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Martha Mödl: "Portrait of a Legend"
Arias, scenes and songs by Beethoven, Fortner, Reimann, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. With G. Hoffman, Steger, Töpper, Suthaus, Windgassen; Raucheisen, piano; various orchestras, Bareza, Hollreiser, Keilberth, Leitner, Peters, Sébastian, Suitner, conductors. No texts. Profil Hänssler 12006 (2)
Profil Hänssler’s tribute to Martha Mödl demonstrates her emotional intensity and penetrating use of text.
Martha Mödl (1912–2001) remains a fabled "singing actress," an artist who briefly conquered — or at least bravely battled — dramatic-soprano territory before returning to the mezzo repertoire in which she began her career. She continued to sing comprimario roles well into her eighties. She was active mostly in Europe: her career in the U.S. was brief, limited to a dozen Wagnerian outings in three seasons at the Met in the late 1950s, plus some orchestra dates.
Beginning with her Kundry in a 1951 Parsifal, Mödl was a major player in creating Wieland Wagner's "New Bayreuth" style, moving up to soprano assignments such as Isolde and Brünnhilde. Mödl was hardly the first mezzo to ply this dangerous, eventually vocally compromising route at a high level — Met legends Olive Fremstad and Margarete Matzenauer come to mind — and in her wake have followed Helga Dernesch and Waltraud Meier, among others. Praise for outstanding stagecraft, emotional intensity and textual penetration always qualifies mention of Mödl's vocal shortcomings. Live or studio recordings preserve many great interpretations, including Kundry for Knappertsbusch and Isolde for Karajan.
With this release, Profil Hänssler issues some live material rarely available before. Much of it presents Mödl as a Wagnerian — thrilling and uneven. Even in the Zwischenfach range of Adriano's Meyerbeerian scena from Rienzi, one hears Mödl "lifting" (and not always successfully) into high notes. And this was in 1951, before her real assault on the hochdramatische roles.
The worthwhile Tristan excerpts here derive not from the artist's famous 1952 Bayreuth performance with Ramón Vinay but from two different venues. Dark-toned, intense portions of Act I, including the narrative and curse from a 1958 Munich performance, are tremendously energetic, despite high notes sometimes attained by sheer force of will. Conductor Joseph Keilberth, Hertha Töpper's positive Brangäne and Ludwig Suthaus's estimable if mature-sounding Tristan provide firm support. A 1955 Stuttgart State Opera visit to Royal Festival Hall furnishes portions of Act II (up to the extinguishing of the torch, then "So stürben wir") with Grace Hoffman and Wolfgang Windgassen — Stuttgart company members and then among the top worldwide choices for their roles — plus the Liebestod (quite good, though gingerly with top notes) under the competent, non-inflammatory baton of Ferdinand Leitner. A 1959 Wesendonck Lieder with Keilberth and the Bamberg Symphony doesn't rate as a recommendable version; whatever Mödl's considerable stylistic acumen here, and her rich security in the lower reaches, there is just too much unsteadiness on sustained tones — or downright effortful lunges at high ones.
To judge from Sieglinde's two Act I solos, that role (under Keilberth at Bayreuth, 1954) lay awkwardly for Mödl's voice in terms of registration, let alone vocal color. However, a strong 1957 concert version of Brünnhilde's immolation from Vichy, with the Hungarian-born conductor Georges Sébastian, proves a welcome addition to the Mödl discography.
Non-Wagnerian fare includes a verbally vivid mother–daughter confrontation with Ingrid Steger's somewhat blowsy Elektra, led without great incisiveness by Otmar Suitner at Berlin Staatsoper in 1967. Mödl doesn't miss a trick interpretively and must have been something to see, but her singing isn't to be compared in finish or beauty with her complete 1950 Klytämnestra under Mitropoulos (in which her colleagues are in wretched form, alas). Two largely declamatory parts written for Mödl in the post-Brünnhilde years are excerpted — the Mother's final scene from Wolfgang Fortner's Lorca-based Bluthochzeit (Blood Wedding), captured in Stuttgart in 1961, and a scene from Aribert Reimann's Melusine at the 1971 Schwetzingen Festival. If this excerpt is typical, the work is even more loudly and percussively orchestrated than his deafening Lear, but the voices of Mödl and fellow post-legato Bayreuth veteran Josef Greindl cut through.
We also get the Countess's great scene from Pique Dame (in German, save for the Grétry song with which the excerpt ends) from Graz in 1982. An appended 1950 Gellert-Lieder broadcast with the magisterial Michael Raucheisen proves moving and fascinating, though it suggests that perhaps Mödl never had a fully even compass vocally. Some cuts emerge in better sound than others; plus, at some stage engineers turned down the sound dials while phrases were ending, meaning that the last word of, for one example among several, "Tod uns beide!" gets swallowed sonically.
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