One of the great might-have-beens of recording history was Sir Georg Solti’s proposal in the 1990s to record Tristan und Isolde with a cast headed by Jessye Norman and Plácido Domingo. In the event Domingo did record the role of Tristan - although he never sang it on stage - as he did many of the other Wagnerian heroes. Jessye Norman’s complete commercial Wagner recordings were restricted to Elsa in Lohengrin, Kundry in Parsifal and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. This disc therefore gives us a unique opportunity to encounter her in other Wagnerian roles - Isolde, Elisabeth, Senta and Brünnhilde - none of which she recorded complete. For many of these her voice would have seemed to be ideally suited even if she never sang them in the opera house. At a time when she was recording other operatic heroines perhaps less fitted to her strengths, such as Salome, Carmen and Leonora (in Fidelio) this would seem to have been a tragically missed opportunity.
At any rate let us be grateful for what we have here. Norman’s voice, straddling with ease the range between soprano and mezzo, had a richness of tone that is all too rare in heroic sopranos of any generation. She always sang with warmth and emotion, never made an ugly sound, and under the right circumstances could convey a sense of strength and dramatic involvement that could dominate a full symphony orchestra. She may not always have had the most dynamic of stage presences - although with the right producer even that disadvantage could be overcome. However in terms of pure sound she was one of the greatest singers of the Wagnerian repertory - in the mould of singers such as Kirsten Flagstad rather than the more steely Birgit Nilsson. Here she directly challenges Flagstad and Nilsson on their home territory of Isolde and Brünnhilde.
It has to be conceded that her Isolde, at any rate as delivered here, is very slow indeed. While Klaus Tennstedt in the preceding Prelude is quite swift, working up a good head of steam, with the entry of the voice at the start of the Liebestod the brakes are immediately applied in the manner associated with Bernstein’s complete recording. Norman has no difficulty with the long-breathed phrases and the result is highly impressive in terms of sheer sound but the orgasmic climaxes towards the end do not have the dramatic frisson that would make this interpretation totally convincing. The “breath of the world” of which she sings simply does not blow at full strength here. Although the sense of ecstasy is certainly present, the sense of consummation is displayed rather than felt inwardly. Bernstein and Goodall, at similarly slow speeds, managed it. Tennstedt, although he clearly has the right instincts, just fails to bring it off.
The entry of Elisabeth - which follows with far too short a break after the conclusion of the Liebestod - brings us suddenly into a completely different world. Norman has all the sense of rapture and anticipation that the music demands, although she does not fail to discover the anxiety that is also present in the music and delivers some exquisitely quietly shaded singing. She is similarly touching in Elisabeth’s anguished prayer. After an imperious opening summons to the Virgin, she fines her voice down to a mere sliver of silvery sound, addressing herself in an interior monologue which exactly matches Wagner’s delicate woodwind scoring. Her breath control here is phenomenal.
Senta is a role less well suited to her. She sings the ballad at Wagner’s revised lower pitch, but the general tone of her voice is rather too mature and not quite the young virgin of one’s imagination. Nor does she succeed in differentiating the three verses of the ballad sufficiently: a line like “Und Satan hört!” goes by without the sense of satanic presence and possession that one ideally wants. However the record company are to be congratulated on providing the essential female chorus to sing during the refrains of the second and third verses, even if they are rather backwardly placed in the recorded balance. This is the only item on the disc which has to be provided with a ‘concert ending’ - and the truncation of the drama is cruel. Even so this brief excerpt makes one wish we could have heard a complete performance of what would certainly have been an arresting interpretation of a role that has not generally been lucky in its interpreters on disc. There are honourable exceptions.
So to the closing scene of Götterdämmerung. A couple of months ago I raved about the warm and very feminine Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme commenting that her interpretation was in the mould of interpreters of the past. I had in mind Martha Mödl but without that singer’s very evident failings in matters of steadiness and pitch. In that same tradition Norman is even better, helped by Tennstedt’s steadier speeds which allow her to attack high notes without any sense of snatching at them. In the central section of the Immolation, Norman’s quiet singing at phrases such as “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” has a sense of rapt ecstatic contemplation that even a slightly too prominent and fruity bass trumpet cannot dispel. It is clear that the heroic high notes afterwards take Norman to the utmost limit of her abilities. She rides triumphantly over any possible difficulties and Tennstedt crowns the performance with a superlative and measured account of the lengthy postlude. He even commendably reduces the unwritten pause just before the final statement of the ‘redemption’ motif to a bare minimum. I would hazard a guess that he had been listening to Goodall’s interpretation of this scene. In places he seems even to be slower than Goodall on his ENO recording. The orchestra plays magnificently for him.
The recording, as I have implied, is a little dry and lacks the ideal sense of resonance especially in the strings. That said, the playing is precise and often thrilling. The orchestra is well forward in the mix, giving a realistic sense of the music without any sense that the already powerful voice of Norman has been artificially boosted. This gives full justice to Tennstedt’s interpretations. He is only given his head in the Tristan Prelude and the Götterdämmerung postlude but this is sufficient to convey the sense that his Wagner might well have rivalled his Mahler in intensity if he had been given further opportunities in this field.
I suppose it is futile to continue to rail against the presentation of this release by Warner. In addition to taking over the EMI catalogue they have apparently also adopted that company’s reprehensible policy of providing minimal documentation with their reissues. We are given here merely a list of tracks, with no biographical details, no description of the music and worst of all no texts or translations. It is all very well to argue that these things are all available on the internet and elsewhere but the art of Jessye Norman, and her insightful sense of word-painting, are dishonourably devalued here. That should not however deter Wagnerians from investigating this interesting and often superlative disc. For some reason it seems to have escaped the attention of the Penguin Guide, and was not apparently reviewed at the time of its original release either by Gramophone or Fanfare; don’t let it slip by again.
Paul Corfield Godfrey