On the occasion of the Swedish soprano’s 100th birthday, Sony Classical and the Birgit Nilsson Foundation are presenting a selection of live recordings from the world’s foremost opera houses and festival concert halls, painstakingly restored and remastered on 31 CDs.
“The miracle of Nilsson was experienced … in the opera house, not on records” – with these words the Austrian theatre director Otto Schenk summarized what many of Birgit Nilsson’s musical partners have said: At best, recordings provide only a hint of the dimensions of her voice. But a distinction must be made between studio and live recordings. In studio recordings, Nilsson’s voice often seemed reduced or limited in its dynamics; smaller voices can be recorded more easily than large ones. Fortunately, however, a number of live documents have been preserved that clearly show why contemporary witnesses have described her voice as “larger than life” and “simply overwhelming”.
That is why it was clear right from the start when Sony Classical and the Birgit Nilsson Foundation planned what to include in a CD edition marking the celebrated dramatic soprano’s 100th birthday: It should involve only live recordings. The collection spans over 23 years of her career, from the Swedish premiere of Bluebeard’s Castle under Ferenc Fricsay in 1953 to the formidable cast in Die Frau ohne Schatten by the Bavarian State Opera under Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1976.
Performances were chosen from this period which would bring the ‘miracle Nilsson’ to all those listeners who had no opportunity to hear her live. First her Bayreuth debut as Elsa in Lohengrin (1954) with the unique constellation of Windgassen, Varnay, Uhde, Adam and Fischer-Dieskau. Then her first Bayreuth Isolde from 1957, with the wonderful Grace Hoffman as Brangäne and the ‘Three Wolfgangs’: Windgassen as Tristan, Sawallisch on the podium and Wagner as director. Two later Tristan recordings – 1967 in Vienna and 1973 in Orange, France – exemplify how much Nilsson’s portrayal of the role evolved over the years, not least due to her work with Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth.
Nilsson’s other great Wagner role, Brünnhilde, is represented in this collection in rare live recordings. Two versions of the final scene from Götterdämmerung (1953 and 1973) reveal the artist’s development, and the 1967 Bayreuth Siegfried finale under Otmar Suitner is a delightful alternative to the well-known Böhm recording. The Met performance of Die Walküre from 1969 brought together once more, for the last time, two forceful personalities who formed a bond, if not at the human level, at least artistically: Birgit Nilsson and Herbert von Karajan.
The combination Birgit Nilsson/Leonard Bernstein occurred only once in a recording: 1970 in Rome, for a concertante Fidelio. The 1961 Turandot recording conducted by Leopold Stokowski is equally unique. Above all, it documents the ‘battle of the giants’ between Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli for years in this opera, and provided the material for numerous anecdotes.
As Salome, Nilsson had what Richard Strauss might have dreamed of: the entire vocal tessitura, from here delicate piano to the gleaming projected tone, which easily cuts through the most powerful waves of orchestral sound – as can be heard in the 1965 recording at the Met.
Of Nilsson’s Elektra, Otto Schenk said: “She sang that with such intensity that a spectator might think: No more, otherwise my heart will burst!” In our edition her portrait of the lonely avenger is presented in two performances, both with Leonie Rysanek as Chrysothemis and Karl Böhm conducting (Montreal 1967 and the Met 1971).
All of the recordings in Birgit Nilsson – The Great Live Recordings have been elaborately restored and remastered. For the vast majority of the recordings (29 CDs) it was possible to use the original analogue tapes from the archives of the six participating broadcasters and the Metropolitan Opera New York, which were remastered for this edition.
Because the intention was to reproduce Nilsson’s voice as genuinely as possible in this unique edition, editing of the original recordings went to great pains to ensure the unmistakable sound of her voice was preserved or document how it sounded at the time of recording. For this reason, people who had heard Nilsson live in various phases of her career, often even in the very performance recorded, were consulted for the mastering process. A great deal of time was spent removing technical blemishes from the recordings, compensating for volume fluctuations and, such as in the open-air Tristan at the Roman Theatre of Orange, France, where the sound of blowing wind was reduced. The highest priority in all editing was always to avoid impairing as well as completely preserve the voices and the music. Listeners can thus experience the vocal wonder of Birgit Nilsson ‘live’ even today.