Recording of the Week Kirsten Flagstad
Kirsten Flagstad was one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century. Born in Norway in 1895 she spent nearly half her singing career performing only in Scandinavia, and she was nearly forty when she first achieved world fame following her debut performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she was immediately hailed as one of the ‘supreme singers of the century’.
She was signed immediately to HMV and Victor and proceeded to make a number of recordings, but it was only songs and arias, and the quality of recording available at the time did her magnificently expansive and majestic voice scant justice. She remained in America until 1941 when her return to Nazi-occupied Norway and her husband (who was by then a member of the Norwegian Nazi Party) could have easily signalled the end of her international career. After the war she was fifty, which for most singers may be a good time to call it a day, and the Nazi connection did her reputation in some countries - particularly America - no favours at all. However, her voice was still in outstanding form and she quickly won over any doubters. Her recording contract was renewed, and with the coming of LPs she was at last able to record some complete operas, including the now famous Tristan und Isolde with Wilhelm Furtwangler in 1952. She finally officially retired from the operatic stage in 1953 at the age of fifty-eight.
In practice she remained active in Scandinavia for the next few years and contributed a final Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung for a Norwegian broadcast and recording in 1956. This you’d have thought had to be the very end, but in fact it was just the beginning of a remarkable final chapter in her life, as soon afterwards she met the influential Decca producer John Culshaw and soon became a Decca artist!
Culshaw was of course the engineer behind Georg Solti’s pioneering Ring Cycle which began in 1958, and Flagstad was engaged to sing the role of Fricka. As Culshaw describes in his subsequent book ‘Ring Resounding’ the sixty-three year old Flagstad made quite an impression:
“At about 16.20 that afternoon we made our first test of the opening of the second scene and when Flagstad sang her fist line – ‘Wotan ! Gemahl! erwache!’ – the entire orchestra turned round to gape in amazement, so extraordinary was the authority and power of her voice”
During these final years she also recorded Gluck’s Alceste, the first and third acts of Die Walküre (in stereo) and a number of songs, scenes and arias. These recordings have just been re-issued by Australian Eloquence and show that her voice was still firm and as miraculous as ever.
You can view all these fascinating late Decca recordings here.