Enthusiasts who wish to hear the work of many of the C20th great singers in this huge cycle of operas must bring tolerance to their quest. Recording the operas complete in ideal studio conditions was not feasible during the best years of Schorr, Melchior and Flagstad, three of the music’s greatest exponents.
This Naxos boxed set of the complete cycle offers a convenient and inexpensive chance to hear these singers in more or less complete radio broadcasts deriving from New York and Boston performances given between 1936 and 1941. Imagince yourself with your ears glued to a 1930s wireless set, and you’ll probably be amazed at how clear the sound is.
“Das Rheingold” comes complete from a 1937 broadcast from Boston. Its great glory is Friedrich Schorr’s majestic Wotan, by then a little unsteady vocally but still able to project authority. If you have no memory or opportunity of hearing him in a studio recording of the opera's closing pages made 10 years earlier, you'll still be satisfied with the way he leads the gods into Valhalla here. Of the others, it is Emanuel List as Fafner that stands out. The sound quality is poor, there are a few minor cuts in the score, and a broadcast commentary and description of the curtain calls are retained.
Artur Bodanzky, the conductor in three of these broadcasts died in 1939. The 1941 broadcast performance of “Die Walkure” is conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. The sound quality is the best of the series, allowing orchestral detail to be picked up and the eminent singers’ work to be easily distinguished. Most of them are stunning. Alexander Kipnis, in the ungrateful role of Hunding, makes a strong impact in Act 1. Melchior, as always, is vocally unrelentingly robust. Kerstin Thorborg is a commanding Fricka, clearly capable of making this Wotan cower. Vocally, she easily dominates Friedrich Schorr in their Act 2 encounter. By 1941 Schorr could only yell his upper notes, and even in the middle range his voice had lost its lustre. Helen Traubel, replacing Flagstad who had returned to Norway, is the unfaltering Brunnhilde and Astrid Varnay, making her Met. debut at 23, is the careful Sieglinde. The singers taking the parts of Brunnhilde’s numerous sisters are uncredited.
Although preceding by only seven weeks the “Rheingold” broadcast, the “Siegfried” 1937 broadcast presents Schorr in comparatively good voice. Much of the unique beauty of voice and the nobility of utterance for which he is famed can be heard here, although by Act 3 he sounds overtaxed. Melchior, refulgent and incisive, never sounds overtaxed in this his only known recorded performance in the role of Siegfried. After two acts of male singers (apart from the off-stage forest bird), Kerstin Thorborg’s Erda makes a great impact at the beginning of Act 3. Kirsten Flagstad in gloriously fresh voice can be heard as the awakening Brunnhilde in this final act. This is the only part of these broadcasts in which she features, but it clearly indicates why she created such a sensation in her early years at the Met. Amongst the other cast members, caterwauling rather than singing is produced by the singer allocated the part of Mime. Superb orchestral playing is heard in this “Siegfried” broadcast.
The “Gotterdammerung” broadcast is the earliest of all (1936 from the Met.). Artur Bodanzky is again the conductor, directing a “Gotterdammerung” which he has cut by about 45 minutes. The Prologue suffers from the poorest sound quality in all the broadcasts. I could not easily recognize Melchior here. Hearing him hold the last note in his duet with Brunnhilde to blood vessel bursting lenght identified him more than does anything else. The volatile Brunnhilde here is the Australian Marjorie Lawrence, another sensational singer by repute, but one whose stage career was cut short by poliomyelitis. Unfortunately most of what survives of her work in this broadcast is in the poorly recorded sections. In this earliest of all the broadcasts, Schorr is heard at his best, indeed some of his high notes are quite splendid.
If this addresses questions that browsers might have about the sound quality and the work of some of the eminent singers, then I shall only add that the formidable restoration work was done by several specialists, including Ward Maston.