An invaluable memento of Furtwangler's Wagner
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 05/28/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Since Amazon doesn't give a cast list for Furtwangler's 1954 Die Walkure, the only part of the Ring cycle he recorded in the studio, here it is:
Ferdinand Frantz Wotan ; Leonie Rysanek sop Sieglinde ; Martha Mödl sop Brünnhilde ; Gerda Schreyer sop Gerhilde ; Erika Köth sop Helmwige ; Judith Hellwig sop Ortlinde ; Margarete Klose mez Fricka ; Dagmar Schmedes mez Waltraute ; Dagmar Hermann mez Rossweisse ; Hertha Töpper mez Siegrune ; Johanna Blatter mez Grimgerde ; Ruth Siewert cont Schwertleite ; Ludwig Suthaus ten Siegmund ; Gottlob Frick bass Hunding
Furtwangler was only 67 when he died, which means that if he had lived another decade, he instead of Solti could have made the first complete Ring in stereo. As it is, this greatest of Wagner conductors only gave us a complete Ring in radio versions from Rome and La Scala that are grossly inferior in orchestral execution and sound. Which makes this studio Die Walkure finished a month before he died all the more precious for being with the Vienna Phil., an ensemble intimately familiar with Furtwangler's musicmaking.
His style here is the opposite of Solti's, and thirty years ago that fact drove me away from this recording. The mono sound is only serviceable. Modl was a far cry from Nilsson, Frantz wasn't Hotter, and Suthaus wasn't the most ringing of heldentenors vocally. I won't run down the list of complaints--they've been sounded for decades--because whatever you think of the cast, it represents a very good night at the Vienna State Opera in the post-war era. The star is Furtwangler, whose conducting eschews the external thrills that Solti injected into the score.
Instead, the listener must settle back to appreciate Furtwangler's often expansive tempos. Declining health contributed to moments of slack phrasing here and there, and some out-of-tune playing testifies to his growing deafness, but on the whole there is a flow and naturalness to the score you will hear nowhere else. This Walkure can't be heard as voices with orchestral underpinning; it's an orchestral reading joined by sympathetic singers. As such, it is very moving, for Furtwangler takes us into Wagner's humanity as no other conductor ever has. There's not a trace of rhetoric or grandiosity; every bar feels genuine.
For the moment this recording is out of print, but it can readily be found on the used market and no doubt will reappear one day on EMI. Vocally, no one could call Furtwangler's 1954 Walkure a first choice, but it is indispensable musically.
Must own? Perhaps not; must hear? Absolutely.
Bertrand Stclair | new york, new york United States | 04/27/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of the better -- perhaps I should say one of the best -- recordings of Die Walküre in existence, very distinct (for better and for worse) from other prominent readings. Amusingly, my appreciation of it stems from reasons diametrically opposed to those of the preceding reviewer, namely, I think that the singing is first-rate, which only goes to show that degustibus non disputandum est, but at least we both think it's a splendid night at the opera (okay, in the studio).
First the criticisms: Leonie Rysanek is not in good voice and is entirely unconvincing as Sieglinde. She is guttural and insecure at the top, and sounds old enough to be Siegmund's mother rather than his kid sister, although she was in her prime at the time of the recording (around thirty, I believe). More important, Furtwängler's conducting is eccentric: in places it is wonderfully dynamic, warm, and devoid of pomp, for instance, during the Ride that opens Act III; if this scene, so often performed as an instrumental warhorse in concerts, were always offered with such restraint and eloquence, it might yet regain its dignity and lose the ridicule. But elsewhere, the tempi are deadly slow, often in a misguided attempt to convey poignancy with stateliness. This is the case in Brünnhilde's and Siegmund's meeting in Act II, a pivotal scene within the Ring and surely among the most beautiful Wagner had even written - but only when executed faultlessly. The expansiveness of conductor's execution here not only robs the beautiful melodic line of continuity and the subtle orchestral textures of density, it also robs the scene of all urgency and angst. This is, after all, a moment filled with bravado from the get-go; in modern-speak, Brünnhilde is saying, "better accept your fate - don't you know who you're talking to?" and Siegmund replies, "Oh, I know very well who you are - and do I look like I'm trembling?" But shortly thereafter, when Siegmund learns that he cannot take his beloved with him to Valhalla, his response is one of extreme emotional violence and despair. He prefers to die ignobly than to abandon Sieglinde, in fact, he prefers to kill her in her sleep so that she won't be left at the mercy of Hunding after his death. But at the pace that this riposte is delivered here, it comes across more like a philosophical rumination than self-destructive rage and sorrow. (These interpretive variations are especially vivid on stage, where the slower version makes this otherwise frazzled duo - by the end of the scene, Brünnhilde will give up everything for Siegmund's cause - stand around as placidly as if they were barely awake while waiting for the other to pick up the thread of the debate.)
Now for the good stuff. I find the mono sound excellent, warm and immediate. Gottlob Frick is a great Hunding (he was one of the leading bassos of his time and was a distinguished Wotan). Martha Mödl is a superior Brünnhilde; interestingly, she isn't at her best when she first appears, but warms up as if it were a live performance; by the time of the abovementioned encounter with Siegmund, she is faultless, at first vivacious and proud, and maturing "before our eyes" as the depth of human emotions is revealed to her through the strange love of the damned couple. Ludwig Suthaus, as Siegmund, is wonderful: he goes from utmost tenderness to heroic determination seamlessly; he is somewhat less heroic than the usual heldentenor voice is expected to be, but the sweetness of his singing and the finesse of the interpretation largely compensate for this. He did not always sing this well, so "grab him while you can."
But the true crowning glory of the opera's vocal achievement is the noble Wotan of Ferdinand Frantz. He is sonorous and pure; the best way I can describe the proud yet honeyed quality of his voice is that it sounds akin to the almost-bel canto singing we've come to expect from fine tenors. He is by far my favorite Wotan among those employed by Karajan, Solti, Furtwängler, Krauss, and others from the Fifties' Bayreuth generation, and this particular rendering of Wotan's long monologue from Act II is the only one that I can actually listen to with pleasure, libretto in hand, as an isolated piece, all the way through. This tells you something crucial that might determine whether you wish to heed this review's advice or not: to wit, that I am not a fan of Hans Hotter, the Wotan par excellence. He may have been a finer actor (and his famous "go!", expectorated scornfully at poor Hunding, justifiably famous) but his nasality and, above all, his wobble, which was present even at the very beginning of his career and quickly became excruciating, have ruined entire Ring cycles for me.
With that in mind, remember this advice, an excellent advice if I do say so myself: never spend your hard-earned cash upon the recommendation of a reviewer until you have first browsed your library for existing copies of the musical work you wish to hear, or, failing that, browsed Amazon or the discount bin in your CD store for a used but good-enough-to-hear copy. Hear this Walküre first, decide to spend the money (or not) later, but do hear it.