The Wotan of the Century at His Best: Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Pfitzner
Various orchestras and conductors
Documents 600052 (10 CD set)
Wagner dominates new releases at the moment as 2013 is the bicentenary of his birth. Over the next few months we’ll be reviewing some of the boxed sets of historic material issued in tribute to the great man.
But first a word about the Taipei performance of his Die Walkure that was cancelled because of Typhoon Soulik. In my previous music review column, I urged the National Symphony Orchestra to stage a revival for the benefit of the many disappointed patrons.
The orchestra’s administration has now replied that this will unfortunately be impossible as Taipei’s National Theater is fully booked until the end of 2014. In the meantime, the orchestra is preparing for their next opera production, Richard Strauss’ Salome. This, please note, is probably the first mention anywhere of this new venture.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, Hans Hotter set the standard by which all other singers of the role of Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle were judged. Now the Documents label bas brought out a 10-CD set entitled The Wotan of the Century at His Best. At US$21.50 from www.prestoclassical.com, it’s a remarkable bargain. It’s even cheaper from www.amazon.co.uk at US$15.50. At the time of writing it’s not yet available from Amazon in the US.
Hotter started singing the role of Wotan, chief of the ancient Norse gods, in the 1930s and continued into the 1960s. The long extracts that make up the Die Walkure disk, CD two of the set, all date from the 1950s.
First comes the initial encounter with his daughter Brunnhilde (sung by Birgit Nilsson, with Karajan conducting the La Scala, Milan orchestra in 1958), followed by the protracted encounter with his wife Fricka and subsequent scene with Brunnhilde (Rita Gorr and Astrid Varnay respectively, at Bayreuth in 1958, conducted by Knappertsbusch). The CD ends with the culminating scene with Brunnhilde (Martha Modl). Joseph Keilberth conducts the Bayreuth forces, this time in 1953.
Hotter’s Wotan is memorable indeed. Not only did he stand 6 feet, 4 inches tall — he also had the massive voice to match. But sheer volume isn’t what matters most with this role, and probably not with any. The whole point about Wotan is that he’s a divided man — powerful and at times vengeful, but at the same time riven with self-doubt. He’s an easy victim for his proud wife who’s fueled by jealousy resulting from his innumerable affairs, and in Die Walkure she decides to take a stand in defending a wronged husband, brutal wife abuser though he undoubtedly is.
So Wotan has to be commanding on some occasions, submissive on others, and, at the opera’s end, loving toward his favorite daughter Brunnhilde. Hotter is all these things. There are, it’s true, times on this CD when the immense power of the women singers, especially Modl, threatens to overwhelm him. But it never quite succeeds, and Hotter remains the bass-baritone who outlasts them all.
It’s astonishing to listen to these extracts from so long ago. The famous Bayreuth sound — unique, apparently because the orchestra is below stage-level and the auditorium largely constructed of wood — I found hard to appreciate or indeed to identify. But all the orchestral playing is strong on this CD.