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Birgit Nilsson on Disc

available at Amazon
R. Strauss, Elektra, Solti, WPh
available at Amazon
R. Wagner, Tristan & Isolde, K. Böhm, Bayreuth (DG)
available at Amazon
R. Wagner, Ring der Niebelungen (Highlights), K. Böhm, Bayreuth (Philips)
available at Amazon
G. Puccini, Turandot, E. Leinsdorf, Rome Opera Orchestra
If I don't feel particularly moved by the fact that Birgit Nilsson has passed away, it may be because she has left us recordings of her art that will have her live on for us, as long as we can cling to our mortal shell. I hardly have a comprehensive collection of what she has left us (no recitals, since I am no fan of those on disc), but among those recordings that I have and have heard, some of the finest singing ever produced has been captured. In fact, Nilsson was so good in what she did best (which is Wagner, followed by Strauss), that she is one of the three main contributors to that trite and ever-repeated conviction that the singers of the past have never been paralleled in our times. Well... if you listen to Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstadt, and said Birgit Nilsson, you might just start to believe that there is something to that.

Nilsson's voice was particularly apt at expressing certain emotions and cutting through any orchestra and orchestration with apparent ease. The emotion of biting irony has never been more harrowing than in Act I of her Tristan und Isolde. The genius of Wagner, perhaps the first to make an unambiguously ironic statement by musical means, has Isolde repeat Kurnewal's line about "Tristan, the Hero" and by switching key declares, "Tristan, the dishonorable coward." Nilsson imbues that with hair-raising bitterness and the ancient anger of a thwarted love. Then there is her moment of “Agamemnon hört dich!” in Elektra. You can aurally see how suddenly, for the first time, she stands erect… how cruel pride fills her eyes as she pronounces those words that are the same as a death sentence. If you don’t get goose-bumps hearing Nilsson declaim these words you should check your pulse! (Her Liebestod is undoubtedly haunting, but she swallows a few too many syllables for me: here I prefer Behrens or Meier in better sound and diction.)

Nilsson’s Brünnhilde, too, must be heard. If you don’t rush out for (or already have) either of the two great commercially released Ring cycles of her (Solti or Böhm), you should try the “Best of” CD from the Böhm Ring. I tend to find “Best of” collections of anything pretty reprehensible stuff, but this double disc is indeed marvelously and tastefully done; easily the best ‘Ring sampler’ ever put together on both counts: performance and style. There were other roles she was famous for; Leonora, for example. But few rivaled her icy supremacy in Turandot. Hard like steel and softening only when finally transformed, she tickled Puccini-lovers’ ears for many years with that role. This is the first of two studio recordings with Leinsdorf conducting, Björling, Tebaldi, and Tozzi. Singing: Yay, Conducting/Orchestra: Who cares, at this point. Francesco Molinari-Pradelli isn’t much more insightful with the same orchestra on a later EMI recording – this time you hear Nilsson vis-à-vis Corelli, Scotto, and Giaiotti. Then there are several live recordings of her in that role. Believable accounts claim pride of place for the Nilsson/Corelli recording from La Scala. There are also plenty of recordings from the MET with those two. On one of these occasions, on tour in Boston, Corelli lost the stage fight over the longest held high C (was Fellini thinking about that when he wrote the boiler-room scene for E la Nave va?), but got back by biting – instead of kissing – Nilsson’s neck an act later. (Allegedly she cancelled her next performance, citing “rabies” as the reason to Rudolf Bing.)


Clayton Koonce said...

I have Nilsson's Brunnhilde on Solti's Ring cycle and a BMG album of Grieg songs which includes Nilsson. The idea of her singing Puccini is intriguing. There is one track of her rapturous "Vissi d'arte" in my own collection, and I'd surely like to hear her Ice Princess.

Anonymous said...

I love her most of all in recital. She was the geatest of them all.