WAGNER: Götterdämmerung
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WAGNER: Götterdämmerung

CD Button Nilsson, Collier; Windgassen, Stewart, Frick; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Solti. Testament SBT 1506

Recordings Solti Gotterdammerung Cover 216

GEORG SOLTI WAS NEW TO Götterdämmerung when he conducted Act III at this September 1963 Proms concert. Just days later, he would lead his first-ever performance of the complete opera, at Covent Garden; this thrilling disc captures a virtual dress rehearsal for that auspicious premiere. The production itself proved to be a kind of dry run for Solti’s milestone Decca recording of the work, taped the next year in Vienna with many of the same singers—a version distinguished not just by its cast but also by the sumptuousness of the sonorities that the conductor drew from his forces. But this earlier recording, caught on the fly, reveals that neither the Vienna Philharmonic nor Decca’s engineers were the creators of that Solti “sound”; instead, it was accomplished through the conductor’s own ability to draw out the beauty and originality of Wagner’s writing. 

The aural astonishments start right away, with the Rhinemaiden’s scene: a strong trio, the blend of their interweaving voices is unfailingly true. (The Wellgunde is the young Gwyneth Jones, here very much part of the ensemble.) The voice and orchestral textures have the clarity of mountain water. Solti was sometimes accused of being rigid and hypertensive, but here he is anything but: the rhythms are wonderfully supple and his Rhine seems propelled by its own current. 

The whole act is full of coloristic felicities, like the “forest murmur” shimmer of the strings under Siegfried’s monologue and the death pattern of the Funeral March, rapped out by the Covent Garden brass with precision and power. The conductor moves swiftly: the act clocks in at 74 minutes, fully nine minutes shorter than in Hans Knappertsbusch’s celebrated 1951 Bayreuth reading. Solti’s reading may not achieve the same kind of ruminative weight, but it has tremendous freshness and cohesion, achieving a momentum that makes the approach-to-apocalypse conclusion seem inevitable.

The performance features Birgit Nilsson at the high noon of her vocal prime, the famed “column of sound” untarnished from top to bottom. Wagner may well have dreamed of such a voice when he wrote the role of Brünnhilde: this is myth turned into sound. Nilsson’s voice did not always translate well to discs, but this recording, perhaps because of the acoustics of the Albert Hall, gives a good sense of its heroic scale and stupendous impact. The performance also shows how artfully Nilsson deployed her awesome resources: she tempers the voice’s steely power with a good measure of human vulnerability and sweetness, and in her Immolation Scene, she is as effective at eulogy as battle cry. 

Wolfgang Windgassen was indisputably the era’s leading Siegfried, but he was nonetheless persistently underappreciated. He could not summon the bronzed sound of his great predecessor Lauritz Melchior; he surmounted Wagner’s orchestra through penetrating focus rather than sheer heroic power, and in the process brought an off-putting degree of nasality to his timbre. But he delivered the great Wagner roles without trickery or compromise. He is in remarkably good form here: the voice, if not fresh, is firm and strong; the treacherous high C with which Siegfried greets the hunting party rings out freely.

Gottlob Frick is the Hagen; it is a tribute to both his artistry and his dark timbre that a voice so mellifluous could be used so unambiguously to convey evil. Unlike Frick, Nilsson and Windgassen, the Albert Hall Gibichung siblings did not take the subsequent trip to Vienna for the studio sessions, but they are nonetheless excellent: Marie Collier, a Covent Garden favorite of the era, makes something touching out of Gutrune’s anxious scene before the arrival of the funeral cortège, and Thomas Stewart turns Gunther’s consoling words to his sister into a brief moment of lyric tragedy. 

The excellent stereo sound, markedly superior to the audio on Testament’s in-house Covent Garden releases of the period, brings the listener up close to a truly grand occasion. —Fred Coh 

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