Kirsten Flagstad / Thomas Beecham

Beecham, Flagstad & Wagner

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It is no longer popular to think of Richard Wagner as the greatest German composer since Beethoven, but it certainly would be if recordings like this were being made by contemporary artists. As it is, it usually takes a re-release of a classic early '50s recording like this one by conductor Thomas Beecham and soprano Kirsten Flagstad to remind the listener that Wagner certainly was viewed in that light in the early to mid-twentieth century. Clearly, the artists captured here believed it.

Opening the program with a rip-snorting Overture to The Flying Dutchman with the BBC Symphony from 1954 immediately grabs the listener, and following that with a luminously radiant Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin with the Royal Philharmonic from 1953 instantly increases the intensity. But following them with the magnificent Flagstad, the queen of Wagner sopranos at the time, joining Beecham in a rapturous performance of the Wesendonck-Lieder with the BBC from 1952 raises the temperature, and concluding the program with an ecstatic Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde from the same concert is immensely satisfying. The inclusion of a 10-minute talk by Flagstad on the art of singing Wagner is welcome -- but, after her Liebestod, a silence longer then the three seconds between tracks might be observed. Produced in cooperation with the Beecham Trust, the sound here is about as good as it's going to get -- clean, deep, and honest -- which is more than good enough, considering how tremendous the performances are.

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