Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)
ABC Classics 476 6440 plus bonus DVD of highlights
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Wagner: Overture: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg; Tannhauser: Elizabeth’s Greeting; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod; Gotterdammerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Siegfried’s Funeral Music; Brunnhilde’s Immolation
Here’s a souvenir for those who collect Opera House memorabilia: a recording of the opening concert in what was rapidly to become an international arts icon. I dare say that the cultural cringe was alive and well at the time in that the soloist for the occasion was a singer from abroad. This is not to suggest that Birgit Nilsson was unequal to the occasion. Quite to the contrary, with her formidable voice blasting an effortless way through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at full bore, there would have been few who would question her musical credentials. .
It triggers a childhood memory of listening to a radio broadcast of the Johannesburg Festival overture premiered in that city in 1956 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the gold-rich city. At the time, there were more than a few South African composers who would have been up to the challenge but – no! – it HAD to be someone important from beyond the borders of South Africa. So, at a gala concert to open a South African festival, the audience included just about every South African composer but the commissioned work was by British composer William Walton.
Perhaps the same thinking informed the decision to feature a Swedish diva with, I dare say, the cultural cringers convinced, as in South Africa of the 1950s, that ”if she’s imported, she’s bound to be better”. How, I wonder would Joan Sutherland have fared in Nilsson’s place? It’s a pretty safe bet, I believe, that she would have brought the house down bearing in mind that by 1973 she was at the height of her powers.
None of this should be considered a vote of no confidence in the Swedish soprano’s abilities. She is at her superb best in Wagner’s Liebestod, effortlessly riding the crest of the accompanying orchestral wave. And in Elizabeth’s Dich, teure Halle from Tannhauser, she is at the top of her formidable form as Wagnerian diva par excellence.
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey makes for mostly impressive listening with Mackerras coaxing a uniform tonal sheen from the strings to which the brass and woodwind choirs respond with commendable unanimity of attack. Much the same could be said of Siegfried’s Funeral Music with lower strings at their eloquent best. In fairness, though, this SSO performance should not be taken as indicative of the orchestra’s present form which, in an overall sense, is most significantly more polished than in the 1970s.
A bonus, black & white DVD of these events makes for a fascinating souvenir.