete opera in the mid-1950s for Decca with Set Svanholm as Siegfried and a Norwegian cast. As far as I know this recording has never been rescued from the vaults. The question is how desirable is it? Surely it at least merits a highlights disc with the two star singers …?
It has to be mentioned that a not inconsiderable part of the success of these incandescent recordings falls on the shoulders of Eugene Ormandy – who never lets the tension slacken – and the glorious playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mark Obert-Thorn has done his usual miracles with the transfers, belying the actual age of the recordings by at least ten years. They were originally released by Romophone and everyone who for some reason missed that issue can now put that blunder right. As a bonus one is also treated to one of John Steane’s insightful liner notes.