Halfway through the collection of “Legendary Performances” released by the Met this year, several surprises came to the fore.
One was how poor the chorus at the Met was in the 1940s and 1950s. It was as if they dragged folks in from the street to have a go at the Pilgrim’s Chorus. Apparently the idea that the chorus is expected to be as sensitive, as musical, as sonorous and as musically true as the orchestra and the soloists was not broadly adopted — at least not at the Met.
The orchestra, too, is spotty. The brasses in particular have jagged entrances and questionable tonality. Even the strings often suffer from thin and jagged sound, nothing like the beauty of the Philadelphia Orchestra at that same period.
And the cuts. Was it just the Met that butchered Wagner or did every producing company have at it with cleavers? To a modern ear it is jaw-dropping to be listing to Sachs’ final warning to Walther and then suddenly have the chorus come in and be done with it. How odd! Did people have a train to catch or did they think the audience would be bored if they actually heard what the composer wrote?
I wonder, too, whether the introduction of the LP had an influence on the quality of performances at the Met and other similar institutions. The audience began to know the works from studio recordings and their expectations were substantially raised, anticipating that a live performance taking place in four consecutive hours ought to sound like one recorded in the studio over ten days. Surely one of the many consequences of the Decca recording of the Ring was that orchestras, choruses and conductors around the world now were being held up against Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.
George Szell is a smashing surprise in this set. I was used to the Grand Old Man of Cleveland, doing Strauss tone poems and such. His Vorspiel to the Dresden Tannhäuser (January 9, 1954) is stupendous; the audience would not let the Act begin, so vociferous was their response to this blazingly fine performance. The cast included Astrid Varnay, Jerome Hines, Margaret Harshaw, George London as Wolfram, Ramon Vinay in the title role, and, as the Shepherd, a young Roberta Peters!
Throw me overboard or never speak to me again, but I was simply appalled by Lauritz Melchior’s Lohengrin, and his Siegmund. His tone is blat-like, his musicality absent if ever acquired, his attacks swooping and sloppy, and his main talent seems to be that he could sing high notes very loud for a very long time. Taste does not constrain him, as his February 17, 1940, performance attests; the “Walse” cries permit a leisurely trip to the loo without missing a beat in the score. But it is the tone I object to. Has anyone listened to modern tenors and then returned to Melchior’s recordings? We simply don’t do things that way any more. (I’m ready to be corrected on this — Wagnerian, weigh in, please?)
The smash performance of the collection (thus far) is the Rheingold under the baton of Fritz Stiedry, a conductor hitherto unknown to me. The entire ensemble (Harshaw as Fricka, Hotter as Wotan, Hines as Fasolt, Svanholm as Loge, Davidson as Alberich) is flawless and the orchestra performs like a single unit of breathtaking theatricality and sensitivity. Abrupt changes in tempi and dynamics are taken with consummate ease in this magical January 27, 1951 recording. The most exciting Rheingold I have heard in a long, long time!