GHCD 2300/01/02 – GREAT CONDUCTORS at the Metropolitan Opera – Wagner Lohengrin Act I 1945 – Tristan & Isolde Act II 1943 – Die Meistersänger Act II 1945
Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra, Bruno Seidler-Winkler – conductor
New Classics Tuesday January 18 05
This triple CD set features excerpts from Wagnerian works performed at the Metropolitan Opera by three of the twentieth century’s greatest conductors: Fritz Busch, Sir Thomas Beecham and George Szell. Act 1 of Lohengrin is conducted by Busch in a 1945 production that featured Torsten Ralf in the title role, Helen Traubel as Elsa and the imposing baritone Herbert Janssen as Telramund. We also get the Bridal Scene from Act II, conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winkler in 1939. Beecham conducts Act II of Tristan und Isolde in fine romantic style, with splendid singing by the great tenor Lauritz Melchior. Beecham also conducts Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Kirsten Flagstad in 1952. The third disc has a 1945 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act II, as well as extracts from Act III, conducted by George Szell. These star Herbert Janssen again (this time as Hans Sachs), Eleanor Steber as Eva and the mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg as Magdelane. Recording quality is inevitably less than perfect but the historic importance and frequently thrilling sounds captured here make this a worthy release.
By Jonathan Woolf
This triple-decker does what Guild does often; Wagner from the Met. There could be a case for thinking this, yet another slice, saturation bombing but there is certainly a place for well directed precision targeting. If that makes this set a ‘smart bomb’ release well so be it. That said the usual suspects are here in roles not exactly unfamiliar and in interpretations that differ little from expected norms. Thus we have Melchior and Traubel in Tristan, and there are three appearances by Kerstin Thorborg – always welcome in my book.
But there are points to note. The Busch-led Lohengrin Act I was thought not to have survived. The introduction and commentary derive from ABC transcriptions, the bulk from a private recording. Beecham’s Tristan Act II comes from a South American recording; it’s not in great shape. The Szell Mastersinger preserves the only intact Act, the Second, and was recorded on acetates via the ABC broadcast. Finally there’s the Beecham-Flagstad Wesendonck Lieder, recorded on acetates in 1952.
It’s a lasting regret that so few of Busch’s operatic performances have survived. Acts II and III of Lohengrin are apparently in poor shape but this one, the first Act, sounds good. I infer from Richard Caniell’s note about this performance that his heart lies rather more in Leinsdorf’s exciting vitesse rather than with Busch’s Old World nobility; he prefers a hawk to a swan, maybe. Granted there was youthful drive in Leinsdorf’s adrenalin-pumping stage appearances at the Met but Busch clearly has a more measured, long-term goal. He has Torsten Ralf not Melchior but it’s a suitable opportunity to salute the former. His Nun sei bedankt is ardent if controlled and proves eloquent and powerful in Nun hört. It’s Janssen however who makes the greatest impression; his coiled tone, firmly centred, immovable and powerful, shines through Dank, König and indeed he illuminates the Act with real artistry. Busch unleashes the sinuous oboe and other winds in Wer hier generating a fine sense of orchestral unease and a palpable sense of direction. The first disc includes some small extracts from a 1939 Act III presided over by Seidler-Winkler with Lemnitz and Ralf and a snippet from Stockholm in 1945 led by Leo Blech with the excellent Ralf. The former receives a good transfer and the live latter is in good sound.
The Beecham has unfortunately survived in poorer shape: recessed and indistinct voices, a rumbling noise (turntable rumble?) and acetate damage. Still, we can listen through to Beecham’s romantic helmsmanship. He colours and tints the orchestral passages as adroitly as Thorborg colours Doch deine Schmach. His sheer buoyancy survives the subfusc recording as does his expressive power and the sheer generosity of his conducting – and generosity in opera was not a quality he was known to exhibit, not to singers at least. Melchior’s affection is likewise here – what a shame there’s distortion in the scene beginning So Stürben wir and that Cordon is not an adequate replacement for the mighty Kipnis; mind you listen to Beecham’s largesse toward the bass clarinet behind him in Die kein Himmel.
We end this disc with the Wesendonck Lieder, a performance given with the RPO in 1952. There are other extant performances by Flagstad of course – notably the Knappertsbusch/Vienna Philharmonic recording of 1957 and the (original) piano accompanied 1948 recording with Gerald Moore. The sonics on the Beecham are somewhat compromised – you can hear nothing like the miraculous string choir separation one can on the Kna – but otherwise quite reasonable. Flagstad is in excellent voice and she and Beecham take consistently fleeter tempi than she was later to do in the studio in Vienna. Beecham encourages some swoony portamenti in Der Engel and there’s real effulgence and radiance in Stehe still – theirs is a thoroughly convincing and notable collaboration.
The Szell-Meistersinger is also rather problematic. The sound is compressed and distant and there are some acetate breaks along the way. Still Caniell has the mot juste for Janssen and that word is wisdom. There’s a wealth of nobility and sheer beauty of tone in Was gibt’s – breathtakingly good singing – and with Szell’s horns backing him up he rightly spins out the line. Steber has rather a tight, quick vibrato but she conveys a real onrush of feeling and an impetuous, almost improvisatory dizziness. List, well, it can’t be denied, is not in quite the voice one recalls from other broadcasts in this series or on disc. The sense of rhythmic exactitude with Szell is heard most particularly in Könnt’s einem Wittwer and in the way he clips through the broad humour of Pechner’s Beckmesser. It’s a shame there’s blasting in some choral passages (the brawl, mainly) and there’s also a screechy, untamed quality that grates. But there are some perfectly serviceable extracts from Act III Scene IV included – about a quarter of an hour’s worth and well worth the hearing, showing Janssen yet again at the top of his very, very considerable form.
The booklet is again a pleasure to look at; Guild admits the sonic liabilities with candour. There are no patches or interpolations, which is how I prefer it. Maybe, yes, this is a conductor-led purchase and not everything is an easy listen but Janssen, well, he’ll live with me for a long time.