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Remembering Artur Bodanzky

Sony’s 25-CD set “Wagner at the Met: Legendary Performances” reminds us that when the Metropolitan Opera was a great Wagner house — how times have changed! — it was also a permanent home to great conductors. My “Remembering Artur Bodanzky,” in the current issue of Barry Millington’s excellent Wagner Journal, expounds:

An abundance of evidence – written and recorded – suggests that from 1885 to 1939 the world’s foremost Wagner house, judged solely by the caliber of musical performance, was the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In Europe, there were companies that staged Wagner more painstakingly or progressively. But none could compete with the Met with regard to singing, conducting, and orchestral support.

The caliber of Wagner singing in New York during the half century in question is a phenomenon well known and much described. Initially, the resident German ensemble included Marianne Brandt, Lilli Lehmann, and Albert Niemann – great singing actors stolen from German companies. Later, Jean de Rezske – who proved that Tristan could be beautifully vocalized — and Olive Fremstad – the closest equivalent to a Wagnerian Callas – reigned at the Met. After that came Friedrich Schorr, Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad. This was before the advent of air travel; these artists stayed put in New York.

But even more crucial – and far less acknowledged – is that the Met was a conductor’s house with a Wagner lineage comprising Anton Seidl, Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, and Artur Bodanzky. That Bodanzky is not normally grouped in such company is the reason for this article. His Wagner broadcast recordings were once sidelined by commercial studio products. No longer: you can readily hear Bodanzky’s Wagner on youtube, on Naxos, and on a new 25-CD Sony box of “Wagner at the Met: Legendary Performances from The Metropolitan Opera” including New York Bodanzky performances of Siegfried (Jan. 30, 1937), Tristan und Isolde (April 16, 1938), and Götterdämmerung (Jan. 11, 1936). All you have to do is listen.

But first, backing up: it must be remembered that, following an inaugural season of Italian and French opera that broke the bank, the Met began as a German-language house. The seven seasons from 1884 to 1891 were wholly German; it was the only language sung, and the vast majority of the singing was of Wagner. As of 1885, the presiding conductor, Anton Seidl, was a Wagner protégé of genius. That from 1872 to 1878 Seidl lived at Wahnfried – in his own room, as a virtual member of the family — has somehow escaped Wagner biographers. He was Wagner’s boy, and when Wagner sent him out into the world he testified that Seidl was a young man he wholly trusted to do justice to the Ring, Tristan, and Die Meistersinger. All accounts of Seidl conducting Wagner register his close allegiance to Wagner’s own precepts – and his overwhelming impact in the pit.

When Mahler became the Met’s chief purveyer of Wagner in 1908, that he was found worthy of comparison with Seidl was the highest possible praise. Compared to Seidl, Mahler seemed more analytical, less prone to the weight and Innigkeit later associated with Furtwängler. Mahler and his wife were amazed by the lustrous voices at the Met, compared what Mahler had in Vienna. That Mahler did not complain about the Met orchestra (as he did about the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony) speaks volumes.

Toscanini’s Wagner at the Met, from 1908 to 1915, was at first less highly regarded – but his intense mastery and advocacy were never in doubt. Toscanini’s Wagner sound was found more Italianate than that of his predecessors, and his lyric predilection – for “singing” sonic surfaces – was experienced as something new in the Wagner repertoire.

And so to Bodanzky. He was born in Vienna in 1877. He studied composition with Alexander von Zemlinsky. He was an assistant to Mahler at the Vienna Opera, and was also closely associated with Busoni (who recommended him to Toscanini when Toscanini left New York in 1915). He was head of the German wing at the Met from 1915 until his death in 1939. The Mahler and Busoni links are suggestive. Bodanzky’s Met broadcasts do not disclose a “Germanic” Wagner conductor in the Wagner-Seidl-Furtwängler mold. The massive elemental groundswell is not his interpretive medium. Rather, he favors the highest possible surface intensity. He likes brisk tempos, subito dynamics, and sharp attacks. More than responsive, his orchestra is indescribably hot. James Huneker – a legendary name among early twentieth century New York critics — wrote: “No living conductor has the fiery temperament of Bodanzky save Arturo Toscanini.”

It bears stressing that Bodanzky’s Met orchestra was predominantly Italian – a Toscanini legacy. The house’s other principal conductor, presiding over the Italian wing, was Ettore Panizza – a name as forgotten as Bodanzky’s, and as important. Panizza was a conductor in the Toscanini mold, albeit predisposed to a more flexible pulse. To hear his Met broadcasts of Verdi is to hear both Panizza and the Met orchestra in their element. There is no greater recorded operatic performance than Panizza’s New York Otello of Feb. 12, 1938, with Giovanni Martinelli, Elisabeth Rethberg, and Lawrence Tibbett. Martinelli and Tibbett are iconic in their roles. And the orchestra is a powderkeg of inflammatory virtuosity, an instrument unlike any to be heard today. (Panizza, who had conducted in Milan and Vienna, called his Met orchestra “as fine a theater orchestra as I have seen in the world.”) The same orchestra, in the 1938 Tristan under Bodanzky’s baton, delivers the most gripping act one Prelude I have ever experienced (I am not alone in this opinion). The sound is Italian: keenly focused singing from the strings, laced with portamento; forward timpani and brass (bright trumpets). Bodanzky begins very slowly (the total timing is 11:38 – slow), with huge allargandos and agogics, but there is no languor in his reading. It begins burning hot, and in an iron grip grows hotter still. The gradual acceleration is masterfully gauged. The climax is titanic – even a good performance of the opera could only be anti-climactic after such a draining preamble.

But the Bodanzky performance to hear first is Siegfried. This is not only the most fulfilling recorded performance of this opera that I know; it is the only musically fulfilling Siegfried I have ever encountered. To begin with, the scherzando métier of acts one and two suits Bodanzky to perfection. And, of course, there is Melchior – he can sing the title role, first to last. The young Flagstad makes her own the sunburst of Brünnhilde’s awakening. Schorr has always seemed to me a somewhat stolid singer – but where today can one find a Wanderer of comparable vocal heft and stability? The others – Mime (Karl Laufkötter), Alberich (Eduard Habich), Erda (Kerstin Thorborg), even the Forest Bird (Stella Andreva) – are uniformly potent. The diction throughout is exemplary; words are sung, not swallowed.

Bodanzky’s act one is predominantly fleet. Mime and Siegfried scamper in time, prodded by hairtrigger accents and sforzatos in the pit. Where Siegfried assimilates his mother’s death, Bodanzky drops his reins and Melchior trims his big tenor to a whisper, shading the words with pangs of incredulous grief. When the last scene is attained, the pacing of the act acquires an unanticipated breadth. Buttressed by the incredible rasp and bite of Bodanzky’s low strings, Melchior just pours it on. I cannot imagine a more exultant rendition of the forging song. In act two, Bodanzky’s intermittent climaxes – the crest of the Wanderer/Alberich confrontation; the Wanderer’s apocalyptic exit – are so tremendous they risk pre-empting the act’s closing surge. But when this comes, Bodanzky’s velocity (the passage cannot be taken any faster or more brilliantly) and Melchior’s vocal refulgence clinch Siegfried’s delight and excitement. The surpassing moment of this performance, however, is unquestionably Brünnhilde’s Awakening. Here, the surging melos of Bodanzky’s strings drives a climax made uncanny by the knife-thrust of the epochal chords preceding “Heil dir, Sonne!” – chords typically delivered via “soft” attacks from the bottom up. Then Flagstad: a lava flow. And then Melchior. Bodanzky accelerates their duet toward a torrential cadence.

If Bodanzky is mainly remembered for anything these days, it is for inflicting cuts on Wagner. It must be recalled that Wagner was abridged in New York even by Seidl – or, rather, especially by Seidl, because he was a sensitive, sensible man: the works were new and most in the audience knew no German. (Mahler, by comparison, aspired to give Wagner uncut in New York – thinking of himself and the composer, but not of his audience.) Bodanzky trimmed Wagner not because he was lazy or obtuse; he was being considerate to others. That said, the Bodanzky’s cuts are far less extensive than Seidl’s had been. His Siegfried is uncut through acts one and two. The third act is missing part of the Siegfried-Wanderer scene, and part of the final duet – cuts that truncate the psychological trajectory of the latter scene especially.

With regard to cuts, the Bodanzky Tristan is another case; the score is jettisoned by 13 per cent. Act one is complete. But the second act duet is snipped twice – so that it builds too soon. Marke’s speech is abridged – so that it becomes more eruptive, less depressive. Act three, with four cuts, feels compressed – and so does the opera as a whole. And yet this broadcast recording is an essential point of reference in the history of Wagner in performance. Others will disagree, but to my ears Flagstad is not a complete Isolde. The richness, evenness, and stamina of her Ur-soprano are unsurpassable; and the part has been assiduously studied. But she cannot really inhabit Isolde’s act one rage, scorn, and hopelessness. It falls to Bodanzky to supply the music’s whipping fury; the temper and virtuosity of his big orchestra, its agility at the swiftest speeds, are beyond praise.

The performance congeals in act two, with Flagstad partnered by Melchior. Here the sheer amplitude of the two voices, the rapturous range and acute control of phrasing and dynamics (impressively captured on Sony’s transfer) beggar description. The singing portamentos of the orchestra’s strings seamlessly bind the vocal episodes. Bondanzky finds the long line of the love duet and makes it wondrously supple and strong. For Brangäne’s warning, he furnishes a sonic carpet whose slow-motion tension-and-release trajectory grips Karin Branzell as surely as it does the afternoon’s enthralled auditors. The duet’s climax takes possession of every participant; I have never heard a more desperate delivery of Kurwenal’s “Rette dich, Tristan!” than that of Julius Huehn on this charged occasion. In short: this Tristan act two documents an ideal toward which present-day performances cannot plausibly aspire. If I were to cite a single, peak passage, it would be Tristan’s “O König.” Melchior’s uncanny rendering of this great address – first to Marke, then Isolde – persuades that he has glimpsed what we cannot. It would take a Fremstad or Lilli Lehmann to craft a suitably visionary rejoinder; Flagstad isn’t up to it. But, miraculously, the Met has supplied a Melot – Arnold Gabor – who can stand his ground with Melchior, and also, in Emanuel List, a superior Marke. Bodanzky’s band drops the curtain with a staccato fury that knows no answer.

Wagner once instructed Albert Niemann – the supreme Tristan of another era – to sound more fatigued singing Tannhäuser’s Rome Narrative. As the comatose Tristan in act three of our 1938 broadcast, Melchior evinces an elemental weariness. Equally convincing are the shouted, curdled tones with which he curses the lovers’ fatal drink; or the heartbreak of his hallucinatory yearning; or the manic ecstasy yielding the manic dissolution with which Tristan expires. In the Liebestod, Flagstad’s super-human instrument, piloted by Bodanzky’s heaving orchestra, impacts with primordial force.

Bodanzky’ 1936 Götterdämmerung is chiefly notable for Melchior’s piercing interpretation of Siegfried’s Death and for his prodigious high C earlier in the third act; the performance as a whole feels hyper-active (but then so is this opera). More remarkable – but not in Sony’s box – are Bodanzky Met broadcasts of Das Rheingold and Die Meistersinger. Sadly, there exists no readily available Bodanzky broadcast of Die Walküre. Sony here supplies a performance (with Flagstad and Melchior) led by Erich Leinsdorf, whose emergence as Bodanzky’s successor at the head of the Met’s German wing marked the collapse of the Seidl-Mahler-Toscanini-Bodanzky lineage. Leindorf’s Wagner, of which this Feb. 17, 1940, Die Walküre is a fair example, was ever frigid and meticulous; it possessed nothing like the originality and passion of Bodanzky’s readings. Leinsdorf remained on and off the Met’s conducting roster for more than four decades. After Bodanzsky’s death in 1939, and Panizza’s 1942 departure, the company enjoyed no sustained musical leadership, whether German or Italian, until the 1970s advent of James Levin as principal conductor and then music direcor. Though Levine has his fervent admirers, to my ears he is no Bodanzky and no Panizza. And his orchestra, while much better than what he inherited, is a less special instrument than the virtuoso Italian ensemble Bodanzky and Panizza once commanded and maintained.

My own first in-person experience of Wagner at the Met was a 1962 Die Meistersinger led by Joseph Rosenstock. I was 13 and knew the Prelude from my stirring Toscanini recording. To my surprise, a lumpy sonic pastiche emanated from the pit. This was during the reign of Rudolph Bing (1950-1972), who frankly disliked Wagner. Except for a few Rheingold and Die Walküre performances led by Herbert von Karajan, the Met orchestra in these years could not be expected to produce the Wagner sounds I knew from LPs. It more than bears mentioning that it was Rosenstock who was slated to replace Bodanzky in 1929, when the latter decided to leave the Met after 13 busy seasons. Rosenstock conducted six times, after which Bodanzky was reinstated. It is tempting to speculate what new turn his career might otherwise have taken. He was for instance a known Mahlerite whose New York concert performances included Das Lied von der Erde. But Rosenstock’s ascent had to await another, less momentous era of Wagner at the Met.

P.S. – After writing this piece, I shared with my wife the 1938 Bodanzky Tristan, act two. When the music ended, her first comment was to ask: “What orchestra was that?” When I told her, she was properly incredulous.


  1. Robert Berger says

    Interesting article, but I take exception to your patronizing dismissal of the current Met orchestra and James Levine as a Wagner conductor . I and many,many others have been thrilled by the Met’s Wagner performances over the years by these present day Met forces .
    Based on what I have heard of the legendary Met Wagner performances of the past, I hear absolutely no evidence that the orchestra was in any way superior to the present day one . Quite the opposite in fact .

  2. There can be no doubt that ALL major orchestras are far superior in technical and ensemble playing than those of 50 – 100 years ago. Even conservatory orchestras at Juilliard, Curtis, etc. play better today than professional orchestras of the past. What may sometimes be missing today is interpretational exuberance including string portamentos.

  3. How one can remember Bodanzky never having heard him live is a mystery .Whatever Sony engineers
    have done it is still not the real “thing” and what is on an LP is not what is in the orchestra pit . Having
    heard the mentioned live I have a different view of this “glorious ” past , graveyard digging into the past seems
    to be an occupational affliction of the opera world .Name a singer and someone will come up with
    a long dead favourite who could not be surpassed etc. etc . May I suggest that what is on an engineered disc
    is never the same as what is heard live and to live this engineering as a true experience carries little weight .

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