This CD and DVD set is one of the “Australian Masters” series
issued by ABC Classics and commemorates one of the most important
cultural events in
Australian history. On the evening of 29 September 1973 the brand new Sydney
Opera House opened the doors of its Concert Hall to the public for the first
time. The all-Wagner concert was conducted by the home-coming Sir Charles Mackerras
in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. The world’s greatest Wagnerian soprano,
Birgit Nilsson was engaged to sing her most famous roles of Elisabeth, Isolde
and Brünnhilde. By any definition, this was a great occasion.
The question is, is it worth buying this more as a souvenir or purely for its
artistic merits? There are a few caveats; the curse of the consumptive audience-member
strikes, as always, at the quietest moments, particularly during the lovely passage
which bridges the Journey to the Rhine and Siegfried’s Funeral Music and
there are, as is so often the case in live recording, a few bloopers from the
horns to endure. Nor am I sure, despite, the encomiums I have read elsewhere,
that Birgit Nilsson is in her very best voice: the top notes are sometimes a
little more tentative and curtailed than I have heard elsewhere, and I cannot
agree with the verdict from “Gramophone” that she “is in some
ways even finer than in the complete recordings on which she appears”.
A comparison with the Solti “Ring” reveals her to be in even more
refulgent voice in 1964,
but Nilsson’s second-best is still miles
better than anyone else’s top form. The transmission was made before colour
TV was introduced in Australia, in 1975, so it is in grainy black and white.
ABC was at that time too short-sighted to broadcast the whole concert on television;
thus we have a visual record of only the second half of the concert., being the “Götterdämmerung” excerpts,
although as the camera-work is less than inspired, perhaps this is no great loss.
We never see a close-up of Nilsson singing and there isn’t much variety
of shot; the camera plays mostly on Mackerras or the top of Miss Nilsson’s
head, and in the conclusion of the Immolation scene we are treated to a lengthy
and irritating superimposition of the conductor over the orchestra. In truth,
the supplementary DVD has little more than curiosity value and I would concentrate
upon the CD content.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays at its considerable peak and Mackerras seems
very much at home in Wagner, even if that music has not played a major part in
his career. The “Meistersinger” overture is very attractively played
but hasn’t the swagger and élan of, say, Stokowski in his famous
1972 live London performance and the hackers get going early on. The “Tristan” goes
very well; the coughers take a break, the cellos sing out the “Sehnsucht” theme
melodiously and Mackerras is wholly in control of the pacing. He builds those
mounting waves of sound carefully and eases authoritatively into a lovely “Liebestod”,
culminating in a ravishing ppp on “höchste Lust” from Nilsson
- although she is not quite as steady as in the live 1966 Böhm recording.
The showpieces from “Götterdämmerung” are superb; grand,
spacious accounts which breathe and shimmer - although some might prefer more
thrust at the start of the Immolation scene which verges on the stodgy, but it
soon picks up. Nilsson here refutes the accusation that she sometimes skates
over the words and inflects the text sensitively as well as unleashing that laser
The sound is good; natural but slightly opaque, conveying the spacious ambience
of the new hall and there is sometimes in evidence a background noise which might
be the air-conditioning. The enthusiastic applause, judiciously edited, indicates
how much the audience appreciated the concert. I do not necessarily think that
anyone who already has Nilsson in other recordings need rush out to acquire this
set. Unless you have a sentimental attachment to these discs as mementos of an
historic event, the performances by Mackerras, good as they are, are not essentially
self-recommending when there are so many other fine Wagner compilations on the
market. Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable souvenir of a special evening.