About this Recording
8.110143 - FLAGSTAD, Kirsten / SVANHOLM, Set: Excerpts from Wagner Operas (1949)

In Concert • Kirsten Flagstad and Set Svanholm

The Standard Hour: from the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco,

9th October 1949

The weekly Standard Hour recitals, broadcast for many years in the United States over NBC radio, were a valuable link between some of the greatest singers of the day and their huge American public. Undoubtedly these programmes made many converts to classical music among the millions who tuned in, initially perhaps just to sample what opera was all about. The radio audience who heard this Wagner recital on 9th October 1949 certainly enjoyed a very special treat; both Kirsten Flagstad and Set Svanholm were well established in the States (and, of course, elsewhere) at the time of this broadcast, and here they sing from some of their finest rôles.

The recital begins with two extracts from Der fliegende Holländer; the Spinning Chorus, (somewhat edited and no Senta included), is enchantingly sung by eighteen members of the San Francisco Opera Women’s Chorus, urged on in their thrumming task by Donna Walker, as Mary the housekeeper; next, the famous ballad which tells the tale of the Dutchman’s cursèd roaming of the seas is vividly recounted by Flagstad. Senta was not one of her most celebrated rôles - she sang it far less often than Isolde and Brünnhilde, for example - but she expresses well both the drama and pity of the story. Later in the recital we hear Flagstad’s Liebestod, a more familiar interpretation, which is given a fine performance. If some of the ecstatic freedom at the top of her voice is less easy than in pre-war recordings, she nevertheless produces that familiar, rock-steady stream of tone that made her, as the announcer avers, ‘the greatest living Wagnerian soprano’.

Set Svanholm’s Lohengrin Narration shows just why, in his heyday, he was the world’s most admired Heldentenor. The tone is firm and forthright, less baritonal than his great colleague Melchior, (though it is interesting to recall that both these tenors started their singing careers as baritones). Walther’s 'Prize Song' from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg reveals poetry aplenty; there have, perhaps, been sweeter voices in this music, but few that had such strength and staying power.

The centre of gravity of this recital is an extract from Tristan und Isolde’s love duet, which Flagstad and Svanholm sang many times together on stage; this finds them both at their superb best. There can be few more difficult operatic fragments to perform ‘cold’, out of the context of Wagner’s complete, sublime masterpiece, but the orchestral introduction sets the mood as the lovers find gentle words for their overwhelming passion.

Keeping a controlling hand on this vocal magnificence, and on the generous offering of the Venusberg music from Tannhäuser, is the conductor Gaetano Merola, for whose San Francisco Opera orchestra this recital must have been one of the most splendid Standard Hour broadcasts of their careers.

Paul Campion

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