Review Written by Tony Watts
A veritable Valhalla of vocalism
Such was the glorious amplitude of Birgit Nilsson’s shining, sword-like soprano that one of her colleagues was moved to remark that the further away you were from her on stage, the closer she sounded! How fitting it is that Decca Classics has chosen to commemorate this great singer’s centenary with a boxed set of suitable size and splendour. An exceedingly grand total of no fewer than seventy-nine CDs and two DVDs encompasses the diva’s complete recorded output for the DG, Decca and Phillips labels, with several items which originally appeared on EMI included for good measure. A veritable Valhalla of vocalism featuring twenty-seven complete operas and any number of recitals and discs of excerpts. There are the famous Ring Cycles and Tristans conducted by Böhm and Solti, plus a disc’s worth of excerpts from the latter conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. The finely-cast Leinsdorf Walküre is included, as is the late ‘sixties Tannhauser conducted by Otto Gerdes in which Nilsson sings both Elisabeth and Venus, no mean feat even if it is in the recording studio rather than the opera house. Nilson’s famous recordings of Richard Strauss’s Salome and Elektra naturally take their place, as does a live Die Frau ohne Schatten under Böhm though her best days were slightly behind her in the latter.
Although Nilsson made her UK debut in Idomeneo at Glyndebourne in 1951, she was not a natural Mozartian as is evidenced by her Donna Anna in two recordings of Don Giovanni, the late ‘sixties Böhm recording made in Prague and the earlier Leinsdorf set with a somewhat Met-centric cast. She is not at her most persuasive as Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischutz which ideally requires a more lyrical soprano or even as Reiza in Oberon, opposite the young Domingo though that does have spectacular moments to commend it. Leonore in Fidelio is more fertile ground for Nilsson’s dramatic soprano and she is the outstanding performer in the neglected Maazel set from 1964. A variety of Italian operas form a major part of the set and while Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and Tosca suite Nilsson very well, there is no doubt that her finest Puccini role was the title role in Turandot, a part that might have been written for her. Her supremely thrilling assumption can be heard in two recordings, the earliest of which pairs her with Jussi Bjoerling and Renata Tebaldi, while in the later one her partners are Franco Corelli and Renata Scotto. Vocal riches indeed and a truly thrilling experience. We hear the diva’s range as a Verdian in Macbeth (opposite Taddei), Aida and in the Solti recording of Un ballo in maschera which is further distinguished by a fine cast headed by Carlo Bergonzi’s peerless Riccardo.
This essential set is rounded out by solo operatic recitals, as well as the Scandinavian songs and hymns which formed such an attractive part of the Nilsson discography, not forgetting her solitary excursion to Broadway with that memorable excerpt from the Fledermaus gala ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ (and woe betide the man who refuses her as a contemporary critic put it). A feisty individual with a strong sense of humour as well as one of the greatest singers of her time who, when asked her formula for a successful performance of the big Wagnerian roles her reply ‘a pair of comfortable shoes’, has passed into operatic folklore, as has her assertion that ‘Isolde made me famous, while Turandot made me rich’. A unique singer and personality. I can pay ‘La Nilsson’ no greater compliment than to observe that it is fully worthy of its subject.
La Nilsson: The Complete Recordings is available on Amazon.co.uk.
Decca / 79 CD & 2 DVDs
Release Date: 4 May, 2018
Tony Watts is a keen opera, concert, theatre and ballet-goer. He has spent most of his working life in the music industry, including a 16-year spell at Decca Records. He has compiled and produced over 1,000 re-issues on CD, LP and digital formats, and written notes for several hundred more. In addition to writing for a wide variety of musical books and publications, Tony has worked as a music consultant on films and on exhibitions for the V&A. Follow Tony now on Twitter: