Die Walküre

Erich Leinsdorf
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
17 February 1940
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundLauritz Melchior
HundingEmanuel List
WotanJulius Huehn
SieglindeMarjorie Lawrence
BrünnhildeKirsten Flagstad
FrickaKarin Branzell
HelmwigeDorothee Manski
GerhildeThelma Votipka
OrtlindeMaxine Stellman
WaltrauteDoris Doe
SiegruneHelen Olheim
GrimgerdeIrra Petina
SchwertleiteAnna Kaskas
RoßweißeLucielle Browning

This performance of Die Walküre at the Met February 9, 1940 is legendary with its super-strong cast and some of the greatest Wagner singers of the century. Leinsdorf’s tempi usually are brisk but he is flexible and tender where appropriate, particularly in the first act love music. Lauritz Melchior is a force of nature in this music, the definitive Siegmund, at the height of his career. It is known that the famed Danish tenor had an arrangement with Leinsdorf to show his power and strength in the cries of “Walse! Walse” in Act I. Each of these is held for about 11 seconds duration, an am amazing display of vocal power (these are considferably shorter in Melchior’s famous 1935 recording conduycted by Bruno Walter), The only relatively unfamiliar name in a major role is Julius Huehn (1904-1971), an American bass-baritone who had a considerable career in Wagnerian roles. He made made his debut in 1935 and performed in several other American opera houses. He surely is an impressive Wotan, a fitting companion for his better-known fellow stars. This performance has been issued several times on CD, most recently as part of the 2013 Sony issue, a major multi-disk set of historic Wagner performances from the Met, at budget price. Their transfer was from the Met original transcriptions. I don’t understand the logic in Pristine’s new issue. It is is taken from off-the-air acetates of the broadcast from an anonymous source. Producer Andrew Rose has worked valiantly to resurrect the audio and has achieved greater clarity for the voices. but bass often is undefined and excessive, sometimes obtrusive. . I have admired many Pristine operatic reissues in the past. This one doesn’t improve on the Sony version. As usual with Pristine, there are no texts or translations, but a detailed track listing is provided.

R.E.B. | October 2015


For anyone impatient with those of us who talk about “the good old days” at the opera house, here is exhibit A. Wagner singing such as is heard in this Saturday afternoon performance from 1940 simply no longer exists. Period. End of debate.

Richard Caniell, on his admirable Immortal Performances label, issued parts of this performance in his “Dream Ring” set, but he combined it with another broadcast so that he could get, among other things, Friedrich Schorr as Wotan. Both Colin Clarke and I reviewed that package very favorably in Fanfare 37:2. But for those who want a single, unedited live performance with whatever cast happened to be on stage, here it is.

Sony and the Met, in their set Wagner at the Met, issued this same performance, and one might wonder why Pristine would bother. After all, the resources of the Metropolitan Opera Company and Sony should permit the transfer to be as good as technology is capable of. And indeed I have enjoyed that edition for the year or so that I have owned it. I am sure Sony and the Met did the best they could with what they had, but Andrew Rose of Pristine was given a different source (he is discreet and doesn’t indicate from whom), a set of transfers on a completely different plane from the Sony release, not to mention inferior earlier issues. He had to make two tiny patches (each lasting less than a second, and covering side changes) and used the Sony/Met version.

An A-B comparison of this with the Sony set is shocking. The difference is not subtle. The Sony set sounds like a 1940 AM broadcast. This sounds like a professional studio commercial recording from 1940, and a good one at that. Pristine’s XR stereo remastering gives a sense of the space of the Met, and the result is thrilling in a way one never thought this performance would be.

And what a performance it is! Leinsdorf was taking over Bodanzky’s performances at the Met and he opened up Bodanzky’s cuts in the Ring. And he also conducted with a passion and energy that did not always mark his work in the later stages of his career. He had a fairly famous feud with Melchior just prior to the series of performances in early 1940, with Melchior complaining about Leinsdorf’s fast tempos. Some attribute the ulterior motive to Melchior of attempting to get Flagstad’s favorite conductor, Edwin MacArthur, to the Met pit. Fortunately, the Met administration was having none of that, and it would seem from listening to this performance (and others that have circulated) that differences were patched up. Leinsdorf lets Melchior hold “Wälse” as long as he wishes (it is quite astonishing), and then takes off like a bat out of hell immediately following. The effect is thrilling.

Thrilling is the word, in fact, that comes to mind as the easiest way to describe this performance. To have two great Wagnerian sopranos in the same performance (and in other performances they switched the roles) along with perhaps the finest Wagnerian tenor since recordings were first made is something unique and very special. Add List’s dark, growling Hunding as something also up to that level. It is true that Julius Huehn does not sing with the imagination of Friedrich Schorr, nor does he have Schorr’s mastery of line and phrase. But his Wotan is more than acceptable. The voice is capable of a variety of color, and he interacts with Brünnhilde and with Fricka with a specificity of inflection that makes it a real and dramatic performance, not a singing exercise. He and Leinsdorf combine for a particularly moving final scene, captured here in glorious sound. Those who like to say that Leinsdorf did not conduct with warmth need to hear the plastic, supple phrasing the orchestra supplies here.

About Melchior there is really little one can say. He pours out golden tone, he clearly relishes the role of Siegmund, his enunciation is crisp, he conveys real passion in the first act, and the old canard about sloppy rhythm proves (as it so often does when one listens to him) to be nonsense. The voice has power and beauty in equal measures, and we have not heard anything like it since his career ended.

Lawrence’s Sieglinde is beautiful. There is no other word for it. The voice glows, and she phrases with delicacy and grace, singing with real tenderness toward her Siegmund. When power is needed, it is there, but it is the warmth of her singing that stays in the memory. I suppose with Flagstad’s Brünnhilde it is the power that stays in the memory, but in fact her performance too has a humanity and beauty about it that we don’t always associate with her. Her final scene with Wotan before his farewell is deeply moving. Karin Branzell’s Fricka is one more item on the plus side, sung with a rich, dark tone and a clear knowledge of the role. Branzell sang for over 20 years at the Met, and it is clear from this just how valuable an asset she was to the house.

Anyone who loves Wagner should own this set. It would be unthinkable to claim a representative collection of Wagner performances that lacked this. Even if you have the Sony set, the difference in sound quality is too great to ignore.

Pristine includes two little speeches, recorded for the broadcast in their dressing rooms, by Flagstad and Melchior. These are both appeals for funding, and are quite personal and touching. The timing in the headnote includes 10:40 for those speeches, so the opera itself is 198:15.

Henry Fogel | Issue 39:3 (Jan/Feb 2016)

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Walhall, Arkadia, Sony, Pristine, OOA, Line
Technical Specifications
538 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 769 MByte (flac)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Leopold Sachse (1935)