Cher Public

Out of the past

Karajan amazonImperfect sound is often the price of admission with historical recordings. A unique grouping of artists or particularly compelling performance from the past should make the scratches, distortion and other technical blemishes seem trifling, even Patina-like, like scuffs on an old Gladstone bag.

Myto’s transfer of Herbert von Karajan’s star-bedecked 1958 Die Walküre from La Scala gives collectors on a budget access to one of the legendary performances committed to tape—one that lay undiscovered in a Milan collection for decades. Sadly, congested orchestral sound, ill-timed dropouts and pitch issues, especially in the final scene, will test the most patient listener and makes the experience feel like sorting through precious heirlooms after a flood.

The performance places the young Birgit Nilsson opposite an aging but still formidable Hans Hotter, with Leonie Rysanek, Ludwig Suthaus, Gottlob Frick and Jean Madeira rounding out what legitimately qualifies as a dream cast. In the pit, the 50-year-old Karajan leads a vivid account that offers further proof his earlier work was more spontaneous and less self-indulgent than anything found on the later recordings.

Wotan’s emotionally charged Act 3 farewell is intimate yet epic, with Hotter’s evident fatigue and scrupulous attention to text giving the performance a particularly anguished touch. Karajan’s energetic pacing and his ability to extract orchestral color must have made the live performance spine-tingling.

Nilsson opened the 1958 La Scala season as Turandot with Karajan and though she confessed to having a case of nerves before big performances, this first night Die Walküre brims with self-assurance. The “Todesverkündigung” is chilling and dark-hued, marred only by an inexplicable cut that Karajan evidently sanctioned. Brünnhilde’s high B’s and C’s in the cries of “Ho-jo-to-ho!” hit the bullseye in blazing fashion, without the upward portamenti.

And Nilsson strikingly morphs from frightened child into sage adult in the pivotal “Der diese Liebe mir ins Herz gehaucht,” arguing her decision to disobey Wotan and intervene on Siegmund’s behalf was what Wotan really wished. Though her vocal shadings are more clearly rendered on the 1962 Erich Leinsdorf RCA release, the soft singing seems tidier here with the tone just a bit steelier.

Rysanek graced opera stages as Sieglinde for more than three decades. Some of her soaring high notes in this performance are almost entirely washed out by distortion, but the warmth and passion of the characterization comes through, no more so than when she learns she’s carrying Siegmund’s child. The trademark scream at being shown Siegmund’s blade also is, well, orgasmic. And the beloved singer’s midrange weaknesses are less evident on this set than on some of her later recordings.

Her Siegmund, Ludwig Suthaus, fares less well. At 51, the heldentenor with the baritone-like cast sounds hesitant and slightly off the beat in parts of the opening act and overcompensates by shouting at climatic moments, such as when crying out for Wälse’s aid. It’s a marked decline from his famous 1954 account under Wilhelm Fürtwängler and surprisingly, the biggest shortcoming in the performance.

The depth of Hotter’s Wotan—listen to the remembrances of more carefree times with his daughter and the inscrutable quality of the parting line “Denn so kehrt der Gott sich dir ab”—compensates for a wobble that was developing around this time and occasional breathy, off-pitch singing. Whether intentional or not, few artists have better captured a god in decline who’s caught between love and duty, or his still fearsome outbursts. In some ways, it’s a more poignant portrayal than Hotter’s more polished studio releases.

Things turn bad for Wotan in the pivotal middle act scene with Fricka, which Karajan takes at a brisk pace. The thick-toned Madeira is a piquant presence, with biting lines that tumble forward and leave practically no room for dissent. The wonderful bass Frick rounds out the principals as a glowering Hunding whose dark tones are positively chilling, even through the tinny sound. The Valkyries, including a young Christa Ludwig as Waltraute, suffer from suboptimal miking, introduced by a Ride that unexpectedly hiccups over several measures either due to a flaw in the original source material or clumsy editing.

The La Scala orchestra is hot-blooded and highly responsive to Karajan’s urgings, though the congested din in many passages above forte makes it difficult to assess how well the instruments blend and distorts the stage-pit balance. If the musicians don’t sound quite at the level of the Bayreuth orchestras from this period and come apart in some key moments, they’re still rhythmically strong in stormy passages and generally achieve the level of tension Karajan seeks. If only they and the singers could be heard as clearly as say, on Karajan’s 1952 Tristan from Bayreuth.

Myto’s minimalistic booklet is limited to a track listing, a handful of production photos and a disclaimer that some small distortions are due to the original tape. One’s left grateful for a reading that purely on artistic merits, probably ranks among the top five recorded WalküresThat said, it’s not an essential purchase given how well the opera is represented elsewhere on record and disc, including by the same singers. Unless someone discovers superior source material, it’s by and large a reminder that you can’t always get what you want.

  • Bill

    This is an identical cast that Karajan had in
    Vienna for his new Walkuere on April 2, 1957 though I do not know if it was the same production transported to
    Milan. Even Christa Ludwig also sang Waltraute in
    Vienna but Welitsch was the Helmwige and may not have
    traveled to Milan as there is no indication she ever
    sang anything at La Scala even in her prime.

    When I first saw the production in Vienna it was Nilsson, Hotter, Rysanek but Windgassen as Siegmund (but no von Karajan, rather Leopold Ludwig conducting.

    There were quite a few exchanges in those days between
    Vienna and La Scala as von Karajan was director of
    both houses -- so the great Viennese Mozart ensemble was
    singing Mozart/Strauss/Wagner in La Scala and Tebaldi,
    Stella, Sciutti, Simionato, Cossotto, di Stefano, Berganzi, Corelli, del Monaco, Gobbi, Siepi, Christoff were singing in Vienna -- a win/win for both houses.

    At the time of this La Scala Walkuere, Windgassen was
    around (though maybe not available as he was very active then in Stuttgart), Lorenz had just retired the role, and James King, Jess Thomas both not yet in Europe, , Jon Vickers (from 1959 in Vienna), was only starting and that left few optimal choices Suthaus, Beirer, Hopf, maybe Uhl. Windgassen was the Siegfried in Karajan’s
    Siegfried and Goetterdammerung at the time in Vienna --
    so Suthaus it was. Jean Madeira was a member of the Vienna ensemble from 1955 just before the re-opening of the Opera House until 1962 singing 15 roles.
    Was she not originally Jean Browning at the Met ?
    I recall seeing her in the early 1950s at the Met

  • Gualtier M

    That 1957 Vienna production with the exact same cast under Karajan is available on Opera Depot:
    The sounds seems dim and boxy and Nilsson is off-mike for the Ho-Jo-To-Ho’s. She nails the C’s right on target though with no scooping -- just a laser beam right in the center of the note (listen to the sound clip). Also Opera Depot has a free download of Martha Mödl this week.

    There was a comprimario mezzo Lucille Browning during Edward Johnson’s old Met administration. She sang Suzuki a lot and recorded it. Madeira always sang under her own name in that period.

    • Bill

      I just looked up Jean Madeira in an East German
      Opernlexicon which I bought dirt cheap years ago
      in Budapest at the DDR Center. It lists most singers
      who were active in Germany and Eastern Europe and
      under Jean Madeira it states Madeira, Jean (eigl. J.
      Browning) born 14.11.19 Cemtralia, Ill died 10.7.1972
      in Providence RI, studied St. Louis, NYC, Wien, concert
      piano, singing debut Chautauqua in 1943, at the Met from 1948, Vienna 1955-62, Munich 1965-71. Madeira was a famous Carmen in Vienna and at the same time another
      American, Regina Resnik -- for a time they alternated
      in Vienna singing Carmen, Ulrica, Erda, Fricka, Herodias, Klytemnestra, Amneris, 3 roles in Dido und Aeneas, and neither had the great opportunity to sing Marcellina in Figaro in Vienna as that role was nabbed first by Elisabeth Hoengen and then also by Hilde Roessel-Majdan so Famous Quickly had to slink back to the Met to introduce and present her famous Marcellina.

      • Gualtier M

        Ah, Famous Quickly (sob…) She is missed, Lieber Bill.

        I looked up the Met archives and found that at her debut Madeira used both her last names:

        [Met Performance] CID:149030
        Götterdämmerung {164} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/2/1948.

        (Debut: Jean Madeira

        Metropolitan Opera House
        December 2, 1948


        Brünnhilde…………..Helen Traubel
        Siegfried……………Lauritz Melchior
        Gunther……………..Herbert Janssen
        Gutrune……………..Polyna Stoska
        Hagen……………….Dezsö Ernster
        Waltraute……………Margaret Harshaw
        Alberich…………….Gerhard Pechner
        First Norn…………..Jean Madeira [Debut]
        Second Norn………….Martha Lipton
        Third Norn…………..Jeanne Palmer
        Woglinde…………….Inge Manski
        Wellgunde……………Maxine Stellman
        Flosshilde…………..Hertha Glaz
        Vassal………………Emery Darcy
        Vassal………………Osie Hawkins

        Conductor……………Fritz Stiedry

        Director…………….Herbert Graf
        Set designer…………Lee Simonson
        Costume designer……..Mary Percy Schenck
        Lighting designer…….Lee Simonson

        Götterdämmerung received five performances this season.

        [At the time of her debut, Jean Madeira billed herself as Jean Browning Madeira, the last two names sometimes hyphenated.]

  • Tubsinger

    I don’t have a score for Walkuere at home, and I’m at work--but I read somewhere that the upward portamenti in Brunhilde’s “ho-jo-to-ho” are what Wagner requested, not the clean, unscooped attack my ears prefer. Can anyone with knowledge or the score answer this?

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I don’t think that’s the kind of question a score can definitively answer -- if there is some kind of marking between the 2 notes, it still comes down to how an artist interprets the marking. Assertions like the one you have heard are probably informed by what we know of performance practice of the few Wagner singers who were active in the late C19th who went on to make recordings. Certainly Lilli Lehmann seems to have been quite up for scooping.

    • pirelli

      I do not think Wagner was asking for portamenti in the “ho jo to ho” passages. There are marks, but they are, IMO, slur marks, not portamento marks.

      It is standard notation practice to put a slur mark over notes that belong to the same sung syllable. So in this case, since the last “ho” has those octave jumps each time, there is a slur mark over those jumps to show that both notes belong to the “ho.” But that does not necessarily mean that Wagner wanted anything more than a basic legato connection there.

      What’s interesting is there are also slurs each time over the first two notes of the phrase (“ho-jo”) -- obviously this is a phrase marking rather than a courtesy slur as described above, as it spans two notes that each have their own syllable. (But clearly this is not a portamento mark either.)

      • Tubsinger

        Thank you to you and to Cocky Kurwenal for your responses. I’m guessing that wherever I read about Wagner’s score or expressed preference wasn’t quite as informed as you two. Thanks again!

  • scifisci

    Disappointing sound indeed, even for the time, although one of the things I recall in this recording that completely transcends the sound is the white-hot intensity of Nilsson’s plea to Wotan at the end of Act 3, especially her astounding and grand singing of brunnhilde’s final line, “dem freislichen Felsen zu nahn”.
    Looks like it’s on youtube:

    • David

      Thrilling -- the hairs are standing on the back of my neck!

  • PushedUpMezzo

    OT, I fear, but just got word of this sad development at English National Opera.Thought things might have been improving after the chorus dispute was settled, but it just gets worse.

    I am writing to let you know that Mark Wigglesworth has just announced that he has decided to step down as Music Director of English National Opera. This very sad news is despite the best efforts of the Board to persuade him to remain.

    This is of course very disappointing news for us all at ENO and, indeed, for our Friends and Supporters. This news follows that released on Friday on the subject of the chorus and management having reached agreement on the way forward with respect to the Summer of 2017 onwards. It is therefore particularly sad that Mark won’t be leading the artistic forces through this period of change.

    Mark will, however, continue in post through to the end of the 2015/16 season and will be conducting Janacek’s Jenufa from 23 June to 8 July. He has also said that he plans to honour his contractual commitments, which means that he will also return in the 2016/17 season to conduct two new productions in the Autumn/Winter period. Mark will therefore be working with the orchestra and chorus and the teams that have been put together for these productions through to the end of the year. We would also hope that he will return beyond that period as a guest conductor.

    I am writing to you today at the very earliest opportunity, the news of Mark’s wishes having reached us only a few days ago and his announcement only just having been released by his management. We would have preferred for things to have been different – both in terms of the content and the timing of this news – but Mark’s wishes were for it to be distributed as quickly as possible.

    This news does, of course, present us with a new, unexpected challenge. We remain, however, on track to announce the 2016/17 Season, the new Artistic Director, a programme of work outside of the Coliseum and new developments in the fields of both learning and participation as well as talent development at the beginning of May.

    I should also like to take this opportunity to tell you that the Spring Season finished on a terrific high with Akhnaten and Magic Flute both performing to sell-out houses. What’s more, the chorus’ concerts of the Brahms Requiem, as recently announced, are also selling very well indeed.

    It is, of course, our intent to commence recruitment at the earliest opportunity and I will keep you informed of developments as they occur.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Oh that is a shame. He did fantastic work in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Forza -- the chorus and orchestra have been sounding better than ever, recently.

  • Ilka Saro

    “like sorting through precious heirlooms after a flood” That is extremely well said! It conjures up deep and complicated feelings about so many things about the tangled and difficult combination of memory and hope. It makes me contemplate how often my hopes take the shape of discovery of live recordings with dream casts.