Brown Bread: Hildegard Behrens

I am much saddened to hear of the passing of Hildegard Behrens, of a ruptured aortic aneurism aged 72. In my limited experience of live opera she was one of the three great post-war Wagnerian sopranos along with Birgit Nilsson and Rita Hunter. They are all gone. Not only was hers a gorgeous voice she was a true actress with the deepest intelligence. Not only was she a singer she began her working life as a lawyer.

Behrens was one of the major performers of the second half of the twentieth century. Her professionalism and musicality set the benchmark in the German repertoire. She will be greatly missed.

Behrens was not only a fine singer with a bright, incisive soprano, but a singing actress of rare power and intellect. I have memories of her as Marie at Covent Garden (my first Wozzeck in the theatre, an overpowering evening for a number of reasons) and on records as Brunnhilde in the complete Sawallisch Ring – the finest recorded cycle of the stereo era – and delivering a remarkable Isolde in Bernstein’s eccentric, infuriating, absurdly slow and mannered but intermittently rather glorious Tristan.

Hildegard Behrens sang Brunnhilde in a complete Ring Cycle under Haitink in concert performances in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall a little over a decade ago (also featuring John Tomlinson and Siegfried Jerusalem inter alia). She was sensational – and she took the time to mingle with a group of stage door loiterers after Götterdämmerung on the Saturday night, wherein she seemed utterly sweet and delightful.

R.I.P. Hildegard Behrens 1937-2009

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