Gramophone review by Mike Ashman:
<< La Nilsson: Complete Decca, Philips and DG Recordings
This anniversary set places under one attractive, inevitably large yet manageably portable roof all of Birgit Nilsson’s major-label recordings (the Fanciulla del West, Turandot and Aida have been borrowed from Warner Classics to join the three companies principally credited). There are also DVDs of the BBC’s 1965 The Golden Ring and Brian Large’s film of her Metropolitan Opera Elektra in 1980.
Although Nilsson’s reservations about the voice/instrument balances on some of her leading Decca opera sets are now well known, we should remember that the Solti Ring and the two Strauss one-acters are quintessential gramophone products of their time, the first golden age of the stereo LP, made by an opera-devoted team of producer/engineers keen to show off their new medium – admittedly being more interventionist than they were later to become – as the message for hearing complete works at home.
This great run of German dramatic opera for the 1960s Decca team will, I suspect, remain Nilsson’s ticket to immortality on disc, whatever the counter-attractions of the live performances coming later in the year from Sony Classical. With this box you can once again set the soprano’s Brünnhilde live on Wagner’s own stage with an arguably more giving conductor (Böhm) and orchestra alongside the explosive and well-drilled achievements under Solti before the microphones of Vienna’s Sofiensaal. Both, I think, are essential in terms of exploring, in tandem, the work and the voice of its leading lady. There’s no one way, luckily, and you shouldn’t deny yourself – to take just one plum – the push and pull of Nilsson’s argument in Walküre Act 3 with the veteran Hans Hotter’s Wotan just because it is not part of one complete performance.
The 1960s Decca Strauss pair of Salome and Elektra remain as hot as the day they were first released. The former may be too extreme in terms of intervention from the production desk – especially if you recall that Maria Cebotari (for Clemens Krauss live, various sources) seemed to be able to do a teenager-of-death voice without the colouring of the acoustic around her – but it is a remarkably spooky evocation of the work’s atmosphere. And Elektra surely remains Nilsson’s most compelling single recording, a tour de force of strength on the verge of a nervous breakdown, brilliantly accompanied and supported.
Elsewhere there are treasures that have always been with us thanks to constant reissues (the Böhm Bayreuth Tristan, a performance clearly superior to its earlier Decca rival, also here and reviewed, separately, on page 93) or have been rather forgotten – the Scandinavian song recital that Nilsson herself valued highly. Do try to hear from it Rangström’s ‘Sköldmön’ with its top notes matching ‘the Valkyrie’ of its title. There’s also a kind of ‘what Birgit did next’ Wagner annexe – most of Parsifal Act 2 under Leif Segerstam (the diva rather cautious with colour and expression), the Wesendonck Lieder and arias from the early major operas under Colin Davis and a less than thrillingly conducted Tannhäuser under Otto Gerdes with the soprano in the double role of Venus and Elisabeth, which apparently she much enjoyed.
Of course, even across a range of material with a consistently high performance standard from its solo star, not even Nilsson can ‘do it’ every time. Where she wasn’t 100 per cent familiar with a character or a work, she could opt on a recording for a more ‘old style’ neutral presence and profile to match her inevitable vocal security. The Tosca disappoints because Nilsson remains a grand prima donna, obviously a relevant attribute but one that, in this case, ignores most of the sensuality and humour that Callas brought to the part. The Webers (Freischütz and Oberon) – which we tend to think of as trainee Wagner – are exquisitely vocalised but lacking in engagement with her lovers or companions. And it should be noted that the Met Elektra film, while certainly important as a souvenir, preserves a voice (but not an actress) that has run its majestic course.
However, the grander Verdis (Ballo, Aida, Macbeth) do come off as convincing music drama rather than a mere Gastspiel away from Wagner and Strauss. Her Amelia really suffers in scenes with Giulietta Simionato’s Ulrica or Cornell MacNeil’s rather bumpy Renato and she certainly fires up Giuseppe Taddei’s admirable Macbeth to seek power. A well-rehearsed 1962 Decca recital under Argeo Quadri shouldn’t be ignored for its high tension ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ (pity there’s no complete Leonora) or ‘O don fatale’.
Each recording has its original sleeve artwork. There are no texts or translations, but a good-sized book with recording details (a few errors here) and endearing choice of photos. A fine chance to study a great era of music-making en bloc. >>