CD 1 Opera was invented in around 1600 in Italy, and the Italian influence spread to Germany, but eventually a genuine German tradition evolved and this collection of voices of the German opera tradition begins with the German operas of Mozart from the latter part of the 18th century. The first opera represented is Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which brought Mozart success in Vienna in 1782, and we hear contributions from three distinguished tenors: the French-Canadian Léopold Simoneau, the legendary Spaniard Plácido Domingo and the German Gerhard Unger. The three sopranos who sing arias from this opera are the American-Italian Anna Moffo, the German-born Anneliese Rothenberger and Lucia Popp from Slovakia; the inimitable German bass Gottlob Frick completes the group. The French soprano Natalie Dessay brings us up to the present with an aria from the unfinished Zaïde, which is followed by a selection of popular arias from Die Zauberflöte featuring among others the characterful Viennese baritone Erich Kunz, the German tenor Fritz Wunderlich, whose accidental death at the height of his career was a huge loss to the world of opera, and the distinguished German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the great divas of the post-war period. The remaining tracks cover Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio and feature outstanding performances by the American soprano Helen Donath, the Germans Paul Schoeffler (baritone) and Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano) and the Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers.
CD 2 presents a group of 19th century German composers beginning with Weber (1786–1826), who was responsible for establishing a truly German operatic tradition, and include Marschner, Lortzing, Flotow and Humperdinck. The singers heard here were among the most popular in the German repertoire in the 1950s and 60s like the soprano Elisabeth Grümmer, the tenors Rudolf Schock, Fritz Wunderlich and Peter Schreier and the baritones Hermann Prey and Fritz Ollendorff. The soprano Margarete Teschemacher and the tenor Richard Tauber represent an earlier generation of outstanding singers active before the second world war, and the American soprano Barbara Bonney brings us to more recent times. Then come arias by Richard Wagner (1813–1883), whose operas today form the cornerstone of the international operatic repertoire. The singers are led by the Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, whose strong, bright dramatic soprano voice was ideally suited to the vocal demands of Wagner’s heroines, as witnessed by her fearless performance as Senta in Der fliegende Höllander.
CD 3 continues with more Wagner, and we hear a contrasting selection of singers who have been at the forefront of Wagnerian singing in the second half of the 20th century, many of them having performed at the annual Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, the home of the Wagnerian tradition to this day. In fact, the recording of Otto Edelmann on track 9 is from a live recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg conducted by Herbert von Karajan, made in 1951 at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival after the war. Karajan later made a famous studio recording of Meistersinger in Dresden in 1970 and on track 10 we hear the tenor René Kollo singing part of the role of Walther von Stolzing. Today’s Wagnerian singers are represented by the New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill on track 15 in an extract from Parsifal recorded in 2009.
CD 4 stays with Wagner and covers mainly the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen. On this disc we hear some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of earlier times including the legendary sopranos Frida Leider, Florence Austral and Lotte Lehmann, the last partnered by the equally legendary tenor Lauritz Melchior in the conclusion of Act I of Die Walküre. No bass-baritone has ever been more memorable than Hans Hotter as Wotan, and his recording of Wotan’s Farewell from Die Walküre demonstrates why. The disc ends with Brünnhilde’s Immolation from Götterdämmerung sung by the acclaimed Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler in a recording from 1948 that sets the seal on Wagnerian performance at its best.
CD 5 is devoted entirely to the music of Richard Strauss (1864–1949), who is the last great composer of German opera since Wagner to establish himself in the international operatic repertoire. Strauss began as an opera composer with his two spectacularly brutal, if controversial, one-act operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909). The romantic Der Rosenkavalier (1911) followed in complete contrast and remains Strauss’s most popular opera to this day. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s memorable Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier is represented here by the Marschallin’s Monologue on track 1, and a brief extract from the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch’s thrilling Salome is heard on track 7. Another famous Strauss interpreter was the soprano Elisabeth Schumann, who is heard as Sophie in ‘The Presentation of the Silver Rose’ in a uniquely beautiful performance recorded in 1933. Other singers heard here include the sopranos Maria Cebotari, Leonie Rysanek, Sylvia Geszty and Cheryl Studer; the mezzo-soprano Kerstin Meyer; the baritone Hermann Prey; and the basses Otto Edelmann and José Van Dam. The collection ends with the closing scene from Strauss’s final opera Capriccio, performed in fine Straussian style by the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme.