Writing about the renowned contralto Marian Anderson in last month’s issue of The New Criterion, I described how musical beauty can be communicated through the art of a single great singer, one who combined an extraordinarily beautiful voice and a touchingly restrained musical personality. It is my intention here to shift the focus from the singer to the music sung, and to discuss some examples of the fate of the greatest masterworks at the hands—or more precisely at the vocal cords—of artists in the present and the past.

As an example of the present, my text will be Jessye Norman’s recent “Live From Lincoln Center” telecast on PBS, with Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic, of the concluding “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Miss Norman, born in Georgia in 1945, is perhaps the reigning diva of the day. Now (one must assume) in the prime of her vocal estate, she is the toast of continental Europe, Great Britain, and the United States; her schedule is full, her fees are astronomical, and her press coverage is both copious and reverent. At the Metropolitan Opera last season she was granted the rare honor of what might be called a one-woman evening: twin productions of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, in which she shared the stage with bass Samuel Ramey, and Arnold Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung, in which she occupied the stage alone. She is also a much admired Straussian and Wagnerian, singing the lead role in James Levine’s Vienna Philharmonic recording of Strzuss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Sieglinde in the Metropolitan recording (also with Levine) of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Miss Norman’s fame thus established, much interest attached to her singing on the General Motors-sponsored Philharmonic broadcast, a gala event opening the orchestra’s 1989-90 season (the last but one of music director Zubin Mehta) in Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Mehta began with a heavy-handed and plodding rendition of the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser; after the intermission, he led the orchestra in a loveless version of the much-played Mozart Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K.550. Miss Norman made her first appearance of the evening in the Five Rückert Songs of Gustav Mahler. This music, as always in Mahler’s vocal writing, emphasizes the sound of the voice as a quasi-orchestral instrument rather than as a means for limning character and personality; Miss Norman met this challenge admirably.

It was different with the music from Tristan und Isolde that concluded the program. It must be admitted that matters were hardly helped along by Mr. Mehta’s wayward yet rigid, distorted yet predictable performance of the Prelude to the opera that preceded the “Liebestod.” So concerned was he with mooning over the impassioned aspects of the Prelude that vital ensemble was ragged, and composer-indicated nuances, often calling for soft playing from the orchestra, were engulfed in a flood tide of what seemed, at least to me, vulgar and wearyingly constant self-expression.

Matters hardly improved when Miss Norman entered upon the “Liebestod,” with its musical evocation of the magically rapt and supremely inward opening words:

Mild und leise wie er lächelt,/wie das Auge hold er öffnet—/seht ihr’s, Freunde? seht ihr’s nicht?/Immer lichter wie er leuchtet,/sternumstrahlet hoch sich hebt?

(Softly and gently he smiles,/how sweetly he opens his eyes—/do you see him, friends? don’t you see him./Always brighter he glows,/raised high, enwrapped in star-rays?)

For Miss Norman, the mood of the “Liebestod” was not to be taken from its words, or from the argument of the opera, or even from a more refined and elevated conception of the Prelude than Mr. Mehta offered. Individual words were given exaggerated weight; everything was external, effortful, and frenetic, with even Miss Norman’s powerful (often consciously too powerful) voice overtaxed, her last notes suggesting nothing so much as a giant sail flapping in a high wind. Miss Norman seemed concerned at every moment to thrust herself, every inch the careful and calculating prima donna assoluta, into the place of the composer’s poetic conception, to substitute for Isolde’s transfiguration her own personal self-assertion.

All in all, the impression the performance gave was that she had decided to confront personally, and deny, a self-effacing attitude toward art. This was the attitude that T. S. Eliot gave powerful expression to in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” when he wrote that for the artist

[w]hat happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something that is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

The lesson of Eliot’s counsel of perfection is surely that the artist must look to the art, not to himself. Such self-abnegation is more cufBcult today than ever, when art—especially the art of the past—seems dead, while the artist’s managers, press agents, and fans are very much alive. We will be told that it was ever thus, and doubtless to some extent this thought, at once comforting and ultimately dispiriting, contains a bit of truth. Singers, like actors, have little choice but to point their fives toward their relatively few and brief moments on the stage; the Latin phrase carpe diem has, after all, a special meaning for these larger than life-size creatures.

But the evidence of phonograph records—and it is their chief value, in addition, of course, to the pleasure they give us—shows that, at least in the case of the greatest works of the German operatic stage, times once were better. It has long been known that the two decades from 1920 to 1940 were a golden age of Wagnerian singing in Europe, and here in America as well, at the Metropolitan Opera. This golden age fortunately coincided with the introduction in 1925 of the electrical recording process, a remarkable improvement in the fidelity and amplitude of both vocal and orchestral reproduction. Though the recordings actually made were initially limited to excerpts, the foresight of the legendary producer Fred Gaisberg and his associates at His Master’s Voice in England (or at its German affiliate) ensured that the great singers of the age, and some remarkable conductors as well, were captured for posterity.

The lesson of Eliot’s counsel of perfection is surely that the artist must look to the art, not to himself. 

These recordings, though originally made in the scratchy 78 RPM format and destined to be played faute de mieux on the primitive playback equipment of the time, have proved to have a remarkable afterlife. As reproducing technology advanced from recording on wax and pressing on swiftly revolving shellac to recording on tape and pressing on slow-spinning vinyl, concomitant developments in electronics enabled an ever larger amount of the information contained in the original 78 RPM grooves to be reclaimed and made available inexpensively to listeners. In the last years of the LP record, the technique of Direct Metal Mastering made possible a hitherto unknown dynamic range, at minimal distortion, to be incised on the vinyl disc;1 more to the point here, in the last five years the CD has become a prime medium for making available old recorded performances reclaimed by state-of-the-art techniques.

Several of these important CD re-issues have now appeared, and they have much to tell us about the way things once were in Wagnerian performance. Perhaps the most interesting of these re-issues—because the original discs on which they are based are currently for the most part quite forgotten—are those of major excerpts from Tristan und Isolde2 and the slightly later Die Meistersinger.3 There are also new CDs of excerpts from three components of Der Ring des Nibelungen: Die Walküre,4 Siegfried,5 and Götterdämmerung.6

The Tristan excerpts come from discs made between 1926 and 1929, and present to our lethargic age the remarkable Albert Coates’s enthralling conducting of this music. Coates (1882-1953) was an Anglo-Russian, very active in recording for HMV in the 1920s both before and after the advent of electrical recording; by the 1930s, inexplicably, he had quite disappeared from the musical scene. His hundreds of 78 RPM discs are characterized by what can only be called blazing intensity. Nowhere is this more true than in the Tristan Prelude with which this CD begins. But there are other riches here, including the Love Duet from Act II, sung by the legendary tenor Lauritz Melchior and the soprano Frida Leider, both of them artists unequaled today and for many years past. So searing is this performance that one can well believe Leider’s account (cited in the notes to the CD) of the making of the recording: she was so excited while singing that she became dizzy and had to hold on to Melchior for support.7

The Tristan CD ends with a large chunk of Act III, like the Act I Prelude never before transferred, I believe, from the 78 RPM original; this material, beginning with the Prelude and ending with the “Liebestod,” is marvelously—and unaffectedly—sung by three artists now unremembered: the English tenor Walter Widdop, the Swedish soprano Göta Ljungberg, and the English baritone Howard Fry. The conductors, rare as their like are today, include Coates, the equally splendid (though less intense) German Leo Blech (1871 -1958), and Lawrance Collingwood, one of HMV’s highly competent house conductors. Despite all the changes in personnel in these performances, the overall musical conception seems remarkably integrated in its straightforwardness and simplicity; everywhere the music (and the story) is left to take its own hair-raising course.

The very welcome Meistersinger excerpts come from an actual performance in 1928 at Berlin’s Theater Unter den Linden; its only previous transfer from the 78 RPM originals was on poorly engineered and little-circulated LPs. They represent our only knowledge of a live Berlin opera performance in the 1920s, and present a cast headed by baritone Friedrich Schorr, by all acccounts the greatest Hans Sachs who ever lived, and conducted by Blech. The touching young lovers Eva and Walther are Elfriede Marherr and Robert Hutt, singers unknown today; they combine, in an exemplary fashion, the great vocal qualities of security—no flutter, no wobble—and freshness of tone. Pogner, Eva’s father, is movingly sung by the great bass Emanuel List. It is a pity that no more than seventy-two minutes has survived of what was evidently a performance recorded in its entirety; what we do have on this CD conveys a stunning impression of a freely flowing ensemble, of singers effortlessly being, not premeditatedly acting, their roles.

The Ring excerpts are of scarcely less interest.

The Ring excerpts are of scarcely less interest. Almost all of the Walküre material comes from a 1927 abridgment conducted by Blech and sung by Leider (Brünnhilde), Schorr (Wotan), and Ljungberg (Sieglinde). Wisely, the present CD has filled in the missing but vital Wotan-Fricka dialogue from Act II, from the 1932 discs conducted by John Barbirolli, with Schorr as Wotan and the wonderful contralto Emmi Leisner as his shrewish but nonetheless rich-voiced wife Fricka. Unfortunately (doubtless to avoid going to a second CD), a significant part of the original 1927 set, the Siegmund-Sieglinde passages from Act I (sung by Widdop and Ljungberg), have been omitted from the present collection,8 along with equally important material from the second half of Act II (sung by Widdop and the excellent English Brünnhilde, Florence Austral). But what there is on this CD, so marvelous in musical power and vocal strength, approaches perfection; taken together with the 1930s Vienna recordings, starring the conductor Bruno Walter, the soprano Lotte Lehmann, and Melchior,9 this CD makes clear the travesty represented by present-day contemporary Wagner performances, in and out of the opera house.

The Siegfried material also has much to tell us. Here is most of the pieced-together abridgment made in the late 1920s, conducted by the unappreciated German Kapellmeister Robert Heger (1886-1978), Coates, and Karl Alwin (then the husband of the renowned Lieder singer Elisabeth Schumann). The star-studded cast includes Melchior (Siegfried), Schorr (Wanderer), the sumptuous (but tremulous) contralto Maria Olszewska (Erda), and the brilliant English soprano Florence Easton (Briinn-hilde); it also includes the wonderful character singers Heinrich Tessmer (Mime) and Eduard Habich (Alberich and Fafner). Amidst all these riches it is the virility of Melchior’s Siegfried, so different in its heedless exuberance from the strangled musicality of today’s leading Heldentenors, that immediately compels attention. But despite the excellence of all the vocal performances, one thing must not be forgotten: it is the directness of the conducting that makes the overpowering dramatic effect possible, and indeed ineluctable.

Finally, in discussing these new releases, there remains the Götterdämmerung CD. Here is a live recording of two conflict-ridden scenes from Act II taken “off the air” from a performance of June 7, 1938, at Covent Garden in London, conducted by the now mythic Wilhelm Furtwängler and sung by Leider (Brünnhilde) and Melchior (Siegfried); here too is an excellent transfer of Leider’s classic 1928 commercial discs of the Immolation Scene that closes the opera, and with it the entire Ring cycle.10 By now we are tempted to take Leider’s and Melchior’s excellence for granted. What cannot be taken for granted, however, is the musical leadership of the live performance. As a conductor Furtwängler is now celebrated as a “mellow” conductor, an enthusiast for mystical draggings-out of the rhythmic pulse so constitutive of nineteenth-century music.11 But here at least, as in Furtwängler’s two recorded post-World War II Ring cycles,12 his conducting, taut and energetic, is the very soul of sinister and propulsive drama.

As this article is in proof, news comes of the arrival of a CD transfer on the Opal label (England) of all the Parsifal recordings made at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival, and at about the same time in Berlin, by the great conductor Karl Muck. Together with the related 1927 Bayreuth recordings conducted by Siegfried Wagner (the composer’s son), these unique performances convey the exaltation of Wagner’s summation in Parsifal of the romantic myth of the artist-savior. But important Wagner recordings of the 1920s still remain unavailable on CD. Among them are many Albert Coates recordings of vocal and orchestral excerpts, including electrically recorded passages from Das Rheingold, Götterdämmerung, and Parsifal, as well as acoustically recorded material from Götterdämmerung.

Cui bono? I don’t think performances on old records can be copied, for imitation readily results in exaggeration and even corruption. But there is more to be learned from them than is comprehended by a slavish reworking of the successes of others. The key to the value of these records is what they can teach about the artistic process in general, and in this case about the way a performer must approach the re-creation of a dramatic masterpiece. Earlier I quoted T. S. Eliot’s words from “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about the artist’s necessary extinction of personality. A passage near the end of that great essay shows that Eliot, in his extraordinary balancing of opposites, also did justice to the importance of personality. Indeed, this passage seems to me to encapsulate the lesson about art to be learned not just from Wagner’s music and Eliot’s poetry but from the very ideal of tradition itself:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. . . . The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Here, then, is the point of these great old records. The lesson is not easily learned, for learning depends, after all, on both learner and teacher. Still, the lesson is clear: the goal of beauty and meaning in musical performance—what is usually referred to as “expression” and “feeling”—cannot be achieved as an end in itself; it can only be indirectly approached, and then only by the most gifted, through the satisfaction of the most immediate and most compelling demands of the music. As Eliot well knew, only the greatest personalities need apply.


  1.   For an account of the situation of these old Wagner discs as it appeared at the end of the LP era, and for a memoir of my own experience with the phonograph, see “Growing Up With Old Records” in the April 1984 issue of The New Criterion. Go back to the text.
  2.   Claremont/GSE CD GSE 78-50-26. Go back to the text.
  3.   Pearl GEMM CD 9340. Go back to the text.
  4.   Pearl GEMM CD 9357. Go back to the text.
  5.   Danacord DACO CD 319/21. This material first appeared several years ago on LP as Danacord DACO 171-76. Go back to the text.
  6.   Pearl GEMM CD 9331. Go back to the text.
  7.   Further and indispensable Leider performances from Tristan, including the 1928 “Narrative and Curse” from Act I and the concluding 19 31 “Liebestod,” are included on the Pearl Götterdämmerung mentioned above, and discussed below. Go back to the text.
  8.   A major part of this material, however, may be found on Pearl GEMM 218, an LP transfer devoted to Walter Widdop.
  9.   These extraordinary performances, documenting Viennese Wagner performance on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938, may now be most easily found together in one set on Danacord DACO CD 317/318.
  10.   It is sad that Leider’s discs of the Immolation Scene end not with the actual orchestral finale of Götterdämmerung but rather several minutes too soon, with an absurd “concert ending” tacked on to Brünnhilde’s last sung notes. Go back to the text.
  11.   Indeed, to return for a moment to the unfortunate Zubin Mehta, it is difficult not to feel that the single most harmful influence on Mehta and his generation of musicians was the example of Furtwängler738217;s late-career self-indulgences; nowhere were these indulgences to be so noticed, and therefore so slavishly copied, as in his much-worshipped 1952 Tristan recording with soprano Kirsten Flagstad. It must be said, too, that Flagstad’s effortless ability to spin out endless volumes of creamy vocal tone has induced many without her supreme endowments to sing, like Jessye Norman, slower than slow. Go back to the text.
  12.   The 1950 La Scala Ring, with Flagstad as Brünnhilde throughout, was available for some years on various LP transfers of varying quality; the 1953 Rome RIA Ring, with a less stellar cast but better sonics, was long available on Seraphim LPs. Both performances are wonderful, and will doubtless soon be available on CD; they are musts for every true Wagnerian. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 3, on page 53
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