REVIEW POTPOURRI: Victor Red Seal recordings, Wagner, & Ernestine Schumann-Heink

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Victor Red Seal recordings

A few Victor Red Seal recordings from the years of easily breakable 78 shellac discs.
Bruckner Symphony No. 7; Eugene Ormandy conducting the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Victor, M-276, eight discs, recorded January 5th and 7th, 1935.

Before his 44 years as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) served in Minneapolis from 1931-1936 and made a number of records for Victor between January 16, 1934 and January 16, 1935. The 7th Symphony of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is a magnificent one of almost 60 minutes and scored for large orchestra with some of the most heavenly beautiful moments from a composer who was also a superb organist. When the Symphony was premiered in Vienna in 1886, the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899), sent the following reply in a telegram – “Am much moved. It was the greatest impression of my life.”

Ormandy’s recording was one of tremendous beauty and power and still holds up well.

Wagner Die Feen Overture

Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; Victrola 11455, one disc, recorded in 1932.

Wagner completed his first opera, the infrequently performed Die Feen, when he was 20 years old. The Overture is decently listenable but far from the depths of his later masterworks. However, conductor Albert Coates (1882-1953) made a convincing case for it and drew tremendous playing from the London Symphony.

Coates was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to an English businessman and his Russian-born wife and established a reputation in both England and Russia before World War I, serving as music director of the Russian Imperial Opera for five years before the 1917 Revolution. The Bolshevik government did keep him working but, by 1919, starvation threatened living conditions there, Coates fell ill, so he and his family left Russia, just barely making it to Finland and back to the United Kingdom.


Rienzi Overture and Gotterdammerung Closing Scene; Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra; Victor 6624/6625; 2 discs, recorded 1927.

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was one of only two conductors (the other being his successor in Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy) who recorded from the pre-1924 acoustic era to the four-channel quadraphonic one of the 1970s. Also, like his younger colleague, he left hundreds of recordings of an encyclopedic range of composers and some of his best records were the ones of the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883). I cherish his Victor 78s of excerpts from his operas Parsifal – the Prelude and Good Friday Spell – and his Synthesis of Tristan and Isolde moments.

The above 1927 ones of Wagner’s heart-warmingly vibrant Rienzi Overture and the conclusion of Gotterdammerung (itself being five hours long and the fourth and last opera in the 16-hour Ring cycle) have a surging intensity, beauty and savagery that is implicit in the music itself, through which Stokowski doesn’t try to impose his own individuality and mannerisms as he did often in other recordings.

On June 14, 1912, Stokowski conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in an all-Wagner concert featuring the soprano Lillian “Lady” Nordica (1857-1914), who was born in Farmington, Maine, and lived her first eight years there.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink

Stille Nacht (Silent Night); Victor 88138, one disc, recorded 1908.

Contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) recorded prolifically, beginning as early as 1900 and her rich warmth and disciplined technique enabled her to sing very nicely through her last years, when she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the age of 71, and had her own weekly radio show. Since I enjoy Christmas music any time of the year, preferably in small doses, I find this acoustic record from 112 years ago a good example of her ability to breathe new life into old songs and opera arias. Starting in the mid-1920s, she sang Silent Night on the radio every year during the Yuletide season.

During World War I, she gave concerts for the U.S. war effort and had three sons serving in our navy; she also had one son from her first marriage in Germany who was still living there and who was drafted into the Kaiser’s own submarine service.


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