Kirsten Flagstad in Song

Kirsten Flagstad in Song

To many record collectors the name of Kirsten Flagstad means one thing above all: Wagner. Indeed, so great became her fame in the 'hochdramatische' roles of the operatic repertoire that there is a tendency nowadays to overlook her stature as a recitalist.

Right: Flagstad in song - this time operatic - as Kundry

Within a short time of her Met debut in 1935 she was signed up for a three-month concert tour of the United States, and initially American audiences were perplexed by her physical tranquillity and composure on the platform.

Flagstad in Song

Other recitalists would allow themselves a generous degree of movement and gesture but Flagstad habitually stood stock still, her right arm resting on the grand piano and her left motionless at her side.

In her early days as a recitalist she was often criticised for failing to identify sufficiently with the text and spirit of the individual songs; in keeping with her physical stillness her interpretations were found to be placid and uninvolved.

Flagstad in song was so unlike the costumed operatic heroines she portrayed so magnificently.

Being (like so many of the greatest artists) intensely self-critical, Flagstad took note of these comments and was later to write: "The reviewers were quite right in saying that I did not fully convey the moods of the songs."

Flagstad in Song - the German Lieder

Particularly in the case of German Lieder she studied hard to acquire a deeper insight into the significance of the text, and in the process she also learnt to have a great respect for the perceptiveness of American concert audiences.

“At first", she was to write, "I had only familiar songs on my programme, but then I grew bolder and replaced them with others that I particularly loved, without giving consideration to the fact that they were less familiar. It turned out to be just the right thing to do; the Americans love to hear new works."

Flagstad in Song - on records - apologies no longer needed

By the time Flagstad made the recordings on this disc no apology was needed for her lack of identification with the material she was interpreting. She continued to express herself phrase by phrase rather than word by word - no one could ever write of her, as the distinguished American musicologist William Ashbrook recently did of her rival Lotte Lehmann, that she indulged in "chopped phrases and a way of projecting text as though it were all in italics" - but one only has to compare the two Beethoven songs at the beginning of this disc to observe with what versatility she learnt to colour and inflect the vocal line. Flagstad in song had emerged.

Flagstad in Song - a powerful voice scaled down with no loss of quality

The monumental dignity of 'Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur' makes way from the very first note of 'Ich liebe dich' to a naive simplicity of expression entirely suitable to Beethoven in his Volkslied mood, and I fancy that no one familiar with Flagstad's Brunnhilde could fail to be astonished by the technical skill with which she reduces the size of the tone without sacrificing any of its quality.

Flagstad in Song, the songs of Richard Strauss

The depth of Richard Strauss' admiration for Flagstad can be gauged from his specific request that she should undertake the first (the world premiere) performance of his 'Four Last Songs'. There could be no greater vote of confidence in "Flagstad in Song" than the one coming from Strauss the composer.

Whether or not he was familiar with the three recorded performances on this disc I am not able to say, but I feel confident that he would seldom have heard the great arching phrases of 'Seitdem dein Aug' endowed with such warmth of tone or the heartfelt sense of loss in 'Allerseelen' expressed with less fuss or with deeper fervour. To take just one phrase in isolation, the ache of nostalgia in Flagstad's piano tone on the words 'Deiner sussen Blicke' ('your sweet glances') is made all the more affecting by the dignity of its restraint. One more example of the artistry of Flagstad in song.

What a difference when we move on to the hectic outpourings of 'Cacilie'! If she stood stock still while singing this the effect must indeed have been somewhat incongruous - I remember one old friend telling me that when Lehmann sang it "one used to fear that she would fly from the platform!" - but for all the unfettered élan of the vocal performance the control remains absolute, and the crowning high B natural, a note which in a Wagner opera would have been a roof-raiser, remains perfectly in scale with the requirements of Lieder singing.

The composer with whose songs Flagstad felt the deepest affinity was predictably her compatriot Edvard Grieg, and she seldom gave a recital which did not include at least one group of his compositions. Flagstad in song would always be notable for her performance of Grieg's songs. To 'Im Kahne' ('In the boat') she brings an unaffected directness, as the young man who dreamily observes the ducks "strutting in their yellow socks" while he floats on the ripples of the lake, with thoughts of his girl-friend never far from his mind.

The second 'boating song', 'Der Gynger en baad paa boelge' ('A boat is rocking on the waves'), has more of a sting in its tail, and this time the lustrous richness of Flagstad's lower register is tellingly displayed.

A young girl of startling attractiveness drifts heedlessly on the waters of the fjord, but how long will she be allowed to sail on alone, untouched by life? The waves carry her relentlessly towards the shore... In 'En svane' ('A Swan'), (Ibsen's poem is sung in German translation), there is an element of the mystical; a majestic stillness suffuses the world of this remote and impassive creature which tells its secret only in the moment of its death.

A note of Nordic melancholy tinges the serenity of 'Lys natt' ('Bright Night') - scarcely has the sun set beneath the horizon when the time of night and dreaming is brought to an end by the dawning of a new day - a mood to which 'Et hab' ('My Hope') provides the perfect contrast. (Flagstad in song could span the distance between a near whisper to the full-bodied and perfectly focused crescendo.) This time we meet a young lady who, in a helter-skelter 3/4 rhythm, wonders if she can really believe her luck. The Spring has filled her mind with agitation; perhaps it is wisest to keep her excitement to herself, but there is a star shining out in the big wide world, "and he is mine."

I imagine it is a fair guess that of all Flagstad's Grieg recordings 'Ich liebe dich' ('I love you') and 'Ein Traum' ('A Dream'), are the most familiar to record collectors, but it would be a pity to allow familiarity to temper one's admiration of two transcendent performances - brilliant examples of Flagstad in song.

The glowing vocal tone, whose depth and evenness of quality over a range (in 'Ein Traum') of low C to high A flat is perhaps unique to Flagstad, imbues both songs with a rare sense of devotion; and on the subject of devotion, when Flagstad took her final farewell of the London public on 7 September 1957 participating at the Albert Hall (in full Norwegian national dress) in a Grieg memorial concert and chose 'I love you' as her final encore, I hardly think there was a soul in the audience who would not have been happy to stand up and sing it straight back to her.

Another Norwegian composer for whose songs Flagstad felt a special affection was Eyvind Alnaes (1872-1932), whose 'Lykken Mellem To Mennesker' (literally 'Happiness Between Two People') provides her with a perfect opportunity to unfold the art which conceals art - Flagstad in song.

Serenity is once again the mood here, and with what serene ease she irons out the song's soaring intervals! Like many another singer Flagstad is often most marvelously herself when performing in her own native tongue, and in Gneg's Haugtussa songs the combined talents of poet, composer and interpreter blend into a rare artistic unity. Grieg devoted infinite care to his word settings, never more so than when treating texts by the folk-poet Arne Garborg, who, like Grieg himself, was deeply concerned with the creation of a native Norwegian culture. For his Haugtussa cycle Grieg selected eight poems from the collection in which Garborg created the figure of the strange and lovely young peasant girl Haugtussa, who tends her cattle on the Norwegian mountain side, her mind full of dreams and fanciful imaginings, and he strove to match with his music a text which he described as "a masterpeice", full of simplicity and depth, and indescribably beautiful in colour." A challenge magnificently met by Flagstad in song.

Those who, like myself, are strangers to the Norwegian language, must inevitably lose something of the subtlety both of the songs themselves and of Flagstad's renderings of them; but so vivid is her vocal and musical identification with Haugtussa that when one follows the texts in translation it is remarkable the degree to which she assists one's comprehension.

Her characterisation, for instance, of the various potential predators envisaged in 'Blabaer-li', and the transformation in her voice as her mind turns to "the nice boy from the brushwood clearing" tell their own story clearly enough, as do the passion of 'Møte', the tragedy of 'Vond dag', or the desolation of the final phrase of all "A, lat meg fa blunda, blunda!", ("O let me shut my eyes and sleep!"). While the skittishness of Killingdans' calls up rare visions of Flagstad as she must have been back in the days when Richard Rodgers' 'The Girl Friend' used to feature in her repertoire, Flagstad in song could show that all thoughts of armour-clad warrior-maidens were a million miles from her mind.

As so much of Flagstad's recital work took place in Britain and the United States she made it her business to acquire a repertoire of songs in English. Cyril Scott was a rare example of an English composer whose music was more widely appreciated abroad than at home, and the velvety texture of Flagstad's last solo recital in London took place during Coronation Week in 1953. On that occasion, in order at last to terminate the applause, she was obliged to settle on something even more final than 'When I have sung my songs'. Softly, and with her customary intense sincerity, she launched into 'God Save the Queen'. A startling example of the versatility of Flagstad in song.

Edwin McArthur was born in Denver in 1907 and studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music. His was the first application which Flagstad received after her debut at the Met, and after meeting with her approval at an audition he became her regular accompanist in the United States.

Most unusually it was his habit always to play by heart, an indication of how deeply he immersed himself even in the Scandinavian song repertoire, an area not normally familiar to American accompanists. He travelled to Australia with Flagstad for a concert tour in 1938 and he made his conducting debut at a concert in Sydney with Flagstad as soloist. Flagstad loyally promoted his career as a conductor, not without encountering occasional opposition; a debt which he repaid by rendering her great service both in the Norwegian law courts and on the concert platforms of America when she ran into trouble after the war because of her husband's membership of the Nasjonal Samling Party.

It was McArthur's endearing habit to help Flagstad relax before a concert by playing popular songs in the sitting-room of her hotel suite while she was changing into her finery next door; his other essential duties included opening the champagne which she invariably drank when the concert was over, and keeping all visitors well away from her until she had had a chance to relax.

It was he who persuaded Flagstad to make her two final appearances in the States - Wagner concerts at the Carnegie Hall in March 1955 for the benefit of the Symphony of the Air - and he conducted them both.

In 1965, three years after her death, Edwin McArthur recalled his work on the concert platform and in the recording studio with Kirsten Flagstad:

"Kirsten Flagstad made a sensational American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on February 2, 1935. I had the rare good fortune to meet her very soon after that historic day and the privilege of being her collaborator as accompanist and conductor for over one thousand concerts before her final retirement. He knew Flagstad in song!

Among my most prized possessions is a set of two volumes, handsomely bound, of all the songs of Edvard Grieg. Madame Flagstad gave them to me shortly after we commenced making music together. One evening in our home in New York she decided to sing for my wife, a friend who was with us and myself. We heard for the very first time that evening Grieg's beautiful song cycle Haugtussa. We were enchanted. The tenderness of the texts and the rare beauty of the music cast a magic spell.

The following season and for many years thereafter she sang this cycle dozens of times, and so that her public would understand the touching story of the maiden, Haugtussa, we had printed in the program an English text.

Presently Madame Flagstad expressed the desire to record Haugtussa. One afternoon during the summer of 1940 in the RCA Victor studios in Hollywood we made our first recording of the songs. This was before the days of long-playing records.

Flagstad in Song - privately among her friends

Madame Flagstad particularly loved these songs and enjoyed singing them in private for her friends. One memorable occasion was a Sunday afternoon in the home of Katharine Cornell and her husband, Guthrie McClintic. The dozen fortunate friends there that day will never forget the poignancy of her performance. She just stood quietly by the piano, told the story of each song as it came and then, in her marvellous and simple way, sang each one."

©1995 Nigel Douglas

Flagstad in a video clip from the Big Broadcast of 1938

Flagstad in Song