Die Walküre

Georg Solti
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
2 October 1961
Royal Albert Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundJon Vickers
HundingMichael Langdon
WotanHans Hotter
SieglindeClaire Watson
BrünnhildeAnita Välkki
FrickaRita Gorr
HelmwigeJudith Pierce
GerhildeMarie Collier
OrtlindeJulia Malyon
WaltrauteMargreta Elkins
SiegruneNoreen Berry
GrimgerdeMaureen Guy
SchwertleiteJoan Edwards
RoßweißeJosephine Veasey
The Guardian

Georg Solti took over as music director at Covent Garden in 1961. His first new production there was Die Walküre; it was originally intended to be the first instalment of a complete Ring cycle, but turned out to be a one-off, as a wholly new cycle with a different designer was started three years later. As well as documenting a historically significant if short-lived production, these discs, taken from BBC tapes in very decent mono sound, are also Solti’s first recording of Die Walküre, a work that he did not add to his famous Decca studio cycle until 1965. Though it shows how quickly orchestral standards at the Royal Opera House improved after his arrival – the playing is superb, secure and thrillingly crisp – the performance as a whole is uneven. By his supreme standards as Wotan, Hans Hotter is in uncertain voice, especially in the third act; Anita Välkki is a likable and touching but not a very incisive Brünnhilde, and Claire Watson’s Sieglinde sounds rather pressurised by the end of the first act. On the plus side, though, are Jon Vickers’ thrilling Siegmund, overwhelmingly ardent in the first act, and Rita Gorr’s fearsome Fricka, clearly a woman who is not to be denied. Solti fans and Ring fanatics will snap this up, but for anyone looking for one-off Walküre, there are plenty of more consistent alternatives.

Andrew Clements | 17 July 2014

Opera News

In the years when Georg Solti was establishing his credentials as a Wagnerian, his detractors would characterize him as a musical hothead. Wieland Wagner, for one, complained of the conductor’s “orgasms in every second bar.” (He may well have resented that Solti’s reputation owed nothing to Bayreuth and almost everything to the blockbuster success of Decca’s 1958 Rheingold recording.) But this 1961 Walküre, documenting Solti’s first Wagner performances as music director of Covent Garden, belies Wieland’s insult.

Act I in particular shows Solti as a master of the long Wagnerian line. Its first half is subdued to the point of bleakness. The suffocating sadness of the Hunding household becomes palpable; the simmering tension between the host and his unwelcome guest provides an undercurrent of tension that binds the expanse into an unbroken statement. The quickening of passion in the second half gathers incrementally; it’s as if the spring air were entering the dank hut in successive gusts. The hour-long span reaches its “orgasm” at exactly the right moment, when Siegmund pulls the sword from the tree; the brass make a terrific impact but still achieve a transparency that lets us hear the surging strings underneath.

Covent Garden had heard distinguished Wagner performances throughout the ’50s — for instance, a 1957 Rudolf Kempe Ring available in an earlier Testament release. The Walküre from that set shows Kempe’s exceptionally lyrical approach, but it also reveals orchestral playing less meticulous than the supremely disciplined results Solti gets from the same forces. Here, the tautness of ensemble, the careful balance between instrumental choirs and, above all, the rhapsodic sound of the string section are hallmarks not just of a fine opera-house pit band but of a world-class orchestra.

The cast is representative of a time that, in retrospect, seems like a golden era of Wagnerian singing. Hans Hotter is the Wotan, an assumption that can be heard on numerous recordings going back to excerpts on EMI in the late ’30s. His voice here, while fresher than on Solti’s studio Walküre, recorded four years later, has loosened from its early prime. But this recording captures the reasons for Hotter’s hegemony in the role. The power he summons at big moments is utterly unforced: he never resorts to nasality in order to produce a sound that will ride over the orchestra. But he is equally impressive in the hushed tones in which he begins to tell his daughter of the bargains he has struck, uttered with the subtlety of a veteran lieder singer. This is great pianissimosinging — a quiet sound that you sense penetrating to every corner of the opera house.

The Brünnhilde is Finnish soprano Anita Välkki, a very good singer who was probably never any impresario’s first choice for the role, simply because her career coincided with that of Birgit Nilsson. Her voice is generally bright and powerful, albeit with a tendency to lose focus on top and in strenuous passages; Nilsson’s superhuman gleam is not hers to command. But Välkki is an affecting artist who brings a great amount of humanity to the role: her Valkyrie is a warrior second, a maiden first.

Siegmund was one of Jon Vickers’s signature roles, and this recording captures him in representative — which is to say, simply fantastic — form. Even if the Canadian tenor, with his immense but rough-hewn voice, can’t summon the dulcet timbre of Melchior before him, or Domingo afterward, he shows himself every bit their equal in forming lyrical statements. The recording often reveals him staying a microsecond behind the beat. Rather than registering as a mannerism, this tactic makes the musical line float, binding the notes together in a legato seemingly unconstricted by bar lines. I am not particularly fond of the near-croon that Vickers brings to the “Zauberfest” passage near the close of Act II; even here he is riveting — a highly conscious artist using his considerable resources to bring Wagner’s music to life.

Solti’s Sieglinde — a favorite colleague from his days as music director at Frankfurt Opera — is New York-born Claire Watson, a full-throated lyric soprano rather than the jugendlich dramatische usually heard in the role. Solti takes “O hehrstes Wunder!” at a good clip that allows Watson to stay within her limits: she is not the kind of force-of-nature soprano to shake the earth with this statement. But her voice is fresh and utterly appealing, and musically she never makes a false step: the rhythmic alertness in her singing — the “spring” she brings to the musical line — makes her Sieglinde an embodiment of youthful vibrancy.

Tony Locantro’s program note in the accompanying booklet tells us that Rita Gorr, as Fricka, walked off with the reviews, and you can well hear why. This is no mere harridan but a god with a force equal to her husband’s. The tremendous scale of Gorr’s singing lets us hear how Fricka can so handily come out the victor in the showdown. Michael Langdon — like Vickers, one of Covent Garden’s “resident artists” at the time — is a dark-voiced, forbidding Hunding.

The set includes no libretto. (You can download a PDF of the Walküre text, impossible to read on an iPhone, from Testament’s website.) But Locantro’s essay is exemplary, placing the performance securely within its historical context, and without resorting to hype, suggesting reasons for its importance. The mono sound is listenable, if not exceptional, with a tendency toward distortion at loud moments. But the performance comes through loud and clear, and it’s a beauty.

FRED COHN | December 2014 — Vol. 79, No. 6


Solti’s first Walküre. Given the iconic status of his Vienna Ring cycle, the first release of this contemporaneous recording from Covent Garden is guaranteed to generate interest. Recorded in 1961, it dates from the very start of Solti’s tenure at the Royal Opera and between the first and second installments of the Decca Ring (between Rheingold, 58, and Siegfried, 62; Walküre was recorded last, in 65). There is much to commend it, even if the proliferation of superior live Ring cycle recordings from the era, particularly from Bayreuth in the 1950s, rules out superlatives on all counts. Even so, it’s a strong performance, well conceived and well sung.

The excellent liner notes, from Tony Locantro, tell of the context, of the Royal Opera’s resurrection in the years following the war, and of the flagship Wagner projects with which the company demonstrated its return to the international opera scene. A new production of the Ring premiered in 1954 under Fritz Stiedry, with later performances conducted by Rudolf Kempe and Franz Konwitschny. It was quite an act to follow by all accounts, but when Solti took over in 1961 that was exactly his plan, with a new production of the cycle and, more significantly, a new conception of the music. And other changes were afoot. Through the 1950s, Royal Opera’s policy had been to present works in English with principals taken from the company, but from the early 60s, there was a reversion to original languages, allowing the company, as here, to book international names for the lead roles.

Comparisons with Solti’s 1965 Vienna version are unfair and largely irrelevant. Only Solti himself and Hans Hotter appear in both. This is a recording of a live staging, unlike Decca’s studio version. It’s in broadcast quality mono, against Decca’s state-of-the-art stereo. And, good as the performers are, they’re no match for the company assembled by John Culshaw. In terms of the aural experience, the biggest difference comes not from the audio quality but from the orchestra. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House gives a punchy, dynamic reading, but lacks the tonal luster of the Vienna Philharmonic, especially in the strings.

That said, Solti’s reading is essentially the same. His trademark drive and energy are everywhere apparent, though his maniacal temperament seems less overbearing. There is poetry and elegance, but even in the quieter and slower passages, the direction and focus of the music are never forgotten. He also deserves credit for the sheer unity of this performance, for the fact that everybody is clearly working towards a common musical purpose, and one they all seem to believe in, however much they may, or may not, have been harassed into it by the “screaming skull.”

No weak links in the cast, but one or two particularly impressive performances. Jon Vickers, as Siegmund, is captured near the start of his Wagnerian career, he made his Bayreuth debut two years earlier in the same role. His performance here is noble and heroic, but agile and nuanced too. Claire Watson is less imposing as Sieglinde, but makes up for it in the dark richness of her tone, which comes across as an alto-like elegance in the lower register. Anita Välkki has an attractive purity of tone as Brünnhilde, accurate, if unsophisticated singing, characterized by big, round vowel sounds. Hans Hotter produced this staging as well as singing Wotan. The visuals failed to impress the critics, so it is just as well that his vocal performance was up to scratch. There is plenty of authority in his singing, and plenty of drama. Other recordings capture better Wotans from him though, particularly Solti’s Vienna version, where his tone has more focus and seems more controlled. Rita Gorr sounds quite abrasive as Fricka, certainly a dramatic performance but not a pretty one: You never forget she’s angry. The Royal Opera’s previous policy of engaging company singers for lead roles is only maintained here in the case of Michael Langdon, whose Hunding is as dependable as it is deep. And the company really excels in the valkyries it fields, some of whom went on to bigger things: Marie Collier, Margreta Elkins, Josephine Veasey.

The recording was made for broadcast by the BBC and, given its age, is very good. There is no noise at all, and only a few minor pitch fluctuations in the second act. Digital remastering is credited to Paul Baily at Re:Sound, but no details are given of what exactly he has done. Given the flatness of the tone, his noise removal seems to have been quite ruthless on the upper partials. The biggest problem with the source recording is the distance of the singers, and many of the players too, from the mikes.

Given the recent backlash against Solti’s Vienna Ring cycle, many may feel that another Walküre from him adds insult to injury. Yet, despite the cover design, which features an image of him at the podium open-mouthed—very possibly screaming—and places his name above that of the composer in a much larger font, this recording isn’t really about Solti. He certainly gives the performance drive and focus, but it is a less distinctive interpretation than the one he set down in Vienna. Instead, it is the strong cast that makes this reissue worthwhile, some of the biggest names of the day, working together as a real ensemble.

Gavin Dixon | 3 October 2014


This “find”, a BBC recording of a live 1961 performance at Covent Garden of Georg Solti conducting what is now his first recorded Walküre (the Decca set was 1965), is a mixed blessing. Since most heavy-duty Wagnerians are familiar with the Decca recording–it was a dazzler when it was released and remains so–hearing an earlier take by Solti, with a couple of the same cast members, is fascinating. It doesn’t replace the Decca (it’s in mono, to begin with, albeit superb mono) but true believers will listen carefully.

Unlike many great conductors, Solti plays for the drama at hand rather than the great architecture of the entire Ring, as is to be expected with a live performance that was not meant to be part of a recording or a cycle. As a result, there is the occasional feeling of stop-start; just pausing long enough before the Todesverkundegung is not a transition, and listeners will note other spots where the scene simply changes. Some of the organic movement that Furtwängler, Barenboim, and others offer is missing. (The very first Walküre recording I ever owned–the Leinsdorf on RCA–had much the same approach, and I loved it and still do. These performances are highly theatrical.) But the thrills and beautiful moments remain.

Few conductors could dig in and drive the opening storm the way Solti did, and the rapture he finds in the first act’s final moments leave you breathless. The second-act Fricka/Wotan argument is terrifying–things obviously hadn’t been going well in Valhalla for some time–the Wotan/Brünnhilde scene is gloomy, but a bit dull, the aforementioned Todesverkundegung taken hypnotically slowly and tenderly until the turnaround, which blazes. And the finale is brutal. The Ride is fantastic and tight (the mono sound here is no issue at all) and Sieglinde’s outburst is epic. Wotan’s Farewell is emotionally shattering, if played a bit quicker than usual–I’d like to think Solti was helping Hans Hotter get through it somewhat more easily.

The singing holds some surprises. I recall seeing and hearing Anita Välkki at the Met in the ’70s; like everyone else in the house, we kept lamenting that she wasn’t Nilsson. Hearing her now, I would travel a mile for her: rock solid, with a handsome, womanly sound, impeccable pitch, and plenty of sassy attitude in her opening “Ho jo to hos”, real curiosity later, spunk when she turns in Siegmund’s favor, and warmth and contrition in her last scenes. Since I loved the Leinsdorf set with Rita Gorr as Fricka, I thought she would be the same here (they were recorded within the same year), but she is even better–more determined, arrogant, and disdainful. I even think she makes Christa Ludwig seem second best; it’s a monstrous 15-minute confrontation.

I believe there are five recorded versions of Jon Vickers’ Siegmund, but this is his finest. The soft singing never fades into either crooning or falsetto; there’s always body in the tone. He is warm and loving with Sieglinde in all of their scenes, proud with Hunding after his initial insecurity, and ecstatic in the first-act finale. His cries of “Wälse!” are epic–almost on a Melchior-like level. He’s a one-of-a-kind singer. Claire Watson’s Sieglinde is youthful and focused–no Jessye Norman or Regine Crespin womanly roundness to the sound. She’s a bit faceless until her final scene, when she delivers a passionate but still girlish “O hehrstes Wunder”, which is quite moving. Michael Langdon makes an imposing, scary Hunding by sheer dint of his strong, pitch-dark sound; to that natural asset he adds a snarl that could scare the mightiest of Wälsungs.

Hans Hotter, with perhaps a dozen Wotans committed to disc, most of them from live, Bayreuth performances from the ’50s, is still a potent figure with plenty of voice. (He sang the role for another 10 years, including on Solti’s Decca recording.) I almost prefer this to his younger performances–his misery after being slapped down by Gorr’s Fricka is palpable, perhaps the first intimation that this god is losing his power. He sings with teeth clenched, utterly defeated, in his exchange with his daughter, his confidante. The upright, dignified, but barely able to contain its emotion Farewell, as mentioned above, is taken a bit quickly, but it loses no power. Some of the wooliness is present in the tone, but the wobble is not. The performance is towering.

And so, if it’s a compelling, persuasive, theatrical Walküre you’re searching for, one that doesn’t ruminate quite like some or gloss over the sharp edges like others, and the mono sound doesn’t get in your way, this one makes a superb case. It doesn’t make me tremble the way Keilberth’s 1955 (Bayreuth) reading does (I might say the same for Böhm’s on Philips), but it is vibrant and a great piece of storytelling.

Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 7

Robert Levine

Voix des Arts

When Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre was first performed in Munich on 26 June 1870, the enthusiasm of Bavaria’s eccentric King Ludwig II preempting the composer’s intention that the opera should première alongside its Der Ring des Nibelungen brethren in the first Bayreuth presentation of the complete Cycle, one of greatest works of art in musical form was introduced to a tumultuous world that was in so many ways altered by it. Also springing to life for the first time was Brünnhilde, the heroine emblematic not just of Wagner but of idealized Teutonic Romanticism in general and a rôle that after 144 years still plants fear in the hearts of aspiring Wagnerians. Though Das Rheingold has recently gained traction in the international repertory, Die Walküre has traditionally been the Ring opera most frequently encountered beyond the context of productions of the full tetralogy. Even among the bounties of musical invention and metaphysical depth in the Ring, Die Walküre possesses special qualities. It is Verdi whose explorations of the relationships among fathers and their daughters are most celebrated by opera lovers, but there is no more heart-rending study of the fracturing of the relationship between a father and his favorite daughter than in Act Three of Die Walküre. This performance, given two days after the première of a new production of the opera by the Royal Opera House, was also intended to be part of a complete Ring, an inaugural Cycle planned for Covent Garden’s then-new Music Director, Sir Georg Solti, who was already engaged in the recording of a complete Ring with the Wiener Philharmoniker for DECCA. Ultimately, the Covent Garden Ring ran aground, but this performance is evidence both of Maestro Solti’s familiarity with Wagner repertory in the opera house as well as the recording studio and of the dramatic self-sufficiency of Die Walküre.

Testament’s meticulous restoration of Wagner performances of the past to sonic standards competitive with much more recent recordings is widely acclaimed, and the remastering of the monaural sound from the original BBC broadcast recording of this performance allows these Valkyries to ride as never before. It is not true that, as stated in press materials and on the physical CD set, this performance is being made available for the first time with this release, but it has not been previously circulated in sound of the quality achieved by Paul Baily’s remastering. The drop-outs and periods of static that marred earlier, unauthorized editions of the broadcast are absent from Testament’s release, which has natural if somewhat dry balances—nicely reflective, that is, of the acoustics of the Royal Opera House. The enthusiastic and occasionally very prominent prompter still intrudes distractingly, however, and the increased clarity of the sound enables stage noises and coughs from the audience to emerge more noticeably. Offsetting these very minor blemishes, the exemplary playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra can be heard with considerable immediacy; more so than in a number of more recent broadcasts and issues on Covent Garden’s own house label, in fact. Why the Royal Opera House Chorus is credited when there are no choral passages in Die Walküre is slightly perplexing: perhaps a few of the Valkyries, all of whom were engaged for solo parts in contemporaneous Covent Garden productions, were also members of the chorus. In this performance, the Covent Garden brass and wind players distinguish themselves with playing of laudable accuracy. Surprisingly, there are passages of uncertainty from the strings, but the musicians follow Maestro Solti’s leadership instinctively. This is a more spacious, relaxed reading of Die Walküre than would become typical of Maestro Solti in the decade after this performance, but the expansiveness permits many details of Wagner’s orchestrations to be emphasized with unusual profundity. One example among many is the delicacy of the woodwind figurations that accompany the beginning of Brünnhilde’s and Wotan’s conversation in Act Three, music that Maestro Solti and the Covent Garden players deliver with particular concentration and sensitivity. In general, the conductor’s Wagner interpretations were notable for their drive and energy, and these qualities are in evidence in this performance. There are also many moments of repose, and this, on the whole, is one of Maestro Solti’s most openly emotional performances of a Wagner opera.

Valkyries Marie Collier (Solti’s Chrysothemis opposite Birgit Nilsson in his DECCA studio recording of Richard Strauss’s Elektra with the Wiener Philharmoniker) as Gerhilde, Judith Pierce as Helmwige, Margreta Elkins as Waltraute, Joan Edwards as Grimgerde, Julia Maylon as Ortlinde, Noreen Berry as Siegrune, Maureen Guy as Grimgerde, and Josephine Veasey as Roßweiße are as imposing a family of warrior sisters as can be heard on any recording of Die Walküre. Individually and in ensemble, each lady manages her part capably, and this is the rare octet who prove capable of producing sounds of real beauty. In pleading with Wotan for mercy for Brünnhilde, the musicality with which these Valkyries intertwine their voices is tremendous: the enormity of Brünnhilde’s betrayal is made all the more clear by Wotan’s refusal to yield to such a radiantly-expressed argument. The terror and understated sadness with which these girls, unused to affairs of the heart, turn their backs on their errant sister is unexpectedly touching. It is as though they are seized, if only for a moment, by the humanity to which Brünnhilde is condemned.

Already a Covent Garden stalwart for a decade at the time of this performance, bass Michael Langdon is a menacing, mean-spirited Hunding who seems intent on exterminating Siegmund from the moment he finds the meddlesome male Wälsung in his home. The nastiness of his voicing of ‘Ich weiß ein wildes Geschlecht’ in Act One is startling, and he leaves little doubt that Sieglinde’s life with him is one from which any self-respecting woman would be eager to flee. Such is the impact of Mr. Langdon’s pitch-black timbre and gleefully hateful portrayal of Hunding that Wotan’s slaying of the character at the end of Act Two inspires a sigh of relief.

At the particular request of conductor Erich Leinsdorf, the powerhouse Belgian mezzo-soprano Rita Gorr sang Fricka in the nearly-contemporaneous studio recording of Die Walküre for RCA Victor (and eventually DECCA), replacing the singer originally engaged for the studio sessions, Grace Hoffman. For Leinsdorf and RCA’s microphones, Ms. Gorr was a bold, unrelentingly magisterial Fricka: for the Covent Garden audience, she was nothing short of definitive. Though the character lurks in the orchestral Leitmotivs throughout the opera, Ms. Gorr was obviously keenly aware that Fricka has only a quarter-hour or so in which to leave her mark on a performance of Die Walküre. Leave her mark this granite-toned singer does with a vengeance. At her first entrance, Ms. Gorr credibly conveys Fricka’s annoyance at finding Brünnhilde with Wotan, and the growing impatience in the subsequent scene with Wotan is compellingly enacted. Many singers make Fricka’s demand that the adulterous Sieglinde and Siegmund—the products of her husband’s infidelity with a mortal woman—must be destroyed seem irrational and impetuous. With Ms. Gorr’s Fricka, there is no question that her commandeering of the Wälsung’s fate is vindictive, but the force with which her argument is made allows no dispute of the legitimacy of her mandate: it must be, and Wotan is powerless to deny her. The visceral impetus of her singing in ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern’ is astounding. Ms. Gorr takes leave of her crestfallen consort with palpable satisfaction, knowing that she has prevailed in the contest of wills. Vocally, Ms. Gorr is among the few recorded Frickas able to reflect in her singing every dramatic point of her portrayal. The part’s range does not trouble her, and she here sings with greater steadiness and accuracy of pitch than in almost any other of her preserved performances. The voice was a true dramatic mezzo-soprano instrument, a thing of great rarity then as now, and this recording is a worthwhile memento of this cyclonic artist at the summit of her talents.

Solely in terms of tessitura and vocal weight, few if any rôles suited Canadian tenor Jon Vickers better than Siegmund. In this performance, his Siegmund emerges from the tempest with a primordial ‘Wes Herd dies auch sei’ that sets the tone for his impersonation of the impetuous Wälsung. Mr. Vickers’s recounting of the misfortunates that befell Siegmund in the years since his separation from his sister is harrowing and inspires true sympathy for the character. ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ is sung with such enchanting intensity that even the incestuous love between Siegmund and Sieglinde seems not just an instrument of fate but a star-crossed union. Many Siegmunds convincingly impart either the character’s desire or his self-righteousness: few combine these sentiments as plausibly as Mr. Vickers manages to do here. His immediately-identifiable voice never sounded better in studio or in theatre than in this performance, and his voicing of the famous cries of ‘Nothung’ are less self-indulgent than in many outings, including a number of the tenor’s own efforts. The ringing security of his top A in the final moments of Act One is rousing, but he is in phenomenal voice throughout the performance. His rejections in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ of Brünnhilde’s promises of glory in Valhalla if Sieglinde cannot remain by his side are affecting, and his interactions with Sieglinde in Act Two are remarkable for their vocal sheen and emotional directness. His singing of ‘Zauberfest bezähmt ein Schlaf’ is superb, one of the finest recorded examples of Mr. Vickers’s artistry. Ultimately, his Siegmund is the ideal foil for Mr. Langdon’s Hunding: when this Siegmund falls, the loss is potently felt.

In 1958, New York-born soprano Claire Watson both débuted at Covent Garden as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and joined the company of the Bayerische Staatsoper, where she also sang Sieglinde. It is not for singing Wagner that she is most remembered, but her portrayal of Sieglinde in this performance is unforgettable. There are problems, foremost among which is the size of the natural instrument: it was not a small voice, but in comparison with many of the Twentieth Century’s best Sieglindes Ms. Watson is a ‘leaner’ presence in the rôle. In Act One, her singing of ‘Müd am Herd fand ich den Mann’ details an acutely painful life with Hunding, and the exuberance of ‘Du bist der Lenz’ is evocative of a burgeoning sense of freedom. The simple elation in ‘Wehwalt heißt du fürwahr?’ is uplifting. In the world to which she has been subjected, not even freedom is to be trusted, and Ms. Watson’s utterance of Sieglinde’s doubt and trepidation in Act Two is forceful without being forced. Ms. Watson was an intelligent singer who knew how to project her voice, and she achieves extraordinary heights of passion in Act Three without pushing the voice beyond its limits. Her singing of ‘Nicht sehre dich Sorge am mich’ abounds with humility and despair, but her account of ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!’ is rightfully an outburst of maternal euphoria. Ms. Watson’s Sieglinde is far more engaging than a conventional operatic damsel in distress: rather than ‘saving’ her, Siegmund provides her with the wherewithal to save herself. She is a Sieglinde who seems capable of preserving her bloodline even without Brünnhilde’s intervention. Despite a few moments of stress, Ms. Watson’s warm, womanly singing is a joy.

Hans Hotter was one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated Wotans, and though this 1961 performance did not find him in best voice—he had been singing the part for nearly three decades by the time of the opening of this Covent Garden production, after all—it documents one of his finest preserved performances of the rôle. Few singers convey as much of Wotan’s inner torment in ‘Nun zäume dein Roß,’ the brief passage before Fricka’s entry in Act Two, and Mr. Hotter’s Wotan tangles with Ms. Gorr’s Fricka with immense dignity that might prevail in a contest with a weaker adversary. In Wotan’s subsequent scene with Brünnhilde, Mr. Hotter’s singing of ‘Was keinem in Worten ich künde’ courses with shame and weariness. In this performance, it need not be taken on faith that Brünnhilde is Wotan’s favorite offspring: the tenderness that Mr. Hotter exudes reveals the emotional core missing from so many Wotans. The explosive anger of ‘Steh, Brünnhild’!’ in Act Three is quickly replaced with misery when Wotan and Brünnhilde are left alone. The heartbreak of Mr. Hotter’s performance of ‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’ is complemented by the stark sincerity of ‘Loge, hör! Lausche hieher!’ The erosion of his wife’s trust and respect is debilitating, but the despondency with which Mr. Hotter traverses the final minutes of Act Three suggests that separation from his daughter is as distressing a plight as his own demise. Vocally, Mr. Hotter is neither as firm nor as authoritative as in earlier performances of Die Walküre, but all of the rôle’s notes remain within his grasp. The voice is that of a man, the phrasing that of a god, and Mr. Hotter confirms his status as a Wotan for the ages, one whose divinity is too burdensome to bear.

Finnish soprano Anita Välkki creates a Brünnhilde who deserves the affection lavished on her by her father. From her first ‘Hojotoho,’ she backs down from none of the demands of her music, and the steadiness of her voice up to top C is formidable. She possesses elements of Nordic coolness, but her timbre is touched by heat and allure. In ‘Schlimm, fürcht’ ich, schloß der Streit,’ her interrogation of her father is both lighthearted and deadly serious, and it is apparent in her imaginatively-phrased ‘O sag’, künde’ that her Brünnhilde senses both the impossibilities of her father’s predicament and the depths of his anguish. Ms. Välkki sings ‘Siegmund! Sieh’ auf mich!’ enthrallingly, the solidity of the lower octave of her voice matching her resplendence on high. It is in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ that a prescient Brünnhilde sees her future before her and makes the conscious decision to defy her father in order to honor him. This is imparted in few performances as tellingly as in Ms. Välkki’s. Her desperation in Brünnhilde’s petition to her sisters in Act Three intimates that she is fleeing from Wotan not because she fears his wrath but because she knows the part that she must play in his downfall. Her singing of ‘War es so schmählich’ glows with affection rather than defiance, and her capitulation is one of acceptance, not defeat. In this performance, Ms. Välkki has every trait needed to be a legendary Brünnhilde: thanks to Testament, a new generation of Wagnerians can make her acquaintance.

Three years before Maestro Solti conducted Die Walküre at Covent Garden, three members of his London cast assembled at Bayreuth to sing their rôles in the opera under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch. Newly available in Walhall’s Eternity Series, the 1958 Bayreuther Festspiele Walküre is also a performance of incredible histrionic power. The slightly younger Hans Hotter, Rita Gorr, and Jon Vickers sing almost as well as in London three years later. Mr. Hotter was in better voice at Bayreuth, but his Covent Garden Wotan is the more moving—and, on the whole, almost as well-sung. The band of Bayreuth Valkyries is suitably august, with Ms. Gorr doing double duty as Grimgerde and such fine singers as Lotte Rysanek, Maria von Ilosvay, and Grace Hoffman also donning Valkyrie attire. Josef Greindl was a practiced, well-known Hunding, and though his vocalism is less smooth he is no less sinister than his British counterpart. Leonie Rysanek was one of the most renowned Sieglindes of her or any generation, and at her best she fully justified that reputation. She is here an involved participant in the drama but is not the firebrand that she would become in subsequent productions. The lower range of the voice—where much of Sieglinde’s music dwells—was never the most comfortable territory for Ms. Rysanek, but when the vocal line climbs so does her confidence, and the meteoric top notes are predictably spectacular. Interestingly, though, she is not clearly superior to Ms. Watson, vocally or dramatically. The greatest contrast between the Bayreuth and Covent Garden performances is provided by the respective Brünnhildes. In 1958, Astrid Varnay had as much experience in Die Walküre as any singer in the world. She famously débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Sieglinde on 6 December 1941: six days later, she sang Brünnhilde in the same production. Interestingly, she only sang the Walküre Brünnhilde four times at the MET over the course of slightly more than twelve years, but she sang the rôle in consecutive Bayreuth Ring Cycles from 1951 through 1958—and in the ‘54 and ‘55 Cycles alternated as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde!—and again in 1960, 1961, and 1962. [She also sang Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in Cycles in 1963 and 1964 in which the Walküre Brünnhilde was sung by Ms. Välkki, who in turn sang the Third Norn in Ms. Varnay’s Götterdämmerung performances.] Ms. Varnay was a more stately, sheerly powerful Brünnhilde than Ms. Välkki, but the Finn had the lovelier timbre. In these performances, they are relatively evenly matched. Always a shrewd performer, Ms. Varnay was in 1958 a Brünnhilde to be reckoned with, and she and Mr. Hotter easily dominate the performance. The specially-selected members of the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele play wonderfully, and Maestro Knappertsbusch presides with easy command. It is intriguing to note that, in what would be his final Bayreuth Ring, he lingers over the score ten minutes longer than Maestro Solti at his most unhurried, but the older conductor’s pacing is no less vital than his younger colleague’s. [Maestro Solti would not conduct at Bayreuth until 1983, when he led a Ring with Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde and Siegmund Nimsgern and Bent Norup as Wotan.] Walhall’s sound is excellent, and the performance contains a host of admirable elements.

With a very high retail price, the Testament issue of the 1961 Covent Garden Walküre likely will not be heard as widely as its virtues warrant. That is truly a pity as it is one of the finest performances of the opera ever released on compact discs. Both the Testament recording and Walhall’s reissue of the 1958 Bayreuth performance divulge anew how engrossing Die Walküre can be. They also expose with demoralizing perspicuity how precipitously the standards of performing Wagner’s operas have declined in the following half-century.

Joseph Newsome | 24 September 2014

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Media Type/Label
Testament, OD, Fiori, PO
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320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 524 MiB (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC)
A production by Hans Hotter (1961)