Kirsten Flagstad and Georges Sebastian = WAGNER: Wesendonck-Lieder; Isoldes Erzaehlung und Fluch; Isoldes Klage und Liebestod; Bruennhildes Schlussgesang; Tristan Prelude; R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs (3); Monolog – with Berlin State Opera Orch. – Audite

by | Oct 28, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Kirsten Flagstad and Georges Sebastian = WAGNER: Wesendonck-Lieder; Isoldes Erzaehlung und Fluch; Isoldes Klage und Liebestod; Bruennhildes Schlussgesang from Goetterdaemmerung; Tristan Prelude; R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs–three songs; Monolog from Elektra – Kirsten Flagstad, soprano/Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Georges Sebastian

Audite 23.416 (2 CDs) 54:38; 42:17 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Mezzo-soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) owned “the voice of the century” for generations of music lovers; her strength, throaty volume, and purity of line a consistently thrilling experience for every connoisseur of operatic repertory. By the time of these May 9 and 11 1952 inscriptions with Georges Sebastian (1903-1989), Flagstad’s upper high register had lost some breadth–especially in high C, which must sacrifice the first of the Four Last Songs–but the steady aristocratic projection and seamless fluency had not diminished. All the music appears in actual performance from the Titania-Palast, Berlin, the venue of so many musical experiences led by the likes of Furtwaengler, Fricsay, and Knappertsbusch.

The collaboration on the five Wesendonck Lieder conveys the ecstatic joys and pains of love, rife with presages of Tristan und Isolde. Flagstad’s voice against the low strings and solo violin of “Im Treibhaus” emanates varied colors, beautifully controlled, the slightly modal melodic arches each landing expressively in the middle of the note. The opening thrust of “Schmerzen” carries us upward, the brightness of the voice fully consonant with Sebastian’s evocation from brass and woodwinds. The sunset quality of “Traeume” weaves a magical space in our souls as Flagstad inexorably graduates the melodic arch in volume and breadth, her nuances coloring rapturous visions of Spring and the New Day.

Sebastian sets the tone for the Tristan group with an expansive Prelude to Act I, given at a tempo thoroughly reminiscent of Hans Knappertsbusch’s stretched arches of sound, the A minor sequences often elongated and layered with a rich panoply of brass. Isolde’s Narrative and Curse (Act I, Scene 3) takes place as Isolde relates to Brangaene her original intention to revenge Morold’s death, sword in hand, upon the ailing Tristan. Rarely have such conflicted emotions found musical equivalents. She transitions from B Major to C Major to capture Tristan’s gaze, not at the sword, but directly at her eyes, the word “Augen” set as a falling octave in the voice, piano, over the C Major chord, moving to an E intoxicated with the love potion. The Act III “complaint and love-death” recaps the Prelude motifs with added harp, the bliss of pained love, culminating in the throes of the Act II Liebesnacht–French horn and harp–now embracing its fulfillment in erotic death that conceives itself a blazing dawn.

History records that Flagstad and Wilhelm Furtwaengler gave the world premier of the Strauss Four Last Songs from the Royal Albert Hall, London 22 May 1950 (Testament SBT 1410), recorded in poor sound. For this vibrant performance with Georges Sebastian, Flagstad opens with the third song “Beim Schlafenghehen,” whose tessitura has Flagstad climb with violin obbligato in a primal ecstasy or “marriage” bed of sleep, pleasant dreams and longing desire. “September” rings with the composer’s equivalent of Brahms melancholy, the French horn and violin echoing the “clouded eyes” of enchantment. “Im Abendrot” after Eichendorff proffers a sensually varied palette of panoramic colors, from the sweeping orchestral opening to the cry for a still, quieter world of peace and aerial dark beauty that asks itself if such longings desire death. The quotation from Death and Transfiguration proves emotionally and dramatically apt.

In the Monologue of Elektra, she fixes her gaze upon her brother Orestes, desperate to preserve the vision of her brother’s features, the inconceivable dream-scape of love and protection. The anguished inversion of life and death, that annihilation may present a safer harbor has found few musical expressions to equal this blend of intense warmth and hapless despair. Finally, Brunnhilde’s Immolation from The Twilight of the Gods, the sense of betrayal, the desire for peace in the unearthly “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott” from Flagstad. The Ring having been cast back to the Rhine maidens, the Magic Fire surrounds Brunnhilde with its purifying conflagration, Flagstad’s hurling and swooping with sorrow and ecstatic atonement. Mounting her beloved horse Grane, Brunnhilde and Flagstad both ride into an illumined heroism of the spirit, the true denizens of musical Valhalla.

— Gary Lemco

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