, February 2007
The first ever studio recording of Die Walküre also has some claims to be the best – at least as far as the conducting is concerned. At the same time there is no unequivocal opinion even here but most commentators agree that there is an epic breadth, overall sweep and deep commitment to this performance that always makes an impression, whatever objections there can be to details. The 1954 mono sound can’t stand comparison with later efforts in stereo. However, recorded in the marvellous acoustics of the Musikvereinsaal and with the Vienna Philharmonic on their toes for the beloved maestro in what turned out to be his last recording, much of the greatness of the performance still comes over to the listener. There is also enough width in tonal and dynamic scope to be embraced by the sound and the drama. From time to time I have heard excerpts from various versions of this recording, both on LP and CD; I have never actually owned a complete set. Even though Mark Obert-Thorn has worked with finished LP pressings rather than master-tapes he has secured sound that is well up to the best possible from this period. Having chosen to issue the set on three discs the long second act has had to be split over all three discs but I don’t believe many Wagnerians will grumble about that.
As always with Furtwängler in the pit, or as here on the rostrum, it is the orchestra that comes to the fore – as it should. Once, after a performance of Die Walküre with admittedly excellent singers, my wife complained that the singing tended to overshadow the orchestra. No such risk here, but neither are the soloists swamped, not even in the most powerful moments. As for the conducting there are so many places, apart from the overall grandessa, to savour. Take the wild and stormy prelude to the first act: jagged, angular even, lumbering along at a fairly measured tempo but still more brutish and frightening than any other version, however streamlined and well played. There is a kind of professional primitiveness that goes well with the ancient setting. Take on the other hand the cello solo, introducing for the first time the love theme, just before Siegmund’s Kühlende Labung gab mir der Quell (halfway through CD1 tr. 2), so magically beautiful and intense. Time stands still! And time and again he is so considerate to the soloists, encouraging them to sing softly and prolong a phrase for stronger expression – Siegmund’s Den Vater fand ich nicht (CD1 near the end of tr. 5) soft and ritardando; a magical moment. Just a couple of other instances: the act 2 prelude (CD1 tr. 13) with its braying trumpets and its rhythmical incisiveness. There is no elegance, only a barren truthfulness; the act 3 transition from the “public” scene two with all the Valkyries, thunder and storm gradually calming down to the nocturnal atmosphere where Brünnhilde’s and Wotan’s “private” scene takes place (CD3 tr. 8 – 9). Finally, note the flickering flames just before the end, when Wotan has evoked Loge and the stage is transformed into a sea of fire. Later recordings have reproduced this with greater dynamics and more pinpoint detail, but turn up the volume a notch above your usual listening level and you have the full score audible.
As a library recording this is still a necessary purchase for Furtwängler’s handling of the orchestra. When it comes to the soloists some objections have to be raised, more concerning the actual sounds in some departments than the singers’ commitment, which can hardly be questioned. To begin with the group of eight Valkyries is an uncommonly homogenous group; not a single screamer, which is a rarity. All of them were important singers in their day and at least Erika Köth and possibly Hertha Töpper should be names even to younger readers. Margarete Klose, the veteran in the cast, is strong and authoritative as Fricka, her long solo So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern (CD2 tr. 2) spat out with venomous anger. Ludwig Suthaus has the required power and stamina for Siegmund but also sings very sensitively, especially in the scene with Sieglinde (CD3 tr. 1) where he shows much care over phrasing. Elsewhere he is reliable and steady but a little dry-voiced. He grows, though, to tragic- dramatic heights in the long Todesverkündigung scene (CD2 tr. 13 & 14). His Sieglinde is the young Leonie Rysanek, who had a very long career, spanning around 45 years. Here, though, for much of the time she is uncharacteristically woolly of tone, sometimes unsteady and rarely displaying the gleaming lirico-spinto sound that made her such a sought after artist for many years. She was Sieglinde in Bayreuth more than ten years later and can be heard to much greater advantage on the live-recorded Philips set, conducted by Karl Böhm and with Birgit Nilsson and James King among the soloists. She is better in act 2, but in act 3 she is back to the occluded and old-sounding tone from act 1. For her last effort, O hehrstes Wunder, (ca 3 minutes into CD3 tr. 6) she luckily gathers momentum and is jubilant and glorious.
Brünnhilde is sung by Martha Mödl, who began her career as a contralto in the early 1940s and returned to that Fach in latter years. She died in December 2001, aged 89, and in the beginning of that year she was still appearing on stages in Germany. She has always been considered one of the great singing actresses – like Leonie Rysanek – and the lower and middle registers of her voice were always expressive. She sings much of the role with deep insight in Brünnhilde’s predicament, a lesson to many aspiring dramatic sopranos. Sadly though, she lacks the security and the ring to make the uppermost notes tell. Compared to Birgit Nilsson she is only middlingly successful for pure singing. Ferdinand Frantz, though hardly as insightful and worldly-wise as Hans Hotter, nor with the authority and darkness of the latter, is still an honest and engaging singer. He sings with enviable steadiness of tone. Though his is a marginally lighter voice than Hotter’s he can still be sorely strained on high notes and resort to shouting. Most of the time his is a manly and reliable Wotan and in the third act he sings with much feeling. Loge, hör! (CD3 tr. 14) is indeed impressive.
Naxos do not provide a libretto but there is a synopsis that gives the gist of the action and Malcolm Walker gives quite lengthy bios of the singers and the conductor. With almost 45 cue points it is easy to manoeuvre and find one’s favourite passages but readers should be warned that in the last scene of act 3 there are a couple of track indications that don’t tally with what is actually heard.
All the singing may not be up to the best on some other sets but as a total experience this is still one of the really important recorded Walküres, most of all for Furtwängler’s inspired and inspirational conducting.