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Erich Leinsdorf’s comments about Die Walküre

Erich Leinsdorf’s comments about Die Walküre


When I was twenty and thirty years old, my admiration for the miraculous scores of Wagner’s Tetralogy, known as The Ring, was not matched by my attitude toward the drama itself. When I was forty I had very little active contact with opera, since I was then mainly concerned with symphonic music. At that point I was certain that Wagner’s Ring would survive largely in the concert hall.

 In the autumn of 1961, however, when this recording was made, I restudied the entire Ring for the revival at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and found to my utter amazement that the drama itself was as timely and as keen a series of human situations as can be found anywhere in the theatre.

 Sieglinde’s few words early in the first act, “This house and this woman are Hunding’s,” are testimony to the kind of sad marriage which later in the third scene she further describes: “He took a woman who, unasked, was given him by traders.” Little more is said about her married life, yet it would be difficult to find in contemporary drama, with its most minute and detailed descriptions, a more eloquent evocation of a loveless marriage and of a woman’s obligation to satisfy the desires of an unattractive and brutal man.

 If one reads in modern language the scene between Fricka and Wotan and forgets that they are gods, what will appear is a great matrimonial conflict during which a strict and starchy wife calls her over-imaginative husband to order. She wins completely and ends the scene in typical woman’s fashion by telling Brünnhilde, “Let him tell you what he decided.” We have just witnessed the manner in which Fricka attacked Wotan’s decision and made him swear to change sides in the forthcoming combat, in which Siegmund is to fall instead of Hunding. And yet, like any wife whose nagging has been successful, she insists on proclaiming that the decision was entirely the man’s.

 The Ring Tetralogy is full of exciting drama which has been obscured to some extent for the public by the unfortunate mythological involvement. The question of language is also a factor because Wagner just cannot be translated for singing purposes. In this connection, however, it is rewarding to have, as in this recording, a good new English translation for reading and study purposes.

 I do hope that this recording and others of Wagner’s great cycle will bring to our generation a more intimate acquaintance with these wondrous works. I know that it is increasingly difficult from the point of view of economics to produce these works, and their performance will not become more frequent as time goes on. If my memory serves me correctly, the last complete Ring cycle on the North American continent, outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera, was given in 1936 in San Francisco. The reasons for the Ring’s “infrequent performance,” if that be the right word, are simple to find.

 Wagner himself never thought of these works as part of a repertory system but conceived them for performance under special festival conditions in a theatre built expressly to permit the realization of his musical and scenic ideas. Our own experience at the Metropolitan in the winter of 1961-62 showed that even a well-equipped 0pera house begins to ache in the joints from the terrific strain to which its personnel is subjected by the Ring. The production difficulties, even for a modern theatre with the last word in technical equipment, are stupendous. Since 1951 the prodigious publicity of Wagner’s grandsons has made everyone aware that Bayreuth has found an entirely new style for producing the Ring, and managers of theatres owning realistic sets now feel a little sheepish at the thought of exhibiting a tree where Wagner requires a tree, for feat that it might look like a tree and not be symbolic enough.

 Be that as it may, all music lovers who do not know the Ring are missing one of the sublime thrills and, I dare say, lasting impressions, of their lives. Maybe I should not say “all music lovers.” There are indeed many who have a profound inner resistance to Wagner and much other romantic music. Conversion is a delicate subject in any field, and I wonder if there is any way to make anti-Wagnerites into even tolerant listeners.

 What should really contribute greatly to a revival of these works in their totality through records is their modernism. The Leitmotif is a psychological device of the first order. Knowing the motives, the listener not only recognizes them, but through them understands what the characters feel and think, as well as what Wagner wishes to convey directly to the hearer’s mind at a given moment.

 Much has been said, and more is being said every day, about the length of Wagner’s Ring. No doubt our public is not exactly the same as those patient pilgrims who walk up Festival Hill in Bayreuth on summer afternoons. Yet, as I write this, I have in mind a recent New York audience which remained in the opera house at 12:35 AM after a Walküre performance to shower its gratitude on the performers.

 There are indeed many, many, many people who love these works, and I am convinced that there are many more who long for them. Our generation of concert goers, of opera lovers, of music listeners, is if anything more romantic than the last one. Notwithstanding all the clamor about electronic music, musique concrète and complete serialization, the public is fundamentally romantic, and is moved by sentiment rather than by systems.

 I do not believe in making cuts in any of these four works. Some of the very greatest plays, scores and novels contain passages which the critical mind may find over-long or superfluous. There are very few passages in Die Walküre or any of the other Ring dramas which can be cut without inflicting serious wounds to the body of the work. But, even if I concede that a cut here or there might be possible, it would still gravely impair the proportions of these masterpieces. I believe more in the instinct of the genius than in the strictures of the detached observer. For this reason the recording we made is unabridged and unexpurgated.

 Anyone undertaking to acquaint himself with these works should know and probably will find out soon enough that they are conceived and built on a gigantic scale. This is part of their essence, as you will see if you play the Ride of the Valkyries and the Magic Fire Music as concert excerpts. If you wish ten minutes of Wagner, the excerpts have their place. If, on the other hand, you wish the entire drama, then you must play it unabridged.

 As you listen to this score, you enter a forest with very tall, very old trees and you ascend a rock which is more barren and higher and more frightening than the Alps. At the end you watch a fire which is grander than the burning of Rome. This is dream stuff, with the deepest instincts of love, hate and violence unleashed, speaking a language of passion, romanticism, enchantment. I envy all those who have yet to make its acquaintance.
Booklet essay written for the 1962 LP release of this Die Walküre recording.

Erich Leinsdorf (1912–1993) was an Austrian-born American conductor, who first came to prominence as assistant to Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival from 1934 to 1937. Starting in 1938, he began conducting at the Metropolitan Opera, becoming particularly noted for conducting the works of Wagner; he became head conductor of the Met’s German Wing in 1939. Operatic record collectors will recognize him as the conductor of released Met broadcasts of Die Walküre from 1940 featuring Kirsten Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, Karin Branzell, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr and Emanuel List; another 1940 broadcast featuring the same cast except Marjorie Lawrence and Kerstin Thorborg for Flagstad and Branzell, respectively; and from 1941 featuring Helen Traubel, Astrid Varnay, Kerstin Thorborg, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr and Alexander Kipnis. He led the Cleveland Orchestra as Music Director for three years commencing in 1943 (although interrupted by miliary service), Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1947-1955, and Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra between 1962 and 1969. He conducted and recorded with many other major orchestras, world-wide. For RCA Victor, in addition to Die Walküre, he conducted complete opera recordings of, among others, Lucia di Lammermoor, Tosca, Madama Butterfly (twice), Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, La Bohème, Macbeth, Turandot, Un ballo in maschera, The Barber of Seville, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Cosi fan tutte, Die tote Stadt, Aida, and Il tabarro, as well as making countless orchestral recordings, including the complete symphonies of Mozart.

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This recording was made in the Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London by the great Decca team of Ken Wilkinson and Eric Smith – who was John Culshaw’s deputy – for RCA, whom Decca had entered into an agreement with which allowed RCA artists to be recorded in Europe using Decca personnel and equipment. The first of which was the July/August 1957, Rome, Previtali, La Gioconda and Decca also pressed the RCA America back-catalogue and stereo LPs for the British market.

Turning to the sound. As Mike Gray points out in his brilliant Decca Sound booklet ‘The Decca Sound: Secrets of the Engineers’, just prior to recording Walkure they had recorded Alcina at the same venue, where the singers were confronted with six microphones. The sound on this is very different to the Walküre because the much smaller forces were situated on the hall’s proscenium-arch stage, whereas the orchestra was on the hall floor and the singers on the stage in the Wagner. And as one can see from the Decca LP set booklet – from which the Leinsdorf blog also derives – the stage area had multiple mikes and the floor was marked with numbered squares. In other words Decca were using an early version of their Sonicstage recording system, made famous by the Solti Ring, hence the wind and thunder sound-effects and the singers moving back and forth on the stage.

One can also see there are three wide-spaced mikes (Decca used Neumanns) mounted above the orchestra in what was called an open Decca tree. However Ken Wilkinson – who came to stereo late – often used five as opposed to three mikes and the less-than-crisp analogue photos seem to show what looks like two others on either side of the centre one, which gives the full, five mike, Wilkinson, Decca tree. So this is definitely not a purist’s three mike set-up.

As with all Decca Soundstage recordings the actual sound will divide opinion. Using a first label UK, 5 LP set as the reference (LDS 6706 1-5), because there is a proper stage – as you get in an opera house – the singers are very clearly above and behind the orchestra. This effect is heightened by the minimal use of risers, so only the heads of the brass choir – split equally left and right – are above the edge of the stage.

The image also has loads of space, with slightly more reverberation around the singers, but you could say that’s what you would hear in the hall, where the stage area would sound different, however in Wotan’s Farewell, when he summons Loge from the back of the stage, there is added reverb. Clarity and definition are excellent, you can hear that additional horns, thirteen, as opposed to the usual none, are used in the Ride of the Valkyries and the brass section has superb weight and presence. Being high-quality analogue the woodwind, strings and cymbals sound real and the vocal timbres are exceptionally vivid. On the down-side the timpani are often inaudible, but as you get exactly the same in the extremely well-recorded, live 1962, Met performance, mentioned below, this was clearly down to Leinsdorf.

For the digital comparison, I am not aware of any previous high-resolution version, so the official Decca, CD quality one was streamed, which is – as these things go – very good, with plenty of weight and power. When you listen to the HDTT, DSD256 remastering, everything you hear on the LPs is retained, even if the image is slightly less full and doesn’t have quite the open-mouthed magic of the LPs. Compared to the CDs there is greater depth, bloom, clarity and impact, the acoustic is far more tangible and you seem to be in the hall, which makes the HDTT the very clear winner, which leads us to the performance.

In his blog/booklet Erich Leinsdorf talks about not making cuts. To the modern listener this will be nonsensical. Who, in their right mind, cuts Wagner? Well, if you listen to the celebrated live, 1950, Furtwangler, La Scala Ring (Pristine), unforgivably Wotan’s sublime Act 2 Narration, around which the entire cycle revolves, was cut, as was his confrontation with Siegfried in the third part of the Ring. When Barbirolli conducted the New York Philharmonic, Flagstad and Laholm in the Second Act of Tristan & Isolde (WHRA) in 1939, it was the first American broadcast of the complete work and it is to Leinsdorf’s credit that when he conducted the complete Ring at the Met in 1962 (Pristine) there were no cuts.

Of the singers, the Valkyries, including a young Josephine Veasey, are excellent. As always, David Ward (who would become one of the great Wotans) as Hunding uses vivid word-painting to create a multi-dimensional character. Some commentators worry that his tone lacks Gottlob Frick’s granite-like blackness (Solti et al), but he still has considerable presence. Rita Gorr, who was a marvellous Amneris on the Decca/RCA, Solti Aida, is a rough and ready Fricka, who has nothing to say about the character and rarely sings below forte. George London as Wotan is reminiscent of Ferdinand Frantz, who appeared on Furtwangler’s Rome and La Scala Rings and his studio HMV version, in that his voice is rock-solid, but he lacks the tonal and dynamic shading, variation and innigkeit needed to convey Wotan’s despair and torment in his Narration, Farewell and his son Siegmund’s death. It isn’t a bad performance; it just isn’t a great one.

As you might expect from arguably the greatest of all Brünnhildes, Birgit Nilsson blazes her way through the role, completely at ease with the leaps and exposed high-notes of her Act 2 entry, Hoyotoho! Hoyotoho! and there is plenty of feeling in her encounters with her father, Sieglinde and Siegmund. But compared to her in the live Met Ring mentioned above and even more so the Solti (Decca) and live Bayreuth 1966, Bohm (Philips) versions (she felt the latter was her finest Brünnhilde), there isn’t the same depth of emotion or ‘face’ in her portrayal.

The distinguished Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn was a noted Sieglinde, who eloquently portrays her ecstatic love in Act 1, almost deranged horror at what she has done in Act 2 and rises gloriously to O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichste Maid! (Track 34) where the transcendentally great Redemption motif makes its first and only appearance prior to the last act of Götterdämmerung. However her vibrato is very broad, which might worry some more than others and occasionally her tone has a rough edge.

With regard to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose Siegmund has rarely been equalled, let alone surpassed, all one can say is that he dissects the text with lieder like precision using a huge range of dynamic and tonal shading, beautifully moulds the melodic lines and encompasses every facet of the doomed heroes character. This is great singing-acting worthy of comparison with Callas and Chaliapin.

The playing of the LSO is certainly brilliant, even if they can’t quite equal the tonal splendour of the VPO for Solti or BPO for Karajan (DG).

Finally there is Leinsdorf, who drives his way through the score with ruthless efficiency. There is nothing wrong with this, a far greater opera conductor, Karl Bohm, certainly didn’t hang around in Wagner, but his pacing and tempo variation in the first Act can’t compare with Walter in 1935 (HMV), Furtwangler, or Toscanini and the NBC SO live at Carnegie Hall in February 1941 in Scene 3 (Pristine) and like London he consistently lacks spirituality. In effect this is two-dimensional as opposed to multi-faceted Wagner conducting.

Having said that, the cumulative effect is actually considerable and this is one of those recordings whose sum is greater than its parts and in this superb transfer should really be on the shelves of every Wagnerian and/or those interested in the history of multi-track recording.

Rob Pennock

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