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I threw on the stereo the Seattle Ring yesterday. While I was at it I looked up some ring reviews. It struck me, and I know this issue has probably been brought up before, but it seems that present day singers are not just competing with others of the same age group and active. As Siegfried Vinke doesn't just compete with Gould, but Windgassen, Melchoir and Ernst Krauss for that matter. I remember reading Stereo Review and the Cycles of Boehm, Karajan and Solti being compared unfavorably with the great singers of the pre-war era. Now THOSE recordings are added to the "urtext" of great Wagnerania by my generation of "old men".
I've got two 21st Century rings. They are not my favorites. They are pretty good, But I wonder if as the reviewers in the '70s were hearing the new recordings with ears plugged into the '30s, if I and others in my age group are listening to new recordings with attitudes set in the 70's?
Just a question
One more reviewers should ask themselves, IMHO. It's always been my impression that they do tend to stick to what they first heard. In my experience this resulted for a long time in Toscanini's Falstaff, for example, being recommended heavily over anything subsequent, and one of the Fischer-Dieskau Fliegende Hollanders being recommended over Klemperer's and later ones. When I first came to hear these I was deeply disappointed; the Toscanini is good, but not *that* good, some of the singing is stale, and the sound of course no longer acceptable except historically. Furthermore it souds studio-bound. The F-D Hollander is also pretty thin even by contemporary standards. Sometimes it is fixed judgement, based on what the reviewer first came to love, which is forgiveable but annoying when he's supposed to be advising others. But equally often it's sheer laziness and prejudice, they don't actually bother to listen comaparatively but rely on their memories of what they think they heard in the earlier recording. Real experts like John Steane, who compiled EMI's classic Record of Singing sets (likely Warner will ever release them?) have a much more balanced approach; in the 1990s, for Gramophone, he chose eight or nine singers once who were revelatory for him, changing his ideas of singing throughout his long life. He began with Galli-Curci and ended with Sir Thomas Allen.
It's a breadth of vision, or the auditory equivalent, I believe in, and try to listen as honestly as I can when I review. It's my impression that vocally the post-war period did represent some kind of -- not a peak, exactly, but a balance in the quality of singing, and Wagner singing especially. Before WWII there were tremendous voices, but they weren't always used at their technical or expressive best. Friedrich Schorr seems much better than Hotter, but on some live recordings you can hear him being very free with line, rhythm and much else, sometimes more or less declaiming. Melchior was even worse at this; no wonder they didn't like him at Bayreuth. On studio recordings he's ok, but live... Kirsten Flagstad is superb, but to my ears impossibly matronly; I much prefer Brigit Nilsson, but find her rather unfeminine also, and still more I like what someone called the "pinging" but less strident tones of Rita Hunter and Helga Dernesch. Post-war seemed to introduce, for whatever reason, a much greater emphasis on musical knowledge, technical security and minutia of expression, too much so perhaps in Fischer-Dieskau's imitators, but still an advance.
This had a lot to do with coaching methods. For example, many pre-war singers were mediocre musicians and learned line by line, by the words alone, with a private coach and repetiteur. This was even more true of the generation before. Post-war teaching increasingly moved away from private teachers to academic conservatoire and university courses, and the emphasis shifted to learning the lines first, as a vocalise, and pasting the words on afterwards. This is considered to improve technique, which is probably true, and to underline the musical detail which must influence the expression; that, to me, is more arguable. That is of course one aspect only of the changing influences upon today's singers; others include the dearth of company "apprenticeships", and the pressure to move up through the ranks to larger roles which may not suit them so well, but allow them to make the real money more quickly -- and given what they've been earning till then, it's hard to blame them. Also, conductors and intendants pressure them to take roles, often with very little consideration of whether it would suit them vocally or temperamentally. One advanced on Jill Gomez, a very pure Mozartian kind of soprano, very early in her career, with the cry of "You're my new Carmen!" Gomez's striking looks would certainly have qualified her, but absolutely not her voice, and she had the sense to refuse rather than risk a severely shortened career; not all would. A sort of Peter Principle often applies; singers go on taking bigger and bigger roles, and more performance till they reach ones they can't actually sing properly, take the money and run. So it's really very hard to compare today's generation with earlier ones, when conditions were so different.
I think we often get better interpretations and certainly much better acting, but worse music. Vinke is the kind of good middle-ground heldentenor there's always been a few of around, not very interesting but entirely tolerable vocally, but he looks reasonable and is actually a pretty good actor, with a welcome touch of humour. Meillor is probably overparted as Brunnhilde, but not by much; at times she sounds fine, but at others not so -- more of a natural Sieglinde, IMHO. If the Seattle Ring had been video'd, instead of that overbearing in-your-face sound recording, I think we might have judged it differently.
Unfortunately there's far more that can be said, but I'd better leave someone else to say it!