DAVID MELLOR ALBUMS OF THE WEEK
Covent Garden’s current production of The Ring, indifferently received first time out, returns at the end of the month. A bit like Manchester United under Mourinho, the enthusiasm is still there and tickets are changing hands at high prices but, barring a miracle, Wagnerites are unlikely to be provided with entertainment anything more than a pale shadow of the standards of 50 years ago.
A glimpse of how things were in Wagner’s equivalent of the Matt Busby era comes from two superb live recordings from Bayreuth: a Tristan And Isolde from 1958 and The Flying Dutchman from 1959, both conducted with exceptional verve and brio by the young Wolfgang Sawallisch.
In Tristan, Birgit Nilsson, born 100 years ago and arguably the greatest of all 20th-century Wagner sopranos, is taken through the Liebestod in barely six minutes. It’s exhilarating, with Nilsson displaying the thrilling vocal resources that meant she could still sound wondrously fresh after more than three hours on stage.
Her Tristan, Wolfgang Windgassen, was sniffed at a bit in his own time. But what would we give to have a heldentenor like him these days; a bit like the young George Best suddenly returning to Old Trafford.
(Bayreuth 1958) Orfeo (3 CDs), out now
Josef Greindl is a splendid foil as King Marke, and an even better Daland in the three-act version of Dutchman, which Bayreuth’s presiding genius, Wagner’s sadly short-lived grandson, Wieland, put on the following year.
It’s the three-act version, not the single-act revision Wagner ultimately preferred (as do I), but this gothic Hammer horror show is compelling listening from first bar to last.
Greindl’s Daland is well
matched by George London’s Dutchman, while the young Leonie Rysanek, only 33 at the time, is a thrilling Senta.
Here the chorus, brought to the peak of perfection by Wilhelm Pitz, who also founded the Philharmonia Chorus in London, sounds riveting throughout.
These recordings really are live – no post-performance patching. Stage noises intrude constantly; the roar of the grease paint and the smell of the crowd is everywhere apparent. But for me it just makes the whole expe- rience even more exhilarating.
Decca has cleaned up one of Georg Solti’s finest Wagner recordings from Vienna in 1970, and both the sound and the singing are glorious, and well worth the price asked.
In Tannhäuser, Christa Ludwig – 90 this year – is the finest Venus on disc, and the