Götterdämmerung

Øivin Fjeldstad
Opera Chorus, Norwegian State Opera Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Date/Location
5 [act 1], 8 [act 2], 10 January 1956 [act 3]
Norwegian Radio Studios Oslo
14 March 1956 University Hall Oslo
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
SiegfriedSet Svanholm
BrünnhildeKirsten Flagstad
GuntherWaldemar Johnsen
GutruneIngrid Bjoner
AlberichPer Gronneberg
HagenEgil Nordsjø
WaltrauteEva Gustavson
WoglindeUnni Bugge-Hanssen
WellgundeKaren Marie Flagstad
FloßhildeBeate Asserson
1. NornEva Gustavson
2. NornKaren Marie Flagstad
3. NornIngrid Bjoner
Gallery
Reviews
Gramophone

It is a curious story. It’s 1956. A major record company, which already has three ‘live’ Bayreuth Götterdämmerungs in its archives, decides not to release any of them – but puts on the market instead a modest-quality radio recording of an incomplete performance with two ageing superstars, supported by ardent but inexperienced colleagues. For Kirsten Flagstad the release of this Norwegian Radio performance was a coup of immense proportions in her campaign for a national opera company and the musical recognition of her country. For Decca’s rising young producer John Culshaw it was, privately, an embarrassment – read his account in Ring Resounding, a gripping piece of recording literature now in need of footnotes – but he achieved a contract with the world’s greatest living Wagnerian and the first-ever release on record of her in a complete Wagner role.

And the consequence was…the recording disappeared almost immediately (as Culshaw planned it would), only the Flagstad parts reappearing in the early 1970s. (Decca’s three ‘lost’ Götterdämmerungs appeared on Testament, to universal acclaim, from the late 1990s on.) There have been ‘private’ CD issues of the 1956 Norwegian Radio tape before but this is the first properly prepared restoration, by Mark Obert-Thorn. At Naxos prices many historically inclined Wagnerites will want to hear it but the truth is that Culshaw (despite wanting the world to wait for his Solti version) was right and it’s not very good.

The cast only had three days from scratch plus a crowded mending session. Flagstad herself, Svanholm and the young Ingrid Bjoner’s Gutrune and Norn are quite on the pace although all can now be heard in easier surroundings. The combination of two Oslo orchestras are clearly learning on the job, and Fjeldstad is a sensitive guide, but the dodgy tuning at the beginning is a harbinger of some uneasiness to come. The other soloists, including Flagstad’s sister Karen Marie, go for it with a will but understandably often sound pressured and unsure as yet of how best to present the music in front of them.

With all the will in the world, this is the ultimate ‘A for effort’ performance. It remained, for nearly a decade, the only way of hearing much of Götterdämmerung on the gramophone and remains, for that reason, an important historical curio. You will not hear it better than in this new transfer.

Mike Ashman

Musicweb-International.com

This famous recording was originally released by Decca on 6 LPs in 1956 (LXT 2055210) but has been generally overlooked ever since. It’s very much Kirsten Flagstad’s Götterdämmerung. Towards the end of her career, she was in the process of moving from EMI to Decca. During negotiations she was insistent that this Norwegian Radio performance should be issued by the company rather than recording the whole work again in Vienna under studio conditions with producer John Culshaw in charge. At the time, this recording was viewed as a testament to the newly instituted Norwegian Opera and despite John Culshaw’s pleading Flagstad got her way, partly due to her national pride. This is her farewell appearance in her celebrated role as Brünnhilde.

The radio broadcast performance, recorded in January 1956, had been cut by around 40 minutes for the transmission. Decca had to rectify this by recording the missing passages and doing some short fixes where there had been minor issues with the radio tapes. The extra session took place in Oslo in March that year. The recording as reissued by Naxos is virtually complete, the only section missing being a short bridge passage between Scenes 2 and 3 of Act One – the Oslo sessions in March ran out of time, unbelievably.

The performance certainly deserved its Decca release. Flagstad possessed one of the truly great operatic voices of all time and despite her being 61 years of age at the time her singing is splendidly secure and passionate. The tone is fabulous and the only minor criticism would be that just occasionally the top register isn’t what it would have been at her very peak. However, these are just fleeting moments – she skips the top C in the Prologue duet with Siegfried – and her performance, a fine example of top class Wagner singing, is astounding, especially for someone in their early 60s. Bear in mind that she had already retired from the opera house and died only six years later. The Immolation Scene is spine-tingling and the final part of the opera is both cataclysmic and very moving.

The sound quality is typical of a radio production. There’s nothing very glamorous here but at least it’s clear and despite being in mono has a decent front-to-back perspective. Don’t be misled by the historic tag that Naxos has given it. It’s not one of those tinny, distorted horrors where you struggle to listen through the bad sound to hear the music only vaguely. This is a perfectly good, thoroughly enjoyable recording. There is just a little tape hiss present but it isn’t distracting enough to spoil things. The transfer has been made from the original LPs and Mark Obert-Thorn has done wonders with the restoration. You’d be hard pushed to tell that it’s sourced from vinyl. The orchestral sound is not especially rich but everything is there and the voices have good presence when one considers the 1956 recording date. I understand that there have been two previous transfers available on CD. I haven’t heard them but I doubt if they would be in any way superior to this Naxos set.

The orchestral playing of the combined Oslo Philharmonic and Norwegian State Opera orchestras isn’t impeccable. There are a few slips here and there and some scrappy passages, especially from the strings, but on the whole the standard is well up to scratch. Øivin Fjeldstad (1903-1983) keeps the energy, momentum and drama going from start to finish. I’ve never associated Fjeldstad with Wagner before and it’s good to have Götterdämmerung to hand for a change rather than his other orchestral records such as Peer Gynt; much as I like the piece and the way he conducts it.

Flagstad is ably supported by the Siegfried of the veteran Set Svanholm who was in his 50s at the time of the recording. He brought considerable experience to the part. They are well matched emotionally and in terms of maturity. The rest of the cast are adequate and no more than that but collectors will buy this set just for Flagstad and they will not be disappointed. I’m pleased that I’ve heard this recording but at the end of the day it isn’t really a first choice. It’s a good supplement to an opera-lover’s collection but that’s about it.

The Solti/Culshaw Ring Cycle still reigns supreme with glorious playing from the Vienna Philharmonic. Despite its age this Decca masterpiece, with its gripping Götterdämmerung, has tremendous drive, drama and power. The recording quality has an impact and range that has never been matched since. It really is a true classic that might never be beaten. It’s also beyond belief that it was recorded as early as 1964, only eight years after this Oslo production. There simply is no comparison in sound quality. Solti has Birgit Nilsson in her prime; Fjeldstad has Flagstad just past her best. Both are magnificent and each needs to be heard.

John Whitmore | 12 May 2012

classical-cd-reviews.com

This 1956 Götterdämmerung is of significant historical interest for several reasons. It was the first version ever to be commercially released. It was also Kirsten Flagstad’s last performance as Brünnhilde—she had retired from the stage in 1953. Finally, and this might be pushing the historical angle a bit far, it marked the professional debut of Ingrid Bjoner, as Gutrune and the Third Norn. The whole project had a complicated history, but an engaging account is given in one of the liner essays, by Fanfare’s own Raymond Tuttle.

To paraphrase: Flagstad was coaxed out of retirement by Norwegian Radio for this studio production, with an almost all-Norwegian cast, the major exception being Set Svanholm as Siegfried. When John Culshaw heard about the project, he sought the rights to release the recording on Decca, a coup both for Flagstad’s involvement and for the claim to be the first-ever complete Götterdämmerung on a commercial recording. But it turned out the recording was not complete; around 40 minutes had been omitted. So Culshaw organized a team to go to Oslo, and in March 1956 recorded the missing sections, mainly the first scenes of acts I and II. Unfortunately, they ran out of time before they could record the scene change into Act II, scene 2, and so the recording was eventually released as “substantially complete.” But Decca still got in first, even if today we associate that period in the work’s history with the Furtwängler/RAI Ring cycle and the Keilberth from Bayreuth, both from 1953, but neither receiving official release for several decades because of singer contract issues.

The good news about this Götterdämmerung is that both of the lead singers were (still) on fine form. Flagstad, at 60, is a little more narrow of tone than in earlier years, but her voice still has presence and power, even in the high register. It is certainly a mature-sounding voice, but not matronly or plummy. Perhaps there is a little agility lacking, but that is not a huge loss in such a declamatory role. Svanholm was a mere 51, but if anything he sounds older than Flagstad. Both singers bring extensive Wagnerian experience to the project, and you end up admiring the idiomatic and dramatically engaged assumptions of the two roles more than worrying about technical deficiencies. I hear a slight wobble from Svanholm, but it’s of little concern against the strength of his vocal support and the sheer elegance of his every line.

The rest of the cast is reasonable, but without any standouts. Bjoner sounds suitably human as Gutrune, though she is clearly not in the same class at Flagstad. Eva Gustavson gives a passionate Waltraute, but without drawing much attention away from the star. Egil Nordsjø is convincing as Hagen, but he lacks weight, especially in “Hoiho! Hoho!” Waldemar Johnsen is a swoopy, wobbly Gunther, though all the notes are there and he fits well into the ensembles.

Conductor Øivin Fjelstad leads a carefully paced account. He accompanies the singers well, giving each plenty of space to shape and color phrases. But the reading lacks the frisson of a live staging, or of a studio account that can successfully recreate it. And he is not helped by an orchestra that lacks precision and focus. The strings often sound approximate in fast passages, and the brass intonation is also problematic. The horns do well though—no splits at the opening of act III or in any of the other horn calls.

This Eloquence release claims to be the first CD release on Decca and remastered from the original tapes. But, of course, most of those are Norwegian Radio tapes, and while the sound is a serviceable and quite vibrant mono, it is a significant step down from Decca’s stereo projects at the time in Bayreuth and later in Vienna. Curiously, the worst-sounding section is the opening, which was recorded by Decca—tape deterioration perhaps? On other labels, the recording has previously been released by Urania, Walhall, and Naxos. The first two of these are available on Spotify, where they sound more congested than the present release and have much more crackle. So whatever cleaning-up has gone on, it has brought more immediacy to the sound and reduced extraneous noise. Although we are not told anything about the remaster, documentation is otherwise very good. The front cover of the liner reproduces the original LP, where the work is titled “Die Götterdämmerung.” As well as Tuttle’s essay, there is a biographical essay about Flagstad, a recollection of her from Richard Bonynge, and an essay about the work, which includes a synopsis.

This is a recording that was clearly significant in its day, even if it was soon obscured by major Wagner releases in the 1960s, and on the same label. It is worth revisiting today for Flagstad and Svanholm, even if nobody else in the cast approaches their stature.

Gavin Dixon | 1 August 2019

ClassicsToday.com

The Flagstad Norwegian Radio Götterdämmerung: Curio or Collector’s Item?

In January 1956 the Norwegian State Radio System presented Wagner’s Götterdämmerung conducted by Øivin Fjelstad, with a cast headed by Kirsten Flagstad, who came out of retirement to sing her signature role of Brünnhilde for the last time. The soprano had expressed a desire for the performance’s release on records. Decca’s producer John Culshaw agreed, providing that music omitted from the broadcast could be recorded and spliced in. The artists reconvened and managed to record the Prologue and opening scene for Act 2, but ran out of time before they could set down the instrumental interlude between scenes three and four in Act 1. As such, Decca issued this substantially complete Götterdämmerung, both as a gesture to Flagstad and as a catalog stopgap.

The combined Oslo Philharmonic and Norwegian State Radio Orchestra forces hardly add up to a major Wagner ensemble (the tenuous brass playing throughout, for example), and all of the male leads are overtaxed by the demands of Wagner’s vocal writing, except for Set Svanholm’s aging yet fully capable portrayal of Siegfried. The women fare much better, notably Ingrid Bjoner’s young and attractive Gutrune. As Waltraute, Eva Gustavson’s heavy top register doesn’t really soar, but her sense of drama and word shading holds attention during her lengthy Act 1 narrative.

Despite less secure and edgier top notes at this point in her career, Flagstad summons up plenty of power and authority, most notably from her entrance in Act 2 onwards, and her Immolation Scene gets better as it unfolds, albeit hardly on the level of Flagstad’s live and studio collaborations with Furtwängler. Apparently this first CD reissue from Decca stems from the “original tapes”, which can mean many things. That said, you notice more depth and room tone in comparison with the LP-derived Urania and Naxos CD editions. However, some listeners may prefer Naxos’ brighter overall equalization and more extensive track divisions within scenes.

There is no libretto, but the booklet includes Decca’s original printed introduction, excellent annotations by Raymond Tuttle, an extensive synopsis by Robert Boas, and a brief remembrance of Flagstad from Richard Bonynge. Perhaps this Götterdämmerung is more of a curio than a collector’s item, yet I’m happy to reconnect with it for personal reasons. When I was around five or six, my mother borrowed a scratchy, beat-up copy from the West Orange Public Library in New Jersey, and I quickly became fascinated by the music’s size (a six-record set!) and sound world. (I also remember spilling orange juice on side 12; no doubt an unconscious attempt to extinguish the immolation pyre before Brünnhilde could make her fateful plunge.)

Artistic Quality: 6
Sound Quality: 5

Jed Distler

Rating
(7/10)
User Rating
(4/5)
Media Type/Label
Decca, London
Decca, Naxos, Walhall Eternity, Urania, OOA, Line
Technical Specifications
596 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.1 GByte (flac)
Remarks
Broadcast
This Götterdämmerung is taken from Oslo radio broadcasts on January 5 (Act 1), January 8 (Act 2) and January 10 (Act 3) 1956. The original broadcast was not complete and Decca later recorded scenes (in order to cement Flagstad’s contract with them) to complete the performance (14 March 1956 University Hall Oslo) but never recorded the Act 1 interlude between Hagen’s Watch and the scene between Brunnhilde and Waltraute so these parts are missing.