25 Sep 2006

Birgit Nilsson — "Or sai chi l'onore"

Deutsche Grammophon was one of the many labels for which Nilsson recorded and the company decided to commemorate her passing by offering us most of her not so very large catalogue.

Maybe a little bit more generosity would have been welcome. The sleeve note (singular) consists of a single page, detailing the titles, orchestras and conductors to be found on this issue and that’s it. A second page on her career, her voice or even on these recordings was probably too expensive. And the information on that page is not even correct. The Don Giovanni arias were not recorded in 1971 as stated here but are culled from the complete 1966 recording with Dieskau, Arroyo and Flagello. It was the recording that should have given us Fritz Wunderlich’s Ottavio; but his untimely death led to the last-minute casting of Peter Schreier (nomen est omen). Though Nilsson sang a lot of Don Giovanni’s in her youth, (it was the role of her début in Italy in 1954 and the first time she sang in Italian) she is not really a Donna Anna. Her fury in ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ is finely sketched but ‘Non mi dir’ lacks sweetness and the coloratura is tentative.

Her ‘Ozean’ from Weber’s Oberon is far better. The gleaming voice with the impressive steely high notes is perfect for the piece. By ‘Ah! Perfido’ however one understands why she was a wildly popular singer at the Met where her laser like voice was the ultimate answer to Bing’s prayers for voices who could fill that giant barn. But on record, in a programme of one aria after another, the relentless brightness is tiring and explains why she never was a really popular singer in places where people could only judge her on the strength of her records. The lack of natural vibrato doesn’t help either and there is no charm or even warmth in the voice as proved by her Tannhäuser arias. The strength to ride easily over the orchestra is admirable in ‘Dich teure Halle’ but due to that lack of warmth her ‘Allmächtige Jungfraus’ is not believable. She is of course at her magnificent best in the famous Liebestod from the complete 1966 Tristan, probably still the best around.

As this was a live recording, I wonder if the voice was not better captured in such circumstances than with a mike in front of her in a studio. There is more colour in the voice and even a little bit of vibrato. And I notice the same live drive and overwhelming sound in her famous Salomé-final on that legendary evening when Bing was pensioned off. For those who don’t want to buy all the complete recordings but would like to know what the fuss was about, this CD gives a very good picture of Nilsson’s strengths and relative weaknesses during her heydays, especially if you are able or lucky enough to play the CD at high volume. That’s when the impact of the voice hits you and gives you a real idea of her sound in the house before her decline with its wavering of the pitch surfaced a few years after the recordings on this CD.

Jan Neckers