I have to say that Sony Classical has been on a roll for about the last 30 days or so. No sooner had I wrapped up my disc-by-disc account of their release of A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, an eight-CD anthology of all the recordings for Columbia Records made by pianist Oscar Levant, which was released on August 31, than I was ready to launch into Birgit Nilsson: The Great Live Recordings, released exactly one week later in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Nilsson’s birth on May 17, 2018. Readers who recall my somewhat chilly reaction to the Warner Classics 42-CD anthology of remastered live recordings of Maria Callas may think I have it in for opera sopranos. This would be the fallacy of judging an entire category singers on the basis of a single vocalist.
For my money, Nilsson was an instance of the opera-sopranos category that not only represented the category in the best possible light but also served as a model for subsequent generations of vocalists. Sadly, I only saw her on the stage once, during her final season with the Metropolitan Opera, when she gave her interpretation of the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow) an unforgettable run for her money (and ours). On the other hand I still remember my first encounter with her on an RCA recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni on which she sang the role of Donna Anna in opposition to Cesare Siepi in the title role.
Mozart is not to be encountered on this recent Sony release. Indeed, the 31 CDs in this collection are rather unevenly balanced. Seventeen of the discs are devoted to Richard Wagner, two consisting of excerpts and all of the others accounting for complete live opera performances. Richard Strauss holds second place with nine CDs, all complete live opera recordings. That leaves five CDs in the “other” category accounting for three operas: Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio. I shall use these three categories to account for the Sony collection in three articles; and it would be unfair to Nilsson if I did not begin with Wagner.
Even here, however, the Wagner recordings are not particularly balanced. There are three different recordings of Tristan und Isolde in the collection. Some might view this as overkill; but each recording was made in a different decade, encouraging the attentive listener to use this one opera as a benchmark against which Nilsson could bring a broader base of experience to each successive performance. The earliest recording comes from the 1957 Bayreuth Festival with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting. The remaining two were made with Karl Böhm conducting, the earlier at the Vienna State Opera on December 17, 1967 and the later at the Chorégies d’Orange festival held in the south of France on July 7, 1973. (Readers may recall that the recording of Böhm conducting Nilsson in this opera made by Deutsche Grammophon (DG) was made at the 1966 Bayreuth Festival.)
As might be guessed, one encounters a goodly number of Tristans across all of these performances. Wolfgang Windgassen sings the role at both of the Bayreuth recordings (including the DG release). The Vienna State Opera Tristan is Jess Thomas, while the most recent recording, made at Orange, presents Jon Vickers. All this makes for a healthy foundation for those interested in comparative musicology. My own personal approach to listening is not that quite extreme, but I suspect that I shall be returning to these recordings for the different perspectives they offer.
Nevertheless, I have to confess a certain delight when I discovered that I had already encountered the most recent of these Nilsson recordings. It turns out that a video recording was made of the performance at the Orange Festival, which was released as a DVD by Kultur Video in 2002. (I had previously owned a Japanese-produced videotape and acquired this DVD when shedding my collection of videotapes.) From a technical point of view, the CD is far more satisfying than the video; but, even if both images and sound are inconsistent on that DVD, there is still much to be gained from watching the chemistry between Nilsson and Vickers, rather than just listening to it.
The Wagner portion of the Sony collection includes only two other complete operas: a Lohengrin from the 1954 Bayreuth Festival conducted by Eugen Jochum and a Metropolitan Opera Die Walküre recorded on March 1, 1969 with Herbert von Karajan conducting. I have to say that my attitude towards Lohengrin has more to do with how it is staged than how I feel about Wagner’s role as a composer. Nevertheless, this is the earliest Wagner recording in the collection; and, if one wishes to talk about chemistry, Nilsson’s interactions with Windgassen’s Lohengrin definitely foreshadow the 1957 Tristan recording.
Where Walküre is concerned, I must confess that I prefer my Ring operas in the context of the full cycle. Nevertheless, the Ring gets the most attention in the two CDs of excerpts. Indeed, the earliest recording in the entire collection has Nilsson singing Brünnhilde in the final scene of Götterdämmerung in Swedish at a concert in Stockholm. (This is followed by a German account of the same scene at the Sydney Opera House.) There is also a recording from the 1957 Bayreuth Festival of Nilsson singing the “Winterstürme” duet from the first act of Walküre with Ramón Vinay as Siegmund. This is coupled with the duet of Brünnhilde’s awakening at the end of Siegfried, which has Nilsson joined again by Windgassen in the title role. This was conducted by Otmar Suitner at the 1967 Bayreuth Festival.
All this amounts to the fact that attentive listeners are more likely to enjoy all that is offered by what is present, rather than grousing about what is missing!