Szell’s Sublime Walküre

by Sedgwick Clark

We were driving bumper to bumper out to the country last Friday and checked out the Met Opera station on Sirius XM. It was about 20 minutes into Wagner’s Die Walküre, and Hunding had just come home from a hard day at the office to discover his lovely wife, Sieglinde, with a stranger, Siegmund, at the dinner table. Hunding’s leitmotif had a particularly nasty staccato bark in the lower brass, and I pushed the info button to find out who was conducting. “George Szell, Dec 2, 1944,” it said, and I nearly plowed into the rear of the car in front of me. A few moments later Siegmund spoke up, and I exclaimed, “That’s Melchior!”

It’s difficult to imagine a superior vocal lineup in the Age of Recording: Herbert Janssen (Wotan), Helen Traubel (Brünnhilde), Lauritz Melchior (Siegmund), Rose Bampton (Sieglinde), Alexander Kipnis (Hunding), Kerstin Thorberg (Fricka). And they’re all at the top of their form. Melchior is a known phenomenon to anyone who has heard the 1935 Vienna Philharmonic recording of Die Walküre’s Act I with Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde and Bruno Walter at the helm – the Ur-recording of the music for any Wagnerian. As for Traubel, without shortchanging the great Nilsson, the American soprano on this occasion was the plummiest-sounding Brünnhilde I’ve ever heard; sheer, rich-toned beauty, with absolutely no forcing whatsoever.

But it was Szell’s fire and brimstone, taut pacing, and fresh tempo relationships that electrified at least one pair of ears accustomed to the weighty, slo-mo Wagner performances at the Met over the last four decades. Under Szell, the conclusions of the first two acts veritably lifted me from my seat, and the Magic Fire Music that ended the opera brought tears to my eyes.

Szell led two complete Rings at the Met, but this performance of Die Walküre was the only one to be broadcast. Unbeknownst to me, a CD set had been released in 1994 as a fundraiser in the Met’s Historical series. Hmmmm.

Postscript: Returning to Manhattan after Sunday midnight, we turned on the radio to hear – you guessed it – Szell’s Walküre, at the same moment in Act I as on Friday afternoon! But this time there was no traffic, and we arrived at our destination with the fall of Act II’s curtain.

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