KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD: SONG RECITAL 2
Kirsten Flagstad (sop); Edwin McArthur (pn)
PRISTINE PACO 082 (68:23)
BRAHMS, SCHUBERT, R. STRAUSS, CARPENTER, KRAMER, McARTHUR, ROGERS, SPEAKS, TAYLOR, TYSON
In one of his weekly online missives to subscribers, Pristine Audio proprietor Andrew Rose stated that he has been asked why Pristine devotes considerable attention to remastering and reissuing well-known recordings from major labels that are still in print, instead of devoting himself primarily or exclusively to rarities that have never seen the light of day on CD (or even on LP). His refreshingly candid answer was that the former are his economic bread and butter (he cited his recent reissue of the legendary EMI
with Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi, and de Sabata as a best seller), whereas the latter simply do not sell enough copies to keep him in business. I can only nod my head in regretful acknowledgment of the truth of what he says, and applaud his courage and perseverance in continuing to serve the classical community with issuance of neglected rarities as well.
This release—the second that Rose has devoted to Flagstad’s postwar Lieder recordings for RCA—is a prime instance of the latter. An immortal paragon of the Wagner soprano, in an era when the genuine article of such was more plentiful than today, she is almost never associated with Lieder repertoire. Yet she made recordings of them throughout her career, beginning with her first acoustical era discs made in 1914. (We tend to associate her so much with her career at the Metropolitan that it is easy to forget that she had been singing for over two decades before making her debut there.) Here, drawing upon a variety of LP and 78-rpm discs from England, Canada, and the U.S., Rose has assembled a program of two Lieder by Schubert, four by Brahms, eight by Richard Strauss, and nine by a variety of American composers, including two by Flagstad’s longtime accompanist Edwin McArthur.
In 33:4 Henry Fogel penned a superb review of Flagstad’s complete recordings for Decca in the Eloquence reissue series; that included two discs of Lieder and another of Norwegian hymns, and I urge everyone to read his acutely perceptive comments on those. He also reviewed the previous disc by Pristine in 36:3, which contained Schumann’s
Frauenliebe und -leben
, four songs by Schubert, three by Brahms, and one by Ernest Charles. There he lauded the excellent transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn but, taking issue with his laudatory comments on the singing itself, expressed regret at the evident decline in Flagstad’s voice and art: “Flagstad’s singing here is flawed, and flawed seriously. In her best years, Flagstad’s strength was not in this repertoire. Her voice is a large instrument, better at conveying the breadth of Wagner’s long phrases than the intimacy required in this music....Beyond that problem, however, the voice just doesn’t sound well on these recordings—and never has, even on the original LPs. Part of the issue could be close miking, but even allowing for that, Flagstad’s singing here is unwieldy and uncomfortable. There is very little warmth to the sound, and quite often it seems hard, as if all produced in the throat.”
These recordings date from the same period and recording venues, and hence share all the same limitations that Henry notes. Even with that, my own appraisal would be somewhat more generous. There are some items in which Flagstad comes off rather poorly—Schubert’s “An die Musik” receives a reading that is simply clumsy, and the closing high note on the disc in Mildred Tyson’s
makes one cringe in distress—but in the Richard Strauss songs, which call for a more Wagnerian amplitude, she is more at home and thus makes a more favorable impression. This is still not anywhere near her best work, but given that these are mostly unique items in her discography, one can only express praise and gratitude to Andrew Rose for making them available again. As before, McArthur provides only workmanlike accompaniments—he was an indifferent pianist and conductor, but a lengthy radio interview with him I once heard revealed him to be an exceptionally kindly and gracious gentleman, which surely explains in part Flagstad’s total loyalty to him—and Obert-Thorn has again produced top-notch transfers. If you are a Flagstad fan, you will want this; more general vocal collectors will most likely wish to stay with better-known material from her prime years.
James A. Altena