Martha Modl: The Portrait Of A Legend

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MARTHA MÖDL: THE PORTAIT OF A LEGEND Martha Mödl (sop, ms); various vocalists; various conductors; various orchestras PROFIL 12006 (2 CDs: 158:17) Live: 1950–82

WAGNER Rienzi: Gerechter Gott! Tristan und Isolde: Doch nun von Tristan; Begehrt, Herrin was ihr wünscht; War Morold dir so wert; Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold; Dein Werk? O tör’ge Magd! So stürben wir, um ungetrennt; Mild und leise. Wesendonck Lieder. Die Walküre: Der Männer sippe; Du bist der Lenz. Götterdämmerung: Starke Scheite … Grane, mein Ross, sei mir gegrüsst. R. STRAUSS Elektra: Was willst du? Seht doch dort! FORTNER Bluthochzeit: Nachbarinnen! Mit einem Messer. REIMANN Melusine: Heut, hier und jetzt wird es entschieden. TCHAIKOVSKY Pique Dame: Schweigt doch endlich! BEETHOVEN Bitten. Die liebe des Nächsten. Vom Tode. Die ehre Gottes aus der Natur. Gottes Macht und Vorsehung. Bußlied

I can’t claim to be an expert on the recordings of Martha Mödl, but to the best of my knowledge Profil has issued all of these for the very first time. At least, the company claims so on the CD insert, and I for one have never seen commercial recordings by her of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder or any of the Beethoven songs.

Mödl’s strengths as a singer were, ironically, her defects as well. Although she had a superb voice that was well trained, once she was onstage singing she let herself go in a way that was as exciting as it was harrowing. With no thought of technique, she threw herself into the music, often sacrificing tonal security or beauty for a complete identification with the character or words she was singing. The liner notes compare her to Callas, and that is a fair assessment, but I find it ironic to remember that she was not always considered a legend when she was still alive. I still recall, when Furtwängler’s RAI Ring cycle was issued on Seraphim LPs, how many critics who shall remain nameless actually apologized for Mödl’s contribution, although, to be fair, they usually added that when you saw her in person you overlooked the explosive, blown-out high notes because of the intensity of her interpretations. I also heard from an acquaintance of mine that once, in a performance of Elektra with Astrid Varnay in the title role and Mödl as Klytemnestra (which she sings in the excerpt on this set), Varnay got so caught up listening to Mödl that she almost forgot to re-enter.

From a strictly vocal standpoint, her voice is under better control on CD 2 than it is on CD 1. So many of the high notes on the first disc are attacked with such vehemence that you are almost afraid that she is going to blow the voice out, then and there, especially the two high Cs (feared by Flagstad, but apparently not by Mödl) in Isolde’s act I curse. Ludwig Suthaus was a fine singer, but not necessarily for Tristan, which lay very uncomfortably in his range, but he gives it the old college try and, sparked by Mödl, is far more intense here than in his 1952 commercial recording with Flagstad and Furtwängler. The Tristan excerpts go back and forth between two different venues and three different performances (the love duet excerpt with Wolfgang Windgassen was performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall, but not, apparently, with the Royal Philharmonic), and the singers sound rather off-mike in the 1958 Munich performance, but regardless of time or place Mödl is locked into the character with an almost psychic intensity. It’s interesting to hear such an intense vocal actress performing the Wesendonck Lieder , but this is where her high notes are more out of control than anywhere else in the set.

Turning to CD 2, we hear at the outset a much more in-control Mödl, her voice intense but warm and well placed for Sieglinde’s two act I excerpts and a phenomenal Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung conducted by Georges Sebastian. Mödl often said that this was her favorite role of all, and she certainly makes you think the world is coming to an end! Following this, we jump a decade to a 1967 performance as Klytemnestra (unfortunately, not with Varnay) in which she is appropriately intense, but by now the voice has a wobble. The two excerpts from modern operas, Wolfgang Fortner’s Bluthochzeit and Aribert Reimann’s Melusine, are not really my kind of music (this is from the Ugly 12-Tone Era), but they do show that Mödl was not only a great stage actress but an excellent musician, capable of learning any style of music and infusing it with dramatic energy. The liner notes indicate that Reimann composed this scene especially for Mödl.

More interesting is her fascinating performance as the old Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Though sung in German (I hadn’t realized that Germany was still performing foreign operas in the vernacular as late as 1982), she delineates the character of the old woman with perfect feeling and a meaning for the text.

Oddly, this survey of Mödl’s career ends with the earliest performances on the set, a series of Beethoven Lieder from 1950. Her voice is at its freshest here (perhaps Profil wanted to leave us with that sound in our ears), her interpretations are all excellent and not all over the top, and it’s interesting that her accompanist is Michael Raucheisen, who had recorded a large group of Lieder performances with the legendary tenor Leo Slezak back around 1928. They make an excellent pair, and these readings are exceptionally fine in every respect.

Despite the flaws, this set is absolutely indispensable for Mödl fans (and I’m certainly one), for Wagner lovers, and for anyone who wants to hear one of the most intense artists of the 20th century. We’ve had so many cookie-cutter Wagner sopranos in recent years that it’s nice to remember a time when, for some of them at least, performing this music was more than a job. It was almost a matter of life and death.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PH12006

  • UPC: 881488120066

  • Label: Profil

  • Composer: Aribert Reimann, Ludwig van Beethoven, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, Wolfgang Fortner

  • Performer: Martha Mödl