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Richard WAGNER

Der fliegende Holländer: Die Frist ist um (4); Lohengrin: Einsam in trüben Tagen (1); Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Was duftet doch der Flieder so mild; Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn! (4); Parsifal: Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust (1); Tristan und Isolde: Weh, ach wehe! Dies zu dulden! (2, 3), Mild und leise (2); Die Walküre: Der Männer Sippe, Du bist der Lenz (1)
Kirsten Flagstad (sop) (1), Birgit Nilsson (sop) (2), Grace Hoffman (mezzo-sop) (3), George London (bass) (4), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
Recorded in 1956 (1), 1958 (4), 1959 (2, 3)
Decca 458 238-2 [75'47"]

This seems to have got into the wrong series, for opera gala is surely intended for those whose exploration of opera is at the beginning. The scenes here are not quite the ones I would have chosen with such people in mind. Cognoscenti will find it all very interesting, however, for here we have as much as will go onto one CD of three LPs recorded in the fifties by the great Hans Knappertsbusch.

Decca's attitude to Knappertsbusch was fairly ambiguous. They recorded a Meistersinger in the early days of LP and the 1951 Bayreuth Parsifal has always been a mainstay of their catalogue. But they sat on the Bayreuth Götterdämmerung (just issued by Testament at long last) while rumours rumbled on for years of a complete Knappertsbusch Ring in their vaults (apparently not true). When the epoch-making decision was made to record the entire Ring for the first time they had him record Act 1 of Die Walküre while Solti recorded Act 3 as a trial run. The choice fell upon Solti, catapulting him to an eminence that not all musicians felt was deserved. Similarly, the Tristan excerpts here (the original LP also included the Act 1 Prelude) were followed a year later by the complete opera in which Nilsson was conducted by Solti.

By kind concession (maybe Solti was busy that day) Knappertsbusch was allowed to accompany recital discs by Kirsten Flagstad (we have here the "other side" of an LP which also included the Wesendonck Lieder) and George London (the LP also contained an excerpt from Die Walküre). Flagstad was by this time just over 60 and had retired from the operatic stage. Would that there were many Wagner interpreters today with a tithe of the vocal security she still showed. Nilsson was at the summit of her career (this was the year of her Met début in Tristan). She was to refine her interpretation for the celebrated 1966 Bayreuth version under Böhm, but in the Liebestod in particular, where Knappertsbusch reaches an incandescence scarcely inferior to that of the classic Flagstad/Furtwängler recording, this is already a performance to rival the greatest. London is sometimes unremittingly powerful but for the most part his voice retains musicality even in the strongest moments.

Knappertsbusch was notoriously indifferent to orchestral discipline (was it for this reason that Decca preferred Solti in a jet-set age?) but the odd slipshod moment has to be measured against a virtually unrivalled awareness of what the music is really about. Decca should have made amends for past injustices by issuing the complete contents of the original three LPs as a double pack in their Legends series.

The orchestra is at times too backward in the Flagstad and London recitals and the transfer has given the voices a paint-stripping quality. Still, this is a disc that connoisseurs of Wagner interpretation will need to have. The notes are brief but to the point both as regards the artists and in setting forth the context of each excerpt. They are translated into French and German. Not for the first time recently I note that the sung texts appear only in the original and in English. The matter is perhaps beyond my brief but I hope French critics are making due protest?

Christopher Howell



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