Another "important" record release
Of the classical labels today, one of the most consistently interesting and "important" is Great Britain's Testament. They brought us a good portion of Joseph Keilberth's work for Decca at the 1955 Bayreuther Festspiele (Der Ring des Nibelungen and Der fliegende Holländer) in excellent stereo. A quick look through their catalog shows important historical recordings and valuable re-releases. I'm not really "partial" to Testament in and of itself; I am, rather, partial to the idea of an independent label doing what the major record companies won't: issuing valuable but likely not profitable recordings.
One such valuable recording is the recent release of roughly 2/3rds of the May 22, 1950, program with Kirsten Flagstad, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. This concert would, given Flagstad's discography, not be that important - if it weren't the world premiere of Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder. As the date of the concert marked Richard Wagner's 137th birthday, the bulk of it is devoted to Wagner. The concert began with a Meistersinger prelude, the Siegfried-Idyll, then the Vier letzte Lieder rounding out the first "half." In the second half, there was a Tristan prelude and Flagstad singing the finale ("Liebestod," though that isn't the most felicitous name), the Rhine journey from Götterdämmerung and the finale ("Starke Scheite" on to the end, missing "Zurück vom Ring!"). Of that concert, apparently everything except the Meistersinger and Siegfried-Idyll survives. Of course, the disc is most valuable for the Strauss (I'll detail why shortly).
Let me preface my remarks on the Strauss by saying that the sound is, despite having been recorded in 1950, none the best. It is serviceable, and Testament does a nice job cleaning this recording up (maybe even better than the Gebhardt release of the same concert), but you won't want to test your new hi-fi out on this disc. It's foggy and distant, especially in the delicate Götterdämmerung string and woodwind work, and it has a tendency to be bassy and over-favor the percussion in climaxes. But, that's partly the Royal Albert Hall and partly bad acetates made with imperfect recording equipment. It's bad, but it could be worse. Of all the Fächer, the Wagnerian soprano is not one that you'd immediately associate with the Vier letzte Lieder. Gundula Janowitz, under Herbert von Karajan, made an excellent case for a lyric soprano in the material. Jessye Norman, though, makes an equally compelling case (though one that deserves some scrutiny) for a dramatic soprano. Still Flagstad's soaring, powerful, and noble voice works beautifully in the Lieder. "Frühling," though, provides some difficulty. She ducks the high B (viz. the famous high Cs in the 1952 EMI Tristan und Isolde), which you'll want Janowitz or Schwarzkopf to hear in its fullness, but otherwise manages a compelling interpretation. In fact, her "Beim Schlafengehen" and "Im Abendrot" are really nice. From Flagstad's contribution, one could say that it is really wonderful - taking into account her age, Fach, and the material.
Wilhelm Furtwängler was not the Strauss conductor that Böhm, Von Karajan, and - much later - Sinopoli were. Furtwängler excelled in the central Germanic repertoire, like Beethoven and Wagner, among others. His Strauss performances, as a rule, stuck to tone poems like Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung. So, then, one could argue that the Vier letzte Lieder premiere was a departure for Furtwängler. He manages it beautifully with his characteristically warm tone and fluid tempi. His interpretation of the Lieder is on the fast side, more in line with Karl Böhm's later Lisa della Casa set, and - through the dim sonics - one can hear a dense and architectural interpretation. Furtwängler seems to view Strauss through a Wagner lens, which is not incorrect - while Strauss seemed to have an almost-Wagnerian concept of the orchestra, for him it was an end unto itself, not a dramatic device. In any event, the orchestral interpretation has changed, more or less, toward a lighter and more transparent approach (Cf. Pappano's new set with Nina Stemme); so, then, it's interesting to hear Furtwängler in the premiere.
The Wagner stuff is nice, theatrical, and pure Furtwängler. The problem, however, is that it is all available in better sound (even if Flagstad isn't necessarily in better voice) on other releases. I would recommend the EMI set of orchestral excerpts (with the same forces at times), including the Götterdämmerung finale with Flagstad, if you want to hear many of these pieces. There are others too, which make Furtwängler's 1954 death all the more regrettable. For Tristan, the EMI recording has been a reference (despite Ludwig Suthaus) since its release. So, it's helpful to have more of this historic concert - and the Vier letzte Lieder (with these forces, desirable in any context, but more so here) - but the Wagner is not as essential, unless you want to hear these forces live. It's worth it, but you'll still want better-sounding recordings of all this stuff.