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

Rating
(7/10)
User Rating
(4/5)
Media Type/Label
Decca, London
Naxos, Walhall Eternity, Urania, OOA, Line
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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.