Why is he the Greatest Heldentenor?


Well, there is a simple way to become convinced of this statement: hear his recordings and those of other heldentenors. Then surely you will believe it!

But we should go somewhat more in the details describing the uniqueness of his voice and art. There is an interesting parallel to Caruso. In commenting on a Caruso recording the question was once asked: "Why was Caruso actually the greatest? - There certainly were larger voices, and lovelier ones - and better controlled, too. Tenors who sang more flexibly, and musicians who sang more precisely. But never was so much of all of these qualities combined in one voice" (Jim McPherson).

According to the Viennese collector and expert Roland Teuchtler there are five singers who together form the Parnassus of tenors: Caruso, Piccaver, Schipa, Tauber and Melchior. Teuchtler explains that - contrast to their colleagues each of these five is "irreplaceable". But is each therefore necessarily the "greatest"? Wolf Rosenberg e.g. is convinced that Franz Völker clearly surpassed Melchior's legato and phrasing. And Clemens Höslinger remarked in an arcticle in "fono forum" (12/1970) that the voice of Richard Schubert comes much closer to the ideal of a young Siegfried.

The monologue in Otello; is one of the prime examples of the different levels of Melchior's registers and its most exciting effect. The passage "Den Spiegel meiner Wonne schlugst du in Stücke" sounds as if the tenor were singing behind a velvet curtain. The ending, on the other hand, unfolds itself with an uncomparable lumiosity - paralled only perhaps by such vocal athletes as Tamagno or de Muro.

It was not however Melchior's soundless physical skills, which made him an extraordinary artist. There has never been a Wagnerian singer to approach the wide and literally many-coloured palette of vocal nuances that Melchior possessed. All of the skills of an ideal Wagnerian singer were at his disposal (and only in single areas sometimes he might be surpassed by others - if we think of McPherson's dictum): this means the ability to both physically and mentally hold up under stress for an extended period of time, the conscientiousness given to lesser notes, the rich palette of vocal colours, the forceful volume, consonants which projected themselves beyond all measure.

And - of not the least importance - an expressiveness of almost touching power. When one listens to Melchior's Lohengrin, one is forced to admire not only the youthful spendour of the supple heroic voice, but - above all - the abundance of expression. When has there ever been anything approaching the moving and eloquent last four lines Sie vor den König zu geleiten... of the duet in the bridal chambre? And which other tenor could better capture the ecstatic rejoicing of Siegfried's Nothung cry (end of Act 1), in Siegmund's So blühe denn, Wälsungenblut, or as Siegmund approaches Sieglinde: Schmecktest du ihn mir zu?, so restrained and yet with a hint of so much more - all expressed through a pure inflexion of the voice.

And what burning intensity there is in Siegfried's tale, when he soars to the words Brünnhilde, heilige Braut in Götterdämmerung. These are just a few of those moments to Melchiors's credits which cannot possibly be measured by technical means. It is of particular interest that the scenes from Otello are considered almost unanimously by Melchior fans to be the best documents of his art. The contrasting moods of the monologue are unfold in a matter of minutes. Melchior's presence becomes quite oppressive. The mood and expressive qualities of his Wagnerian parts, for example Tannhäuser (Rome narration) and Parsifal (Nur eine Waffe taugt), have never found an equal in intensive interpretation.

Melchior's voice almost always shows its origins as a high baritone. This is particularly true in his warm and rich, yet often too darkened, middle range. Due to his almost incredible breath capacity, Melchior was able to shape and carry a good legato even when a powerful tone production was required in an expansive cantilena. In contrast to his delicate and velvety middle range, he possessed high notes of the quality of a fanfare. An extraordinary range of dynamic shadings was his. Opposed to many other strong heroic voices, he had absolutely no difficulties in singing a high C. Objectivity should restrain us from labeling Melchior simply as a powerful Wagner Hercules. It would be much more valuable to merely remember in what ways Melchior has set standards for singing Wagner.

To mention also some very few negative aspects of his singing: it has been criticized that Melchior sometimes sang in his own tempo, often several beats ahead of the conductor, which exasperated Toscanini and others. There are also critical remarks about some high notes he held too long, e.g the Wälse cries in Walküre, recorded live 1941.

In his well known book 'The Grand Tradition' the important critic J.B Steane wrote : "Even today we have probably not realised how phenomenal Melchior was. One is even tempted to see an odd kind of perversity in the incomplete recognition, for without him we would have limited notion of how well Wagner's tenor rôles can sound".


Melchior's competitors