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Wagner at The Met

Release Date: 04/09/2013 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 542717   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Kirsten FlagstadLauritz MelchiorKarin BranzellEmanuel List,   ... 
Conductor:  Artur BodanzkyGeorge SzellErich LeinsdorfFritz Reiner,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera ChorusMetropolitan Opera Orchestra
Number of Discs: 25 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is required for any self-respecting Wagnerian.

Here is a collection of Wagner’s major operas, Parsifal excepted (was no decent performance available?), all taken from radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera archives, the earliest being a 1936 Götterdämmerung and the latest a 1954 Tannhäuser. I’d only heard the Walküre and the Siegfried previously and can vouch for the vastly improved sound of these “restored” CDs; of course some of the operas sound primitive, but collectors won’t mind—the voices, playing, and ideas come across clearly enough at all times. Those in the know will spot the cuts in performance (particularly in the Tristan) that were acceptable in those days (although
Read more Leinsdorf’s Walküre is given complete); maybe that’s why singers lasted longer? (Only partially a joke.)

Because this set is self-recommending for Wagnerians, a lengthy discussion of each opera is hardly needed. Suffice it to say that phrases like “Golden Age” are hard to avoid when one is listening to the likes of Melchior, Flagstad, and Schorr, but there are a few other singers that can be added to those three, especially for the novice unfamiliar with recordings made before the ‘50s or with voices of the past.

In no particular order, then, here are some astonishing things you will hear on these 25 CDs. The Höllander performance from December 30, 1950 will come as a revelation to those who only heard late Hans Hotter and/or Astrid Varnay. Hotter in particular is a masterful Dutchman, filled with sadness, rage, and hopelessness, all of which are so explosive in the final scene that the listener may want to take cover. The voice had not yet developed the “woolly” quality it took on a few years later. Varnay never had a sound that was filled with innocence or loveliness, but here (and in Lohengrin, see below) she scales back her huge sound and we wind up with a moving and solidly sung performance.

Set Svanholm is the superb Erik. A tenor unknown to me, Thomas Hayward, is a mellifluous and urgent Steersman, and Sven Nilsson’s Daland stops this character from being the usual bore he tends to be. Fritz Reiner leads a tight performance—in three separate acts—proving that the Met Orchestra could be superb 60 years ago given the correct leadership.

The Tannhäuser (Dresden version), from January 9, 1954, is equally taut under the baton of George Szell. Varnay is a grand, seductive Venus, the lovely, under-recorded Margaret Harshaw is a nourishing, solid Elisabeth (sample), and Ramon Vinay sings the title role with clarion style and utter tirelessness, if not the greatest subtlety. He gets better as the opera progresses. George London is the expressive, warm Wolfram. The Lohengrin (January 2, 1943) under Erich Leinsdorf moves freely and naturally with Varnay sounding (almost) girlish as Elsa, and Lauritz Melchior positively towering as the Swan Knight. Kerstin Thorberg is desperate as Ortrud, with the top of her voice raw; Alexander Sved’s Telramund manages to be both cowering and threatening at the same time. The whole performance is a wonder of storytelling.

The Meistersinger (January 10, 1953) has some odd casting, but for the most part is very impressive. Reiner is again at the helm. Even the overture augurs well, with textures amazingly clear given the age of the recording (sample), and each scene (though there are cuts galore, equaling about 30 minutes) grows organically into the next. Hans Hopf, a mostly far-too-beefy tenor, is customarily unsubtle, but he sings as lyrically as he can under Reiner and delivers an excellent Prize Song (albeit shorn of one verse). Still, he doesn’t please much. Victoria de los Angeles is the Eva, a role she sang only a few times, and she’s just gorgeous; you would not think her slender sound would go particularly well with the dense tone of Paul Schöffler, but the latter’s artistry, sincerity, and intelligence helps win the day. He’s clearly among a handful of truly great Sachs. Josef Greindl is a poor Pogner, Richard Holm a good enough David.

And then, of course, there’s Tristan. Artur Bodanzky leads a tense performance and he is surrounded by magnificence. The sonics on this April 18, 1938 performance are not up to par, but are definitely listenable and worth fighting through at their worst. Melchior and Flagstad, still young, not only sing just about perfectly, but they know this opera: the inevitability of their situation, the love-hate, the love-death, the wild passion. Though cut, the Love Duet shimmers and burns; Flagstad is thrilling in the Narrative and Curse and rapturous in the Liebestod. Melchior is epic throughout. Julius Huehn, rarely heard, is a Kurwenal of burly sensitivity (forgive the oxymoron); Emanuel List’s Marke, even with bits eliminated from his Act 2 scene, is towering and pitiable. Karin Branzell’s Brangaene rounds out the perfection.

The Ring Cycle is full of surprises. Fritz Stiedry leads an eventful Rheingold (January 27, 1951) with a quite remarkable Hotter—arrogant, authoritative, full of himself, and with a thoroughly focused tone. Margaret Harshaw, now in her mezzo guise, is a more mellow Fricka than usual; Set Svanholms’s Loge is a luxury, Karin Branzell’s Erda is weak; Jarmila Novotna’s Freia sounds like she could use some of her own youth-fruit. Lawrence Davidson’s Alberich is not as wretched as preferred, but Leslie Chabay sings Mime with great “face”. The Donner of Osie Hawkins is so bad that it’s worth paying attention to for a laugh, but the Rhinemaidens are excellent.

For Walküre we go back 11 years, to February 17, 1940, with a perfect cast. Leinsdorf leads Melchior, Flagstad, and List in white-hot performances—Melchior’s endless cries of “Wälse” must be heard to be believed (sample), and the fact that he can follow a few minutes later with a gentle “Winterstürme” is staggering. Marjorie Lawrence, whose career was cut short by polio, is a breathtaking, feminine Sieglinde. Julius Huehn’s Wotan is vocally rock-solid, impressive in the second act, but a bit reserved in his Farewell. List is the fear-inducing Hunding and Branzell the hectoring, secure Fricka.

Melchior and Flagstad are the Siegfried and Brünnhilde of the January 30, 1937 Siegfried under Artur Bodanzky, along with baritone Friedrich Schorr as the Wanderer. They are are simply god-like in their vocal splendor and insightful characterization. Schorr’s interactions with Mime in Act 1 are playful and snide; his call to Erda (a fine Kerstin Thorberg) is epic. Edward Habich as Alberich and Emanuel List as Fafner round out a cast that probably has never been equaled.

Marjorie Lawrence is the glorious, womanly Brünnhilde of the January 11, 1936 Götterdämmerung, again under an exciting Bodanzky. This was her debut in the role and she is thrilling—the notes tell us that she jumped onto a horse bareback and rode it backwards toward the pyre at the opera’s close. She and Melchior sing as if they mean every word and as if the music is easy. It’s a fantastic performance. Habich is Alberich again; Ludwig Hofmann’s Hagen is nasty and his presence is felt even when he’s silent. Schorr is the Gunther and you’ll never hear it sung with more voice and character.

The packaging is strange: each opera is in a separate, folding cardboard container, very slim, with a sleeve for each CD. The problem is that it’s so well designed that you can’t get the CDs out of their sleeves without tearing the cardboard. The booklet has lots of pictures, an unnecessary note from Peter Gelb, complete cast and track listings, notes on the performances, and act-by-act synopses. What can I say? This is required for any self-respecting Wagnerian.

-- Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Kirsten Flagstad (Soprano), Lauritz Melchior (Tenor), Karin Branzell (Mezzo Soprano),
Emanuel List (Bass), Julius Huehn (Baritone)
Conductor:  Artur Bodanzky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857-1859; Germany 
Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
Performer:  George London (Bass Baritone), Margaret Harshaw (Soprano), Ramon Vinay (Tenor),
Astrid Varnay (Soprano), Jerome Hines (Bass)
Conductor:  George Szell
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845/1861; Germany 
Siegfried by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Karl Laufkötter (Tenor), Lauritz Melchior (Tenor), Kirsten Flagstad (Soprano),
Friedrich Schorr (Baritone), Eduard Habich (Baritone)
Conductor:  Artur Bodanzky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871; Germany 
Date of Recording: January 30, 1937 
Venue:  Metropolitan Opera, NYC 
Lohengrin by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Alexander Svéd (Baritone), Kerstin Thorborg (Alto), Astrid Varnay (Soprano),
Lauritz Melchior (Tenor), Norman Cordon (Bass)
Conductor:  Erich Leinsdorf
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1846-1847; Germany 
Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Friedrich Schorr (Baritone), Dorothee Manski (Soprano), Kathryn Meisle (Mezzo Soprano),
Lauritz Melchior (Tenor), Marjorie Lawrence (Soprano), Ludwig Hofmann (Bass)
Conductor:  Artur Bodanzky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871-1874; Germany 
Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Kirsten Flagstad (Soprano), Lauritz Melchior (Tenor), Karin Branzell (Mezzo Soprano),
Emanuel List (Bass), Julius Huehn (Baritone)
Conductor:  Erich Leinsdorf
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1856; Germany 
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Gerhard Pechner (Baritone), Victoria de los Angeles (Soprano), Paul Schöffler (Baritone),
Hans Hopf (Tenor), Josef Greindl (Bass)
Conductor:  Fritz Reiner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862-1867; Germany 
Der fliegende Holländer by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Sven Nilsson (Bass), Thomas Hayward (Tenor), Hans Hotter (Baritone),
Astrid Varnay (Soprano), Set Svanholm (Tenor)
Conductor:  Fritz Reiner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1841/1852; Germany 
Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Lawrence Davidson (Baritone), Set Svanholm (Tenor), Hans Hotter (Baritone),
Margaret Harshaw (Soprano)
Conductor:  Fritz Stiedry
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Metropolitan Opera Chorus,  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  3 Customer Reviews )
 Old Met Stuff July 13, 2015 By Charles Thompson (La Mesa, CA) See All My Reviews "I drop the rating one star because of the obvious audio difficulties in this set. That said, the set is worthwhile because it gives a look at the Met's past glories and allows therefore comparison of it with newer artists. I wanted this set because I own the old Naxos Siegfried (no longer available here) sans the last disk. For me, there is - and probably never will be again - anything like the Flagstad voice. Hers, along with all the other great artists represented in the set, make this a worthwhile purchase. I would rather hear a "scratchy" Flagstad recording than any more recent Wagnerian - even Nilsson - represented with all the modern techniques." Report Abuse
 Important performances marred by poor CD transfer April 29, 2015 By Peter D. (Jersey City, NJ) See All My Reviews "The extensive review included with the listing of this item at its ArkivMusik web page says far more than I could about the performances from one of the Metropolitan Opera's "Golden Ages." (As for Parsifal, even though it was presented every Good Friday--with at most a few other performances each season--until the onset of Rudolf Bing's tenure in 1950, it was broadcast only three times in that era, one of them being just two days before the Walkuere included in this set. There may have been no usable archival materials to make it includable in the set.) However, what that review failed to mention is that there is an audible break in the sound at every track break -- it sounds as if the CD has simply stopped playing, until a half-second or more later, the music resumes. I never went to the Old Met, so I don't know whether the extreme deadness--no resonance at all--of the hall is how it actually sounded (though I expect not, and I haven't noticed it in the one or two archival recordings that were broadcast on Saturdays when they didn't happen to have a matinee during the season). I suspect it's an effect of misguided attempts to remove noise and hiss from the old media--the notes mention that at least one of the sets of transcription disks had been lying around for decades and needed to be cleaned of lots of grime, which suggests they were in good condition (not scratched or anything) but simply reflected the limitations of broadcast and recording media of the time. Removing the "noise" also removed the ambiance." Report Abuse
 Une leçon de chant wagnérien February 20, 2015 By François ANTONIAZZI (LAUSANNE, Schweiz) See All My Reviews "Une merveilleuse collection de huit opéras de Wagner, enregistrés juste avant et après la guerre. Indispensable pour tout wagnérien souhaitant entendre des interprétations authentiques des œuvres du maître de Bayreuth, principalement du Ring des Nibelungen. Lauritz Melchior et Kirsten Flagstad sont l'incarnation même de Siegfried et de Brünnhilde. Comparés à eux, les chanteurs actuels font pâle figure, leurs moyens vocaux étant parfois inférieurs aux exigences des rôles qu'ils interprètent dans des mises en scène souvent extravagantes. Marjorie Lawrence dans Götterdämmerung, quelques années avant son attaque de poliomyélite, mérite une mention toute particulière, ainsi qu'Artur Bodanzki, un chef inspiré, malheureusement oublié de nos jours" Report Abuse
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