Thomas Schippers and the NHKSO: beauty, opulence and power – the legendary Osaka Die Walküre debuts on CD

The American conductor Thomas Schippers is a name largely unknown to many people. There may be several reasons for this. He died relatively young – at 47 – from lung cancer, having not really established a major career with an orchestra in the United States until 1970 (at Cincinnati). This was seven years before his premature death. But there was a sense that his career may have been more inflected towards Europe – especially Italy – and this wasn’t just because he conducted often at La Scala or in Rome. He had been appointed principal conductor at the l’Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in the very late 1970s, briefly succeeding Igor Markevitch. Schippers would only ever conduct one concert with them, however.

Schippers would record comparatively little and his discography is sparse; what legacy we have from him today comes largely from private recordings and broadcasts. Much of Schippers’s studio work was done for Sony – and his New York Philharmonic and Cincinnati recordings have had frequent, if erratic, availability. Sony have never issued a complete edition of what recordings Schippers did make, although they have done so for many of their other artists. His work with the Philharmonia Orchestra, done in London, was of exceptional quality, however: the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky symphonies are extraordinary performances – passionate, brilliant but almost forgotten today.

His opera recordings have lasted longer and this is because, by any measure, they are magnificent. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Macbeth and Rossini’s Le Siège de Corinthe have all survived the decades since his death. But the breadth of Schippers work in the opera house was exceptionally wide, and surprisingly innovative. He conducted at the Met over 340 times, for example, specialising in repertoire other conductors tended to avoid. In 1970 he conducted at the Spoleto Festival in Italy – a festival which he founded with Menotti – Mercandante’s Il Giuramento with the Julliard Orchestra. There is Donizetti’s Il Duca D’Alba, with the Trieste Philharmonic, again from Spoleto, but from 1959; a 1968 Luisa Miller from the Met (with Monserrat Caballé) and, of course, the famous 1960 Met performance of Wagner’s Die Fliegender Holländer with London and Rysanek. A sensational Don Carlo (from 1965, with the wonderful Jerome Hines) exists from a radio broadcast and is as thrilling as any and the Ivan the Terrible he did in Rome with Boris Christoff (1969) finds him embracing repertoire he didn’t often conduct in the opera house, but entirely convincing in it. All of these performances have been available, on various labels, though many are difficult to obtain. A notable failure, and Schippers’s career nosedived in the United States because of it, was the disastrous premiere of Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra in 1966. I’m not sure it ever mattered to Schippers – by this time his reputation had risen as one of the very few American conductors to have performed at Bayreuth, where he had made his debut in 1963 conducting Wieland Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

This new recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre from the 1967 Osaka International Festival reveals another side of Thomas Schippers that is often misunderstood in the context of his recordings, but also explains the exceptionally high artistic quality of them. In a newspaper article published in Japan shortly before this performance Schippers had suggested that the NHK Symphony Orchestra – at that time considered the best orchestra in Japan – was not actually the best orchestra in Japan. This did create tension between the conductor and the orchestra but the performance itself tells a rather different story. Throughout much of Thomas Schippers’s career, there was an element of conflict between the conductor and his orchestras, choruses and soloists. His demands as a conductor were enormous, the search for perfection unrelenting and his reputation as a ‘difficult’ conductor was a widespread one. And yet, his recordings and performances defied all of the problems these insecurities and conflicts caused. Some saw other reasons for the way that Schippers behaved. Much of his career, despite the undeniable talent he had – he was accomplished enough as a pianist to play piano quartets – was, by his own admission, based on a large element of luck. Almost certainly his 6’3” frame and extremely good looks made him attractive to others, as did his fluid sexuality; it is certainly one of the reasons, at the beginning of his career, that he attracted the attention of Gian Carlo Menotti. Less attractive and less lucky conductors progressed much more slowly, if at all. If other conductors worked hard for something to fall into place, a Schippers recording seemed to ease into place with less effort. And the one thing a Schippers recording simply never lacks is a sense of its own righteousness; his New York recording of Alexander Nevsky is a perfect example of this.

The Osaka Die Walküre – part of Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth production from 1966 – which came to Japan that April 1967 is both an important part of the Schippers legacy as well as the Die Walküre discography. Boulez had conducted a performance of Tristan und Isolde, with Windgassen as Tristan, Nilsson as Isolde and Hotter as King Marke on 10th April (also recorded, and on King KKC 2188/90). That performance shares some characteristics with the Schippers Walküre: a dramatic pace, fluent and articulate singing and an electrifying vision of the larger Wagnerian picture. There are also differences. The Osaka Tristan lacks the precision, especially in the NHK Symphony Orchestra, that Schippers would bring to it in Die Walküre on the following day, 11th April. Boulez at this stage of his career was a less precise conductor than he would later become whereas Schippers was already concerned with it. Schippers seems to have been much better prepared than Boulez too – at least according to Birgit Nilsson – although if the principal trilogy of singers in Tristan are largely carrying the performance it is an even more impressive achievement.

Die Walküre is less glamorously cast than the Boulez Tristan und Isolde – the only time that Windgassen, Nilsson and Hotter sang Tristan together – but it is still a wonderful reminder of how Bayreuth could command and field singers of such stature in the late 1960s. With Jess Thomas as Siegmund, Helga Dernesch as Sieglinde, Gerd Nienstedt as Hunding, Theo Adam as Wotan and Anja Silja as Brünnhilde this Die Walküre is as strong as any that could be assembled in 1967. Schippers had only conducted a single production at Bayreuth, in 1963 – it would not be until James Levine in 1982 that the festival would use an American conductor on a more regular basis – but this imported Osaka Festival performance is superbly done. Although he places considerable demands on his singers you feel they are devoted to his vision of the work.

Theo Adam (Wotan) and Anja Silja (Brünnhilde)

Despite the Schippers interview which suggested the NHK Symphony Orchestra had been of lesser quality, the playing can shift between almost flawless brilliance or teeter towards a thrilling edge-of-seat danger but largely they play and sound magnificent. Schippers has reined in the brass which on so many Japanese recordings from this period can sound so fierce. Trombones, horns and tubas now have a burnished, golden intensity, at their most expansive and darkest sounding as if they are descending into the abyss, and at their briskest and fleetest sounding as precise and sharp as shards of glass. Trumpets, possibly because they are more constrained than they would normally be, sometimes sound stressed. The strings, however, sometimes a weak point, especially in the violins, have never sounded better – rich, monumentally deep, bleeding passion or brooding and sinister. Schippers’s Die Walküre has, I think, one of the greatest of all orchestral interpretations of the score; few recordings match Schippers’s care with orchestral detail, or his ear for a distinctive Wagnerian sound. And few orchestras have equalled the sheer quality of playing we hear on this recording.

Although all the Wagner operas that April were semi-staged there is actually very little indication they were. Stage noises sound minimal. Die Walküre does open with a windstorm and depending on your point of view you will either find this atmospheric or an intrusion. It may well be a case of the latter since Schippers probably doesn’t need the sound of one when his interpretation of the opening prelude is so thrilling and the orchestra play it with such incandescent brilliance. The strings especially are magnificent with playing which is enormously febrile, each instrument swirling like a tornado through each other. One possible advantage of the closely miked stereo sound – which, incidentally, is quite remarkable for 1967, especially given the ghastly sound on Karajan’s live Berlin Ring from the same time – is that some of this is hidden. Once it’s disappeared, both Schippers and the NHKSO are indulgent with subtleties they find in the score, which despite the elasticity of tempo give the illusion of something much more monumental. Schippers rather than pulling back on the heft of the bottom-heavy strings seems more inclined to seize on their weight. Schippers may also have worked more closely on the orchestra’s solos than Boulez did. There is some superb playing – the cello in ‘Wes Herd dies auch, hier muss ich rasten’, for example.

Schippers’s cast bears almost no resemblance to the Bayreuth Festival one from July 1966 and would bear only a slighter resemblance to the later Bayreuth staging five months later. One of my favourite Siegmunds on record, James King, would sing the role at the 1967 Bayreuth Festival that Karl Böhm conducted (Leonie Rysanek would be King’s Sieglinde and Birgit Nilsson Brünnhilde). Wieland Wagner had died in October 1966 so it’s difficult to gauge how far the Osaka Walküre is precisely as it was intended to be, but the Schippers cast on its own terms is a notable one (one should assume having Birgit Nilsson sing both Isolde and Brünnhilde on consecutive nights would have been too demanding, even for this exceptional singer).

The one major singer here who might divide opinion is Anja Silja. Unquestionably a great Senta, but often cast by Wieland Wagner for very personal reasons, Silja could arguably be said to have been miscast in some of the Wagner she sang. This Osaka performance was the first time she had sung Brünnhilde in any Bayreuth production (and 1967 would also be her last appearance at the festival) but if she was going to sing a Brünnhilde at all casting her in Die Walküre made better sense than if this had been one of the later operas. She was twenty-seven at the time and there is a youthfulness to her which is certainly convincing, but one can be under no illusion that Silja’s voice is in any way an instrument of great beauty. It is not. She hits the notes, as if with the blade of Nothung itself; her “Hojotoho!” battle cry is nothing if it is not done with the steeliness of a Valkyrie. Expose Silja to her upper range and her voice can occasionally travel wildly off centre and become hollow, almost a shriek; but there is a warmth beneath the top-end of the stave which is solid. She is less secure in her long Act III scene with Wotan where Silja can seem lost in its significance. It is by no means always the case that a singer can feel exposed against the wide experience of another – in this case, the Wotan of Theo Adam – but Silja’s Brünnhilde sometimes feels like this.

Theo Adam’s Wotan had already been seen at Bayreuth and it was a part which this great German bass-baritone had honed during the mid 1960s. In truth, by 1967 there were some problems with his voice, although this recording certainly suggests there were no issues with either his ability to project power or robustness. It’s quite some time since I have seen the film of this Die Walküre but Adam’s Wotan may in fact sound a little under strain. The quality of his Wotan is impressive, however. He is intelligently characterised and you’d be hard pressed to find a better “Abschied” from this period. Adams may well have found himself entirely prepared for his forthcoming Bayreuth performances of Wotan to be conducted by Karl Böhm, however. Thomas Schippers tests Adams in the way that Böhm would, although it’s arguable that Schippers has taken more care to blend Adam’s voice into the orchestra. I think the richer sound of the NHK orchestra – as opposed to the more balanced one of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra – takes that rougher edge off Adam’s voice which became such a feature of his later Wagner performances. That deeper orchestral sound, however, doesn’t immediately benefit the Hunding of Gerd Nienstedt. Not always the darkest or most Stygian of basses he can blend too far into this particular orchestra.

Helga Dernesch is another fresh face having only ever previously sung Ortlinde in a Bayreuth Die Walküre. Dernesch, unfortunately, experienced something of a problematic career in the more demanding Wagnerian roles although that is not evident here. Her Sieglinde shows her somewhere near the top of her game and there is much complexity to this particular performance of it. Dernesch was never the easiest of singers to cast, conductors often mistaking her range at the time. Wieland Wagner clearly got it right, there being just a slight touch of mezzo tinge to that dramatic soprano. I accept this is a rather darker interpretation of the role; some would certainly prefer a lighter one and even if the voice had been slightly out of focus, as she was for Karajan in the early 1970s, this would certainly have been a remarkable performance given that Dernesch brings both power (which she always had) and that rich, expressive tone.

Sieglinde is about narration, its vitality lies in living and breathing the role. Dernesch, a great dramatic actress, is inside Sieglinde, adept at conveying the psychological drama, her terror and her vulnerability.

Jess Thomas’s Siegmund overshadows all other singers in this performance. He is slightly on the lighter side than the normal baritonal depth some singers give to the role – James King, for example – but what is notable about Thomas’s Siegmund is the complete security of his singing. It does not emerge on the film, but on the recording there is a warmth to his voice and a steadiness to it. Listen to his ‘Ein Schwert verheiss mir der Vater’ and the breadth of it isn’t just effortlessly done, it is also rock solid. Thomas brings passion and internal understanding to this Siegmund. What we, in fact, end up with is a well-matched Sieglinde and Siegmund who are more narratively entwined and more symbiotically defined by their raw emotions than is usually the case.

So, what are we to make of this Die Walküre? It is clearly a deeply considered, and largely magnificent, performance – and one which Wieland Wagner had presumably planned in considerable detail before his sudden death in October 1966. The cast is fresh enough to stand outside the normal Bayreuth ones for this opera – although Die Walküre is the only part of the Ring cycle that works as a stand-alone opera so perhaps this very freshness was a deliberate choice by Wieland Wagner. Thomas Schippers is inspired and in a wonderfully prepared but electrifying performance of the score gives us something beyond the usual standards of the time. His approach can highlight the orchestra, in an opera which usually highlights the singers. But his ear for detail and balance is phenomenal. Despite his quibbles about the NHK Symphony Orchestra Schippers coaxes playing of extraordinary beauty, richness and power – it is, in my view, one of the great performances by an orchestra on disc. It is often so astonishing one can often fade out the singers to entirely focus on the players. The stereo sound is excellent, with only the occasional problem with a shift in balance, usually towards the left ear.

This is the only Die Walküre in the Schippers discography and one of the finest recordings of the opera. It’s pretty much essential listening.

Marc Bridle

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre (Festival Hall Osaka, 11th April 1967)

Siegmund – Jess Thomas, Sieglinde – Helga Dernesch, Hunding – Gerd Nienstedt, Wotan – Theo Adam, Brünnhilde – Anja Silja, Fricka – Grace Hoffman. NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo/Thomas Schippers (conductor)


ABOVE: Thomas Schippers (Photo: Sony Music Archive)