Die Walküre

Herbert von Karajan
Berliner Philharmoniker
25 August-30 December 1966
Jesus Christus Kirche Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundJon Vickers
HundingMartti Talvela
WotanThomas Stewart
SieglindeGundula Janowitz
BrünnhildeRégine Crespin
FrickaJosephine Veasey
HelmwigeDanica Mastilović
GerhildeLiselotte Rebmann
OrtlindeCarlotta Ordassy
WaltrauteIngrid Steger
SiegruneBarbro Ericson
GrimgerdeCvetka Ahlin
SchwertleiteLilo Brockhaus
RoßweißeHelga Jenckel

In starting their complete recording of the Ring with Die Walküre DG begin where Decca ended. Their choice enables us to get the measure of Régine Crespin’s Brünnhilde and Thomas Stewart’s Wotan. Neither, so far as I know, have sung these parts in the opera house and so make their debut in them with this recording. We shall, also, I hope, meet Josephine Veasey again as Waltraute and Martti Talvela as Hagen. Jon Vickers is, of course, as well established a Siegfried as he is a Siegmund. Before coming to the main task I feel impelled to say how saddened I was by some harsh criticisms made of Hans Hotter’s Wotan in the Decca Walküre. The greatest living exponent of the part, now near the close of a most distinguished career, deserved better treatment than this. I deliberately chose, in my review of the recording, to concentrate on his marvellous interpretation of the disillusioned, stricken god rather than on its vocal deficiencies. It might even be held that these, in a way, worked for him to some extent, although it would have been a different matter had he been singing Hans Sachs! A reviewer has to trust not only his ears but his gramophone equipment and these agencies revealed to me that, in spite of obvious vocal difficulties here and there, his voice – the voice of a man nearly sixty – rose splendidly over and over again to a great number of the big climaxes.

Thomas Stewart has a magnificent voice of ample power and range, as it comes to us in the recording. It is always dangerous to predict how such a Wotan would fare in the theatre. EG, reviewing excerpts from a DG recording of The Flying Dutchman in the April 1965 issue found Stewart’s voice (in the name part) ‘rather gritty and phrasing not particularly imaginative’ in Act 1, but ‘far finer in the Act 2 duet with Senta’. ‘There the range of tone-colour is beautiful’. There is nothing ‘gritty’ in his Wotan and his enunciation and phrasing are excellent. I should not be surprised to learn that he had studied the part with Hotter, or had studied him closely in the opera house. It would be absurd to expect a thoroughly mature and integrated conception of the character in a young artist, but all the signs are that he may well become a truly great Wotan. His anger blazes out fiercely in Act 2 as Fricka departs, but he begins the long scene after with Brünnhilde in a whisper that is rather ineffectual. (I know Wagner directs the singer to use a ‘Iow muffled voice’.) Hotter’s critics have allowed that he is superb in this scene and there is no doubt that Stewart does finely in it, if without expressing the full impact of ‘das Ende’. I am not sure it was wise to imitate the tone of Erda’s warning in this scene, but it is a debatable point. In Act 3 Stewart is able to bring out the full musical beauty – if not, as Hotter does, all the sterness and sadness – of the phrases of Wotan’s banishment of Brünnhilde from ‘the heavenly host’: but he misses the irony of the broken hearted god’s words ‘Be guided now by your light heart – you have broken with me’. Perhaps, also, he sentimentalizes a little the phrases of the kiss that deprives Brünnhilde of her god-hood. Here, then, is a performance of great promise and, in a number of passages, of fulfillment. He is already experienced in Wagner roles, and had a great success as Gunther in the Bayreuth Ring last summer.

It has been no easy matter to compare the Decca and DG recordings as Crespin’s assumption of Sieglinde in one and Brünnhilde in the other means that one is always hearing the former in the latter. Crespin is too accomplished an artist to fail in her new assignment but her success is only partial because she is, I feel, vocally and temperamentally unsuited to an heroic role – and, of course, she comes into competition with Nilsson’s incomparable performance. The crude application of the echo-chamber to Crespin’s battle-cry does not disguise the strained quality on the final high B naturals, but the earlier phrases are well negotiated, slurs and all. She gives us, in the course of this and the next act, many treasurable moments, and there is one phrase in Act 3 I have never heard sung so beautifully and affectingly. This I can only identify on the vocal score – the page number is 278, in the Schott edition. It is where Brünnhilde speaks, simply and from the heart, of understanding at least one of Wotan’s commands, ‘to love all that thou had’st loved’.

One does miss, over and over again, Nilsson’s dead-centred, ringing notes and her firmness of tone in the softest passages. Crespin fails, alas, to keep her tone steady in the glorious phrases, in this act, where Brünnhilde sings of the love the Volsung had taught her – an E, twice sustained, while the orchestra plays phrases derived from the Volsung Love motif – but she summons up considerahle dramatic and tonal power in her appeal to be surrounded by fire. However, at almost all points this is a very interesting performance with many good things in it.

Gundula Janowitz hegins well as Sieglinde, really sounding surprised, as Crespin did not, in finding a strange man in her house and later in the act her beautifully placed high notes give much pleasure: but her singing of ‘Der Männer Sippe’, slack in enunciation of the recitative-like sections and curiously clumsy over one phrase in Sieglinde’s subsequent lyrical outpouring, was disappointing. She does not really catch fire from Siegmund, especially such a passionate Siegmund as Vickers, and undoubtedly Crespin was better in this act. In Act 2 she sings with more imagination and sense of drama, and is often really affecting. In the rapturous response, in Act 3, to the news that she will give birth to Siegmund’s child who will become a glorious hero, the recording does not reproduce her voice clearly enough. It does not become a thrilling moment.

Jon Vickers’s performance as Siegmund is superb. He now begins the ‘Spring Song’ truly poetically, and as he is in splendid voice the heroic moments are most exciting. As always his enunciation is admirable but occasionally he is apt to put emphasis on words that do not require it and so disturb phrases that ought to flow naturally. This rarely happens in Act 2 where his tenderness to Sieglinde, his dignified replies to Brünnhilde, touch greatness. One realizes how much James King – though I liked him more than some critics – missed in the part.

Josephine Veasey’s Fricka has been justly admired at Covent Garden. Christa Ludwig was very good indeed in the part but it is true that her upper range has now become soprano-like and this makes Veasey’s true mezzo-soprano better suited to the enraged utterances of the goddess. This is a finely sung and distinguished performance. Martti Talvela is a magnificent Bunding, as menacing as Frick and with as black a voice, but with the tonal power the latter cannot now so easily command. There is not much to choose between the two groups of Valkyries, but they are better recorded by Decca. The lovely quiet passage where the three top voices come in one after the other does not make its full effect because the start of each entry is muffled. Decca, in general, provide a firmer bass, but the DG is unquestionably a very good recording.

My score of the opera is covered with markings in red ink such as ‘terrific’, ‘marvellous’, ‘most lovely’ etc, made when reviewing the Decca performances and applying to the conductor’s interpretation and the orchestra’s playing and, of course, the excellence of the recording. On reviewing this DG set I found myself seconding nearly all these remarks. Solti and Karajan have two great orchestras under them and what they draw from them is absolutely thrilling. The Berlin Philharmonic, however, has the advantage of a principal oboe with more ample tone than the Vienna Philharmonic and Karajan tends to restrain his brass section more. In general, I did not at all agree with some comments that Solti’s interpretation lacked warmth. I found it full of feeling. Karajan tends, especially in Act 1, when the orchestra is so beautifully painting the awakening love of Sieglinde and Siegmund, to become emotionally indulgent – and understandably so. Solti builds his climaxes with rather more subtlety perhaps, but not less excitingly than Karajan.

My first choice still remains the Decca. The Ring must have a heroic sounding Brünnhilde able to meet all the demands of the most testing part in opera, and Nilsson has so gloriously met them. But there are many reasons why one would wish also to possess the DG, for the sake of the magnificent orchestral playing under Karajan, for Jon Vickers’s Siegmund, and the promise of Thomas Stewart’s Wotan, and for Crespin’s gallant attempt to reach the heights. She may yet surprise us.

I look forward to the succeeding issues of DG’s complete Ring with the greatest interest.

Alec Robertson | April 1967

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579 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 996 MByte (flac)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.