Special Achievement

Keeping the memory of a great artist alive is always a challenge, but this year we witnessed a campaign that not only celebrated an extraordinary talent and artistic philosophy, but also introduced a generation who never experienced her live to this great musician. I refer to the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson and the work of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, led by Rutbert Reisch, in this Nilsson’s centenary year. Reisch’s admiration for this extraordinary singer is infectious. He first heard her in 1965 and, as he says, her voice ‘struck me like a lightning bolt. It had an impact on me and I had many great artists I travelled after and followed and loved dearly. But somehow this voice did something more to me. It had an impact which I cannot explain. I don’t know why.’ Of course, her record company, Decca, didn’t let the centenary pass without offering an impressive survey of her studio recordings but the Birgit Nilsson Foundation raised things to a new level. A magnificent 31-CD set of live recordings, issued by Sony Classical, was the jewel at the centre of the commemorative activities. It contains some extraordinary riches – a live 1973 Tristan und Isolde from Orange conducted by Karl Böhm with Jon Vickers singing opposite Nilsson’s passionate and still-glorious Isolde (there’s also a 1967 Tristan with Jess Thomas’s very different Tristan, and Böhm again performing miracles in the pit). Another Böhm-conducted ‘must’ here is a Met Salome which, as Mike Ashman said in his review in October 2018, proves that Nilsson could ‘do it all live, including some of the teenage girl voice’, a mandatory supplement to the celebrated Solti Decca recording. Plucking, at random, from the gems here, there’s a Roman Fidelio under Leonard Bernstein that demands to be heard. But then there’s so much that offers colossal rewards.

In addition to the CDs, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation has underwritten a delightful documentary by Thomas Voigt and Wolfgang Wunderlich, ‘A League of her own’, an endearingly open and frank portrait of a singer whose artistry was matched by a delicious sense of humour. Nilsson’s seemingly supernatural stamina and energy was clearly underpinned by a thorough technical grounding and an impressive work ethic. One senses that she truly earned every penny of her substantial fee!

Then there is the book, Birgit Nilsson 100, a treasure trove of photographs and numerous memories from her colleagues and friends. For the Nilsson completist it’s essential.

And to crown the celebratory offerings, there’s the Birgit Nilsson Prize, worth £1 million, awarded approximately every three years, and last year bestowed on Nina Stemme. Among the criteria for winning is a sentence that might have been created to describe La Nilsson herself: ‘Impeccable musicianship and expressiveness, interpretive prowess, unquestionable commitment to serve first and foremost the composer, and, in the case of singers, quality and beauty of voice.’ Thanks to the Birgit Nilsson Foundation, those remarkable qualities are celebrated once again, and with heart-warming devotion. James Jolly

Special Awards 2019

Recording of the Year | Orchestra of the Year | Label of the Year | Artist of the Year | Young Artist of the Year | Lifetime Achievement | Special Achievement | Concept Album 

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