I moved this blog entry up because I found the Jessye Norman/Herbert von Karajon version at the bottom of the list. I was completely blown away by this. If you want Wagner to shake you down to your shoes, this is the one to hear. The films for this come and go from YouTube, so get them while they're there.
Shirley Verrett, 1977
Zubin Mehta is conducting. She is really a mezzo, but Wagner lies like a high, heavy mezzo. Surprising is the lightness of her voice and how in spite of that she makes the music work. I don’t recommend mezzos try this as a rule, but for her it seems quite beautiful. The very beginning is clipped off. She isn't a soprano at all and therefore doesn't make the list of 20 greatest sopranos.
This is in the 60’s, I don’t know who is conducting. It is important to contrast this film with the above, and maybe anything else on the planet. She is showing you how it’s done. Verrett shows a lot of tension in her neck, but Nilsson nothing. She could be lip syncing for all you can see of tension in her voice and body. Watch. This is important. She is controlling her voice from below exactly as it is always supposed to be done!!! This is why she is the greatest. Technique is never an impediment. It's also why years of singing such heavy music do not wear on her voice. When her voice rises to a crescendo, you see nothing. You hear everything. No element of expression is missing. It is magnificent beyond imagining. In the 20 greatest sopranos list she is number 5.
Maria Callas, 1957
There is no indication of who is conducting, audio only and in Italian. It is always interesting to read the comments about Callas. There was a shrillness in her voice that is distasteful to many. Perhaps she doesn’t achieve the total control from the diaphragm that Nilsson does. This is probably the explanation for Callas. The attraction of Callas lies in the expression. She may never have been a Wagnerian, but she gets it. It is a musically compelling performance. Her understanding here is as complete as in her more famous Italian performances. In the 20 greatest sopranos list she is number 1.
Kirsten Flagstad, 1936
Fritz Reiner is conducting, audio only. The delicacy of phrasing is astounding. No one else does it this way. She builds the entire piece to a clear, specific climax. It would be wonderful to have a film of this. In the 20 greatest sopranos list she is number 9.
Kirsten Flagstad, 1954
Wilhelm Furtwaengler is conducting, audio only, playing over a film. The delicacy of the earlier performance is gone. Her youth as a coloratura is gone completely. The performance retains its sense of growth over the length of the entire aria, but the effect is now monumental, grandiose as seldom heard in the work of any artist. It was her reading that made her the all time great. I take nothing away from Nilsson, but Flagstad makes it feel so much larger, so much more significant than anyone else. She was the greatest interpreter of Wagner.
Waltraud Meier, 1999
Zubin Mehta is conducting. Virtually worshiped in her home house in Munich, Meier is a unique performer of Wagner. She hasn’t the enormous physical equipment of Nilsson or Flagstad, and you see the tension in her neck. What she has is beauty and passion. She sings the whole damn thing in close-up. Who else would even try it? Hers is by far the most detailed reading. She does not even try to compete with her more famous counterparts, but creates her own original ecstatic performance. She does not make the list. The film linked here is from a performance at Bayreuth in 1995.
Christine Brewer 2002, Donald Runnicles conducting, audio only. The beauty of her voice is unsurpassed. The style is there. But she does not dominate the material like Nilsson, and she does not feel the monumental structures like Flagstad. Good Isoldes are very rare so we should treasure her. In the 20 greatest sopranos list she is number 17. This recording is not currently on YouTube.
And how did I miss this the first time around? The fabulous Eileen Farrell, a very great singer missing from the great singers list, sings the Liebestod. She had a big beautiful voice she could do virtually anything with. I don't know Christine Brewer well enough to even consider placing her above Farrell.
The goosebumps are working. If you want someone to listen to now, she is the one. I wonder if she is doing this anywhere.
Jessye Norman, 1987
This film is posted as a memorial to Herbert von Karajan who is conducting his last performance. This is giving me shivers. This version is beautiful almost beyond belief. Notice the slow tempo. I think I'm going to declare a winner. No one tops Jessye at her very best. Please note: the great and fabulous Herbert von Karajan carefully and obsessively WATCHES THE SINGER throughout this piece.
Nilsson is voice, Flagstad is phrasing!, Norman is emotion, Meier may possibly be acting, Stemme is soul.
OMG. Could I be becoming a connoisseur of Wagner?