Monday, September 6, 2010

Wagnerian Singing: Another Unscientific Comparison

By chance this morning, I came across a recording of Kerstin Thorborg (1896-1970), a Swedish contralto, singing Erda's warning to Wotan, "Weiche, Wotan, weiche."

The quality of her tone left me immediately impressed and awestruck. This, I thought, is how Wagner is to be sung. And we are fortunate, indeed, that we have recordings from the likes of Thorborg. To compare, here's a recording from Christa Ludwig, by any account, a fine mezzo, singing the same role.

Despite the improvement in recording technology, it's clear that Thorborg's singing is on a different plane than Ludwig's. Giving precise reasons why I think this is so would depend on my having a better knowledge of vocal technique than I do. But there may be an important question behind these off-the-cuff comparisons: why is it almost the universal consensus that Wagnerian singing has declined so swiftly since the early and mid-20th century? I offer no answers, only a blow upon a bruise: two more comparisons to drive home the difference.

First, Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) sings Isolde's Liebestod:

And Deborah Voigt here sings the same (I was unable to acquire a recording-quality video: it is a live performance.):

Finally, Set Svanholm (1904-1964) sings the Preisleid:

And Ben Heppner sings the same:

I intend no slander on Ludwig, Voigt, or Heppner. All of them are (and in the retired Ludwig's case, were) very fine singers, perhaps the finest we can expect for the present. But I suspect many more such adverse comparisons could be made: I entirely neglected the roles of Siegfried, Wotan, Hans Sachs, Lohengrin, and Parsifal. But I know of no one who seriously contends that there has not been a lamentable decline: the greatness seems to have gone out of Wagnerian singing. Despite our extraordinary recording technology, we seem to have arrived on the scene too late: the decline outran our technological advance. Perhaps it's only a passing thing, but we should at any rate be grateful for the recording jewels we do possess: the happenstance encounters with greatness that grace a beautiful Labor Day.


  1. Wow! What a feast this is--thanks for posting. You raise a huge number of interesting issues, not the least of which is the challenges of comparing singers over time. My random brain dump yields the following. First, Ludwig is a great Fricka or Waltraute, but she is a mezzo not a contralto and the Earth Goddess should be able to make those low tones resonate the way Thorborg does. Second, do you think that a greater focus on recording has changed the way singers sound? Culshaw insisted on doing his Ring recording under as close to performing conditions as possible in order to get the feeling right (there are some good clips on YouTube of the recording sessions). The Cleveland Orchestra Dohnanyi recording (I think they only did DR and DW) is unmemorable both for its cast and its recital like woodeness. Don't know if that is part of it.

    It could also be nostalgia for the bigger than life characteristics of the old time singers like Melchior and Hotter and Flagstad.

    Of course one can argue favorites endlessly. I think Siegfried Jerusalem is better than Vickers or Windgassen but that's just me. James Morris is great. Up there with Hotter and way ahead of McIntyre. But it's probably true that Birgitte Nilsson hasn't had a real challenger. Except maybe Jessye Norman, but that's a bit of apples and oranges.

    Ha, the more I think about it the more confusing it gets! But thanks again for the post.

  2. As you say (and as I pointed out) Ludwig is a mezzo. But finding a really good comparison with Thorborg was not easy, as Erda is not an extraordinary role. But I wanted a recording to compare with Thorborg, nonetheless.

    Nostalgia has a part to play, I think. I have a Spenglerian penchant for seeing decline everywhere. But in this case, plenty of others agree with me.

    Tenors are a tricky question: Wagner was never very pleased with his tenors, and I don't think we've had a tenor who could compare, say, with Flagstad. But I agree: S Jerusalem was the best on tap, in recent memory. And yes, I agree, James Morris is a very great singer, on a par with other past greats. I also have a soft spot for Jose van Dam.