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Recordings

Richard Wagner: Siegfried, The 100th Covent Garden performance
24 Jul 2006

WAGNER: Siegfried, The 100th Covent Garden performance

“These probably unique documents may well owe their existence to the presence of Joan Sutherland in the cast and represent the earliest recordings of the great diva.

Richard Wagner: Siegfried, The 100th Covent Garden performance

Otakar Kraus, Joan Sutherland, Set Svanholm, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra, Fritz Stierdy (cond.)

Pearl 0230 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

Their preservation in good state is thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Earl of Harewood”. Allow me to express some doubt on this statement to be found on the back note of these CDs. I don’t think that anybody in 1954 could know what flight the career of Sutherland would take. Nevertheless in the sleeve notes the producer repeats this presumption and further states that “unusually for the time, they (the records) were made on 33 1/3 rpm acetates instead of then more common 78 rpm discs lasting only 4 ½ minutes per side.” I’m even more surprised at this statement. I knew well the last technician at Flemish Public Radio who had cut quite a few acetates and who even possessed a turntable on which several acetates could be played at the same time. He explained to me that until the advent of the LP, it was quite common that an opera or even a long symphony was transferred from official 78 records to 33 1/3 acetates so that the audience wouldn’t have to wait every five minutes for a change of record. The trick for the technician was to record a few phrases more than necessary on the first acetate so that there would be no interruption at all when he started the second one and one got an uninterrupted flow of music.
But acetates were used (though they were very fragile) to record from time to time exceptional concerts or what the music producers thought to be exceptional. And that’s where my doubts come in with the above mentioned recordings. If they were recorded alone for Sutherland’s sake, there would be no first CD with 55 minutes of Siegfried and Mime. I think it far more logic that either the whole 1954 Covent Garden ring was recorded or even Siegfried alone and that a lot of records didn’t survive very long. Probably at one or another moment, George Lascelles remembered the performance of Sutherland. Lascelles is the founder of the British Opera Magazine and the General Manager of the English National Opera in the seventies. Lascelles maybe made inquiries with the BBC and these acetates were either all that survived or someone from Archives took out what he could find. After all, Lascelles and his operatic obsession was well known and the bosses at BBC didn’t easily say no to a man who, if his two full nieces Elisabeth and Margaret had met with an early accident, would have been king George VII (Lascelles father, the 6th earl of Harewood married the only sister of Edward VIII and George VI. Lascelles became no. 7 and always signed his articles with an aristocratic H.)

The question remains: is this remnant of Siegfried worth the investment? Sutherland fans needn’t doubt. The sound is unmistakably Sutherland, strong but sweet and very youthful and no hint of droopiness. I remember well the outcry when the Solti-Siegfried appeared. It was the first official recording of the opera and under the names of the main singers the box mentioned proudly in the best Hollywood tradition “and Joan Sutherland”. One critic wrote that he didn’t know that the woodbird was an eagle. By that time she was already in her Droopy Joan Phase and this performance under review is very superior. Now, if one isn’t a particular diehard Sutherland-admirer, those few minutes of singing may be too short to lure one into buying. Paul Kuën was for several years the Bayreuth Mime and his role is preserved in several recordings. Anyway, he is a prime example of Sprechgesang and his sound is definitely not a thing of beauty. Otokar Kraus as Alberich sings with a rather throaty sound. The surprise, if there is a surprise, is the Siegfried of Set Svanholm. The voice is unbelievably fresh and young after a career of 24 years and he makes a very believable ‘jung Siegfried’. Yes, he tends to flatten at the top and he knows extremely well how to pace his role, clearly sparing his vocal resources for the big outbursts. But then he is very fine and convincing. Nevertheless I doubt many people ever bought a set for Mr. Svanholm and if they did, they would probably prefer his complete recording of the role under Furtwaengler at La Scala, four years earlier.

Jan Neckers

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