Monday, March 24, 2008

Ac toto surget gens aurea mundo

Vltima Cumaei uenit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo.
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,
iam noua progenies caelo demittitur alto.
tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum
desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo,
casta faue Lucina; tuus iam regnat Apollo. - Verg. Ec. IV.4-10

Like a lot of Wagnerites, I am not usually terribly interested in revising my views on Wagner recordings and what deserves a spot on the list of undeniably great records.

Keilberth's 1955 Ring is one example of a set that reorders my particular Wagnerian universe. EMI's just-released set of Wagner arias and duets with Birgit Nilsson and Hans Hotter is, likely, another such disc.

"Arias and duets" is probably not the best description, especially of the selling point for most listeners: the whole of scene 3 of Act 3 of Die Walküre. This set was done in 1957, released in 1958, and - as such - it predates Hotter's performance for Solti by nine or so years. His voice, as such, bears more in common with Keilberth's 1955 Ring and Knappertsbusch's 1956 reading of the same (out, most notably, on Orfeo). Birgit Nilsson takes the soprano roles, and - as one would expect - she acquits herself wonderfully.

Nilsson here is in fresher voice, but, to my ears, the expiration date with her was somewhat later than 1966 or so. I might even say that her voice has a softer edge here than it did later (e.g., Böhm's 1977 Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna). She never really had the warm, human ('womanly,' too might be apropos) aspects of someone like Flagstad or Varnay; still, catching her in 1958 reveals her not to have as much steel as she would later. A Gramophone reviewer called her tone her "clear, gleaming," and I wouldn't object. I would point out that, though, there is a difference between that and a steely, ringing voice.

Suffice it to say that Hotter is in much better voice here than he would be for Solti. To be fair, on the low end there is still a tendency toward what can only be called woofiness, but it is much more constrained and controlled here than it would be by 1964 (Knappertsbusch's final Parsifal at Bayreuth) or Solti's Walküre. It came as some surprise to me to find that Hotter's last Walküre Wotan was in Paris in 1972, unless his wobble and low-end problems stabilized, that would have been a painful experience for anyone who had heard him in his prime. In a post-Keilberth environment, where we could see just how great Hotter was in his prime, it only cements the opinion of long-standing with a recording under ideal studio conditions.

His reading of Wotan's Farewell ("Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind..." to the Feuerzauber music) is worth the price of admission. In addition to a voice that sounds like a deeply conflicted god, trapped by his own designs, we have a reading of the text with intelligence and pathos. In other words, we have Wagner's fusion of music and drama. You know what? Hotter's performance here might be the downright saddest I have heard. One is deeply moved with this scene, just as Wagner intended.

Leopold Ludwig, like Joseph Keilberth, was a Kapellmeister of the great German tradition. Really, once the maestro became the industry standard, such conductors - trained in their repertoire by long evenings in the various local and regional opera houses - were outmoded and relegated to session work. There is something to be said about learning the trade through solid work without flash or pretense. Given a band as good as the Philharmonia was in 1957, Ludwig's solid chops as a conductor who understands Wagnerian idiom, the orchestral contribution cannot be faulted.

I should note, before making some general comments, that this EMI release seems to duplicate - to some degree or another - a couple of Testament releases (the Tannhäuser, Holländer, Lohengrin, and Walküre excerpts were on one set, with the Tristan and Isolde track on another). The Walküre excerpts have been released before in at least one EMI set, but this appears to be the first time when the whole run has been collected together on CD (correct me if I'm wrong).

Hearing this disc wasn't a surprise to me. After Keilberth and Knappertsbusch, it is no secret that Hotter in full voice is bested only, really, by Friedrich Schorr. Nilsson is a known quantity, from the Solti and Böhm sets, plus some of her other records, so there is no real question about her. Leopold Ludwig is a bit less well-known, especially in Wagner (He did a fine Mahler 4th back in 1957 with Ammy Schlemm and the Staatskapelle Dresden); still a quick listen reveals him to be a competent, if not world-beating, Wagner conductor.

The surprise to me is that the major labels continue to churn out sets like Domingo's Scenes from the Ring, his Tristan, or any of the self-indulgent messes put out monthly when they have sets like this one in the vaults. For example, did we really need to have Herbert von Karajan's complete recorded output dumped onto a market already saturated with...well, Herbert von Karajan's complete recorded output? No. We did not.

My distaste for the record business is pretty clear at this point, and sets like this one only serve to further my disdain for the process of putting these records on the market. In my view, this should be the go-to set for 'bleeding chunks,' especially if you want the emotional climax of the Ring in one scene. (I'm prepared to justify that statement at some length, but not here.) It has enough other selections to provide a pretty good overview of Wagner, but its primary appeal are those Walküre tracks. It is also another set that justifies and amplifies the glories of the Golden Age of Wagnerian performance.

At a time when Wagnerian performance - both orchestral and vocal - is not at its all-time best, Golden Age sets remind the listeners that there have been moments where Wagner's music, text, and intent blend together seamlessly to form a dramatic statement unseen since the great Greek dramatists (especially Aeschylus and Sophocles.)

This set is, as I have intimated, such a reminder.


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