Sound Fountain




Astrid Varnay (1918-2006)



































































Label and Album of Wagner's Lohengrin on Polydor PD-27395/8 conducted by Hermann Weigert.

Images courtesy Schellacksammlung - Walter Schwanzer,












































































When looking at a specific listing in an old long playing gramophone record catalog, in hindsight, one often tends to think that a recording was made accidentally, or incidentally if you wish, as if there were no significant events leading up to the release, as if there was no context.

In the case of the two early Remington recordings of Astrid Varnay there is the important fact that this soprano had captured the attention of the audience in the New York MET as well as the listeners to the radio broadcast of that performance of Wagner's Die Walküre in which she sang Sieglinde, replacing an indisposed Lotte Lehmann.

That Saterday, December 6, 1941, kept resounding. Since that afternoon Astrid Varnay was going to establish herself at the Metropolitan Opera as one of the great Wagner singers and was going to conquer New York, and not just New York.


Don Gabor may have been aware of the impact she made. Or maybe not because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the following Sunday morning which overshadowed Varnay's performance and eventually made Donald Gabor enlist in the Navy on June 8, 1943. The year before he joined the Navy Don Gabor founded Continental Records Inc.

When ten years after that memorable MET debut, Astrid Varnay was performing in Bayreuth and was singing in Vienna as well, it was then that Gabor asked producer Marcel Prawy to send tapes of the soprano to New York to be issued on Gabor's newly founded Remington label.

The Remington discs with operatic arias were released in the early nineteen fifties. This is a booking ad of Astrid Varnay from the National Concert and Artists Corporation in New York from 1953.
(From the SoundFountain Archive)

Marcel Prawy, who in 1941 was a New York resident, also must have heard Astrid Varnay sing prior to his leaving for Europe as an instruction officer in the US Army. Later he witnessed her singing in Vienna in the early nineteen fifties and he could have attended the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 when it had reopened on July 19, and was trying to shed the tainted reputation it had accumulated during Hitler's Thousand Year Emporium. (The Third Reich lasted only twelve years, from 1933 till 1945).

The cover of one of the two records with Act III of Die Walküre with Sigurd Björling, Astrid Varnay, Lyonie Rysanek, Brünnhild Friedland, Eleanor Lausch, Elfriede Wild, Ruth Siewert, Liselotte Thomamüller, Hertha Töpper, conducted by Herbert von Karajan at the Bayreuther Festspiele, 1951 (on German Columbia 33 WCX 507).

The entry in an old music encyclopedia says that "Astrid Varnay was a Hungarian-Swedish-American soprano. She was born Ibolyka Astrid Maria Varnay on April 25th, 1918, in Stockholm, and made her debut in 1941 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre and from then on was immediately considered as one of the most prominent young Wagner singers. She performed in London, Vienna and Bayreuth."

In 1944 she married Hermann Weigert (1890-1955) who was her senior by some twenty eight years. In 1934 he had left Nazi Germany and went to live in South Africa but eventually found his niche in New York as rehearsal director for the German language at the Metropolitan Opera. In Germany he had been director of the Berlin State Opera and had conducted a variety of operas in the early nineteen thirties. He also had earned his laurels making recordings for Deutsche Grammophon's Polydor label.

Recordings of Hermann Weigert with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra:

Georges Bizet: Entr'acte and Prélude Act 4 from 'Carmen' - PD-27190/1.
Georges Bizet: 'Danse bohémienne' from La jolie fille de Perth - PD-27191.
Georges Bizet:
Carmen, abridged recording sung in German, conducted by Hermann Weigert and singers E. Ruziszka, E. Marherr, E. Stutz-Budde, L. Citana, H. Roswaenge, K. Amsterd, W. Domgraf-Fassbaender, G. Witting, W. Hencke, E. Kandl. - PD-95337/41

That same arrangement was used for the French version for Polydor with singers and chorus of the Opéra-Comique and the Orchestre des concerts Lamoureux conducted by Albert Wolff. - PD-566033/7.

Charles Gounod: 'Faust' (abridged version, sung in German) with Hedwiga von Debicka, Helge Roswaenge and Heinrich Schlusnus - PD-27377/81.
Engelbert Humperdinck: 'Hansel und Gretel' (sung in German, arranged by Hermann Weigert and Hans Maeder) with - Else Ruzicka, Tilly de Garmo, Marie Schultz-Dornburg, Thelma Votipka, John Brownlee, Claramae Turner, Lillian Raymondi - PD-27891/4.
Albert Lortzing: 'Zar und Zimmermann' with Willy Domgraf-Fassbaender, Waldemar Henke, Eduard Kandl, Tilly de Garmo, Felix Fleischer-Janczak, Deszö-Ernster, Willy Frey, Ida von Scheele-Müller- PD-27407/10.
Carl Millöcker: 'Der Bettelstudent' with Ida Perry, Eduard Kandl, Julius Patzak, Else Ruzicka - PD-27411/4
Otto Nicolai: 'Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor' (The Merry Wives of Windsor - arranged by Weigert) with Else Ruziczka, Elfriede Maherr-Wagner, Eduard Kandl, Armin Weltner - PD-27399/102.
Giacomo Puccini: 'La bohème' (abridged recording, sung in German) with Felicie Hünl-Mihacsek, Hedwig Jungkurth, Helge Roswaenge, Armin Weltner, Edwin Heyer, Gerald Kasenow, Waldemar Henke - PD-27357/61.
Giacomo Rossini: 'The Barber of Seville' (abridged recording in German) with Armin Weltner, Sabine Meyen, Julius Patzak, Martin Abendroth, Eduard Kandl, Ida von Scheele-Müller, Karl Anders, Waldemar Henke, Carl Walter - PD-27353/6.

Guiseppe Verdi: 'Il trovatore' (abridged recording sung in German) with Hella Toros, Lotte Dörwald, Franz Völker, Armin Weltner, Felix Fleisher-Janczak, Herta Klust, Waldemar Henke - PD-27403/6.
Richard Wagner: 'Lohengrin' with Otto Helgers, Fritz Wolff, Beate Malkin, Rudolf Watzke, Henriette Gottlieb, Armin Weltner - PD-27395/8.
Carl Maria von Weber: 'Der Freischütz' (arranged by Hermann Weigert and Hans Maeder) with Armin Weltner, Deszö Ernster, Elfriede Marherr, Tilly de Garmo, Eduard Kandl, Fritz Soot - PD-27387/90 - Individual excerpts on PD-27153

Source: The Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music.

Before returning to Europe and finally choosing Munich as her residence, Astrid Varnay made guest appearances in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in Buenos Aires.
Varnay's European debut was when she sang Brünhilde and Isolde at Coventgarden, London, in 1948. In 1951 she performed at the May Festival in Florence, Italy, as Lady Macbeth with conductor Vittorio Gui.

In that same year she was engaged by Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth in productions conducted by the Three K's, Hans Knappertsbusch, Joseph Keilberth and Herbert von Karajan. She remained on the playbill for many years to come (not so Herbert von Karajan of whom she did not appreciate the way he conducted during the performance like "a high priest with eyes closed", she remarked).
Later that year she also appeared at the City Opera of Berlin (Städtische Oper Berlin).

The box with the live performance at the Bayreuth Festival 1951 of Siegfried with Astrid Varnay, Bernd Aldenhoff, Sigurd Björling, Paul Kuen, Heinrich Pflanzl, Wilma Lipp, and Herbert von Karajan conducting. Foyer PO 1004 from Italy.

It was in Bayreuth in 1951 that John Culshaw put his first step on the road to a complete Ring des Nibelungen when he heard Astrid Varnay there during the rehearsals for the performance of Götterdämmerung conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. In 'Ring Resounding' Culshaw writes that this recorded performance was not suitable for release on LP because there were too many flaws and irregularities, yet he mentions his admiration for Astrid Varnay's voice.

In the edition of music magazine Etude of May, 1952, the above images were published together with an article with the title Hear Yourself As Others Hear You in which Astrid Varnay gives advice to aspiring singers (as told to Annabel Comfort of Etude Magazine). The caption of the pictures says: Astrid Varnay, the first American to sing Bruenhilde in Götterdämmerung at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth last summer. Her performance was a brilliant highlight of the festival.

John Culshaw decided that the recordings of the 1951 Bayreuth performances conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch were not suitable for release at the time.

Testament issued for the first time the Decca recording from 1951 of Götterdämmerung (Wagner).
Hermann Uhde (Baritone) - Astrid Varnay (Soprano) - Elisabeth Höngen (Mezzo Soprano) - Hertha Topper (Voice) - Bernd Aldenhoff (Tenor) - Ludwig Weber (Bass) - Heinrich Pflanzl (Voice)
Martha Mödl (Mezzo Soprano)
Ruth Siewert (Alto) - Ira Malaniuk (Mezzo Soprano) - Hanna Ludwig (Soprano) - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Soprano), Hans Knappertsbusch conducting.
Testament also released the complete Ring des Niebelungen conducted by Joseph Keilberth recorded in 1955.
Above the editions of Siegfried and The Flying Dutchman.


Astrid Varnay with Gré Brouwenstijn in Bayreuth in 1954 when they performed in Die Walküre with Hans Hotter, Ramon Vinay, Josef Greindl, Georgine von Milinkovic, and conductor Joseph Keilbert.

Photo taken from 'Gré Brouwenstijn met en zonder make-up', Teleboek, Bussum 1971.

In 1953 Wagner's Lohengrin performed at Bayreuth was recorded by Decca with Wolfgang Windgassen in the leading role. Elsa was performed by Eleanor Steber; Hermann Uhde was Telramund; Astrid Varnay was cast as Ortrud; King Henry was sung by Josef Greindl; Herald by Hans Braun.

A complete Lohengrin with conductor Wilhelm Schüchter had been released in 1953 on His Master's Voice ALP1095-98 (4 LP). The Decca edition on 5 discs was conducted by Prof. Joseph Keilberth and was released in February 1954 on LXT 2880-84 (London LLA-16). At the same time a complete recording with conductor Rudolf Kempe was issued on Nixa ULP 9225. Recording Lohengrin was apparently en vogue.

The advertisement for the release of the
Lohengrin performance on the US London label
LLA-16 (High Fidelity Magazine).

When John Culshaw made a detour to try his luck with Capitol Europe, the Decca recording team (Peter Andry, engineers Kenneth Wilkinson and Roy Wallace, and assistant Gordon Parry) went to Bayreuth to record Wagner's Ring des Niebelungen with Astrid Varnay, Elisabeth Schartel, Georgine von Milinkovic, Gré Brouwenstijn, Gustav Neidlinger, Hermann Uhde , Josef Greindl, Jutta Vulpius, Maria Graf, Maria von Ilosvay, Mina Bolotine, and Wolfgang Windgassen, conducted by Joseph Keilberth.

Peter Andry and his engineers were quite happy with the results they had achieved. But John Culshaw returned to Decca in 1955 as senior producer and subsequently Classical Artist & Repertoire (A&R) Manager. Culshaw did not approve of the release on disc of these live recordings. The many imperfections, he said, were also caused by the less than favorable acoustics in the hall and the orchestra in the pit. Obviously Culshaw had a completely different 'Ring' in mind and had already plans for his own cycle. He was well aware of the fact that the release of the "1955 Stereo Ring" would be quite expensive and would jeopardize his own plans for an extensive project. An interesting note is that in 1956 Decca (UK) had a Götterdämmerung in their catalog with Flagstad and Norwegian singers, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Øivin Fjeldstad (LXT 5205-10).

When in 1957 John Culshaw was going to record Das Rheingold with Sir Georg Solti, the first opera in Decca's Der Ring des Nibelungen which would eventually be regarded as the most famous Ring ever recorded, he wanted Astrid Varnay to sing the role of Brünnhilde (or of Ortrud and/or Kundry in other productions). But the people of Decca thought that only Kirsten Flagstad's name was commercially right and Culshaw's proposition was declined. Astrid Varnay was told that she would not be hired for the production. After Flagstad's death in 1962, Culshaw cautiously approached Astrid Varnay again and asked her to take part in the recordings. But now it was Astrid Varnay who declined.

This not only shows Varnay's independence and her strong character, but it also explains why there are not too many commercial recordings of complete operas, studio recordings and recitals with the soprano made by the leading record companies of the world. Taking part in Decca's Stereo Ring could have been a prelude to even more Decca recordings.

Apparently Astrid Varnay was a performing artist in the opera theatre, more so than a studio recording artist, and by the mid nineteen sixties she may have been aware that she was no longer at the height of her powers. Living in the shadow of Kirsten Flagstad - who actually had been instrumental in the start of her career and who had recommended her to be coached by Hermann Weigert, the educator she had married - and also living somewhat in the loom of Birgit Nilsson, had not been easy. Another reason to decline could be that she than started recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Much later, in the 1970s, recordings were issued on private labels of live performances and an occasional recital.

The Remington records were genuine recordings made in Vienna and were apparently obtained by Marcel Prawy from the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). There were several releases and compilations on the Remington and Diamant labels, issued at various dates.

Soprano Astrid Varnay's Operatic Recital on Remington RLP-199-45: Fidelio, Die Walküre, La juive, Thais, Aida, Simon Boccanegra, Il trovatore. The Austrian Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Hermann Weigert.

The Remington recordings of Astrid Varnay:

Remington R-199-45 - Astrid Varnay Operatic Recital (released December 1951).
"Abscheulicher Wo Eilst Du Hin" from "Fidelio" (Beethoven)
"Der Männer Sippe" from "Die Walküre" (Wagner)
"Il Va Venir" from "La Juive" "(Halévy)
"Ah! Je suis belle" from "Thais"(Massenet)
"Ritorno Vincitor" from "Aida" (Verdi)
Amelia Grinaldi's Aria from "Simon Boccanegra" (Verdi)
"D'Amor sull all rose e vanne" from "Il Trovatore" (Verdi)
Austrian Symphony Orchestra / Hermann Weigert

Remington R-199-53 - Astrid Varnay Recital (released in the Fall of 1952)
"Senta's Balad" from "The Flying Dutchman" (Der fliegende Holländer) (Wagner)
"Ocean Aria" from "Oberon" (Weber)
"Agatha's Cavatina" from "Der Freischütz" (Weber)
"Voi Lo Sapete" from "Cavaleria Rusticana (Mascagni)
"Ecco Lorido" from "Un Ballo in Maschera" (Verdi)
"In Quelle Trine Morbide" from "Manon Lescaut" (Puccini)
"Il est doux" from "Herodiade" (Massenet)
Austrian Symphony Orchestra / Hermann Weigert

The second Remington album was
Astrid Varnay and Paul Schoeffler sing Wagner Arias on Remington R-199-137.
Cover by Alex Steinweiss.

Remington R-199-137 - Highlights sung by Metropolitan's Astrid Varnay and Paul Schoeffler (released by the end of 1954)

The Flying Dutchman

 Overture - Austrian Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Koslik conducting
"Die Frist ist um" - Paul Schoeffler, baritone and the Austrian Symphony Orchestra with Wilhelm Loibner conducting
"Ballade der Senta" - Astrid Varnay, soprano and the Austrian Symphony Orchestra, Wilhelm Loibner, conductor.

Die Meistersinger
"Was duftet doch der Flieder" - Paul Schoeffler, baritone and the Austrian Symphony Orchestra, Hermann Weigert, conductor

Die Walküre
"Der Männer Sippe" - Astrid Varnay, soprano, and the Austrian Symphony Orchestra, Hermann Weigert conducting
This record is apparently a compilation of selections from R-199-45, R-199-53 and earlier Masterseal recordings of Paul Schoeffler plus unpublished material from the 1951 radio broadcasts. Some of the same material can be found on the 2 compilations discs released by BASF, reference 22 22645-3 on which she is accompanied by "Das Niederöstereichische Tonkünstler-Orchester" conducted by Herman Weigert.

R-199-137 was later also presented as a recording made according to the Musirama microphone placement technique, but like a few other recordings (Gustav Koslik's Polovetsian Dances and Night on Bold Mountain, and Zoltan Fekete´s Bruckner 3rd) it was not.

Diamant BL 737 - Beliebte Wagner Arien
This is the German release with the same material from R-199-137 pressed from Remington plates.

Paul Schoeffler and Astrid Varnay sing beloved Wagner Arias on Diamant BL 737.
Paul Schoeffler as Hans Sachs in the Knappertsbusch recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner in 1951.
Scenes from Wagner's Music Dramas are performed by Paul Schoeffler, Franz Lechleitner, Günther Treptow, the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Moralt and Hans Knappertsbusch - Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire (Die Walküre) - That he is not my father (Siegfried) - Flower Maidens Scene (Parsifal) - 1951 - German DECCA NLXT 2566, pressed from the plates of British Decca, LXT 2566.

An uncommon performance: "An Evening of Song". Astrid Varnay sings Dors mon enfant, and Attente (Richard Wagner), Deita Silvane (Ottorini Respighi), Gypsy Melodies/ Zigeunermelodien (Antonin Dvorak) all accompanied by Heinrich Bender at the piano, recorded in Munich in 1961. With Hermann Weigert conducting the Niederöstereichische Tonkünster-Orchester: Ah perfido (Ludwig van Beethoven) - recorded in Vienna 1951.

At left is the front of the Melodram 3 LP set with the performance of Macbeth in 1951 with Vittorio Gui conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with Ivan Petroff (Macbeth), Astrid Varnay (Lady Macbeth), Italo Tajo (Banco), Gino Penno (Macduff), Gino Sarri (Malcolm), Luciana Veroni (Dama), Camello Righini (Medico). Melodram 335.
The performance with Vittorio Gui at the May Festival in Florence was issued on CD by Preiser Records.
Astrid Varnay and Wolfgang Windgassen sang Richard Wagner on Deutsche Grammophon LEPM 19063. The Bavarian Radio Orchestra was conducted by Hermann Weigert.
Astrid Varnay (soprano), Hertha Töpper (alto), Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor), and the Bamberger Symphoniker (Bamberg Symphony) wirh Ferdinand Leitner conducting: Liebesduett and Liebestod on Deutsche Grammophon SLPM 136030.

Astrid Varnay at the time when she recorded for Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft. Image taken from the 1958 DGG record catalogue.



In 1962 Astrid Varnay sang in Bayreuth under Wolfgang Sawallisch.

By the end of the 1960s she did no longer sing the heavy and dramatic roles and continued as a mezzo-soprano.

On September 4, 2006, Astrid Varnay died in Munich.

Research and Text by Rudolf A. Bruil. Page first published January 19th, 2010.



Copyright 1995-2010 by Rudolf A. Bruil