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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883) Tristan und Isolde. A Music-Drama in Three Acts (1857–59)
Wolfgang Millgram (tenor) – Tristan; Lennart Forsén (bass) – King Marke; Hedwig Fassbender (soprano) – Isolde; Gunnar Lundberg (baritone) – Kurwenal; Magnus Kyhle (tenor) – Melot; Martina Dike (mezzo) – Brangäne; Ulrik Qvale (tenor) – A shepherd, A young sailor; John Erik Eleby (baritone) – Helmsman)
Kungliga Operans Manskör (Royal Swedish Opera Male Chorus); Kungliga Hovkapellet (Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra)/Leif Segerstam
rec. Konserthuset (the Concert Hall), Stockholm, 14-19 June 2004
NAXOS 8.660152-54 [63:41 + 78:25 + 70:07]


It seems that new recordings of Tristan und Isolde are in vogue at present, in spite of the crisis for recorded operas. Last autumn DG released a live recording from the Vienna State Opera, led by Christian Thielemann. Earlier this year came a recording on Titanic from a live concert in Sofia with American soloists and conducted by Glen Cortese. Now comes this studio recording on Naxos with Swedish forces under Leif Segerstam. Later in 2005 EMI are releasing what is supposed to be their last studio recording of an opera, a Tristan with Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme. Moreover DG have just reissued their early digital recording conducted by Carlos Kleiber and with René Kollo and Margaret Price as the protagonists. And there are several others available, most notably Furtwängler’s mono version from 1952 with Flagstad and Karl Böhm’s live Bayreuth performance from 1966 with Birgit Nilsson and a dream cast that will probably never be surpassed. The is a plenitude to choose from. Can a newcomer, with more or less a house-ensemble from a minor opera house at the periphery of Europe, compete with the "big boys"?

Let’s start with clearing away some prejudices. The Royal Swedish Opera may not have the biggest opera house in the world and jet-set singers don’t shuttle in and out of the house. Instead they have kept the old system with a permanent ensemble which makes it possible to create well worked-through performances. The ensemble today, including the Opera Chorus and, not least, the Orchestra, have high standards, which I have reported on in several reviews for SeenandHeard lately. Stockholm has a very long Wagner tradition and many important Wagner singers have been members of the ensemble and also returned regularly as guests. Names like Birigt Nilsson, Berit Lindholm, Set Svanholm, Helge Brilioth, Gösta Winbergh and Sigurd Björling (no relation to Jussi) who was Bayreuth’s first Wotan after the war, come to mind. And on this recording we also have Leif Segerstam to reckon with, former chief conductor and music director at the house, who has made two opera recordings in Stockholm for Naxos before, both live: Die tote Stadt and Wozzeck. Both met with critical acclaim. He has sometimes been accused of idiosyncratic interpretations, but whatever objections critics can have I don’t think anyone ever has thought him dull. I have heard him numerous times, since the 1970s, in concert, in the opera house. He conducted a very fine Walküre at the Finnish National Opera some years ago; I have even seen him dancing tango while conducting! No need for him to do that in Tristan, but there is a rhythmic vitality permeating this performance, keeping the the drama unfolding relentlessly until the inescapable end. That is not to say that it is hard-driven. Segerstam is enormously sensitive to nuance, in which this score abounds. The first act prelude is a fine example. He sculpts the music in one long arc, from the almost inaudible first notes to the climax and then back to near inaudibility again. As a listener one dares not breathe for fear of breaking the spell. And he ensures excellent playing from every department of the orchestra. In particular the strings have an enchanting sheen that is on a par with the best opera house orchestras. All through the 3½ hours of the drama he is flexible to the needs of the action. He pushes forward, he holds back. In act II he sees to it that both the chamber music feeling and the ecstasy get their due. Listen for instance to the passion in the love duet, the jubilant strings in the build-up before O ew’ge Nacht ... (a couple of minutes into CD2 track 12). To my mind Segerstam is on a par with the very best Tristan conductors. The orchestral sound, as recorded here, at first seemed a bit brass-heavy, the strings being strangely recessed, especially when listening through head-phones. But through the loudspeakers and with the volume turned up an extra notch, it was alright. And although Segerstam never holds back in the climaxes he never drenches the singers which is a feat in itself.

The male department of the Opera Chorus sing well, what little there is to sing. Of the minor parts Ulrik Qvale, whose voice is the first we hear when the curtain rises, is a lyrical, nuanced Young sailor and later, in the last act, he is a suitably pastoral Shepherd. Magnus Kyhle, singing Melot, has developed a wobble in his voice, which isn’t too unappropriate for this character and John Erik Eleby delivers his few lines as the Helmsman with authority. He might have been a better Kurwenal than Gunnar Lundberg, even though he is more bass than baritone. Lundberg is eager and keen with his words but he can’t quite muster the nobility of tone that should be a hallmark of Kurwenal. In the third act, where he has most of his singing, he improves and he sings with great warmth and feeling at Lebst du noch? (CD3 track 7). Lennart Forsén, whom I praised in The Royal Opera’s Eugene Onegin recently, has a rock-steady, evenly produced, warm bass, and his assumption of King Marke’s role is first-class, apart from a couple of instances when he pushes his noble voice too much. Martina Dike, the Brangäne, has been one of the Royal Opera’s most shining stars of late. She was an impressive Adalgisa in Norma a couple of years ago and her Eboli in Don Carlo this spring was stunning. Here her quick vibrato is more prominent than I remember from live occasions, but it is still a beautiful voice, brighter and younger than that of Isolde, and there is a good deal of dramatic singing, e.g. CD1 tracks 7 and 8, and later, in act II, the scene with Isolde (CD2 track 6). Her solo in the great love duet, Einsam wachend in der Nacht (CD2 track 9), is also well sung but with a more insistent vibrato.

This opera stands and falls with the protagonists and at present Stockholm can’t offer a homegrown love couple. Nina Stemme is one of the few great Isoldes of the day, but she was already contracted for the EMI recording and so Naxos had to import two German singers. [but see review of live performance from Stockholm] Hedwig Fassbender started her career as a lyric mezzo-soprano but took the step into the dramatic soprano Fach in 2001, when she sang her first Isolde. Her voice retains some mezzo characteristics in her middle register, where she has something of Flagstad’s timbre. She has a good supply of power and can sail above the orchestra, not quite as effortlessly and laserbeam-like as Nilsson did in her hey-day, but who else could? Fassbender’s voice is sometimes a bit uneven, occasionally shrill, which also makes her more vulnerable. And she is sensitive to words. It pays dividends to have a singer with years of experience in this taxing role. Take the scene with Isolde and Brangäne in act I (CD1 track 5). A minute or so into the scene Isolde sings her monologue Den hab ich wohl vernommen and near the end, at 4:45, we reach the magic moment when she sings er sah mir in die Augen. This is outstanding Wagner singing! And then, continuing on track 6, Sein Lob hörtest du eben, strong and sensitive and ending her lines with a resigned Nun dien’ ich dem Vasallen! At the first encounter with Tristan (CD1 track 10) her tone is steadier, clearer and the second act love duet is full of good things. Her love-death in the last act (CD3 track 12) is a fine example of restrained, sensitive singing, an inward, magical start and a wonderful warm tone at wie er leuchtet, stern-umstrahlet (1:00), from where she builds up to the climax in des Welt-Atems wehendem All (4:38) and from there she tones everything down, ending on a true pianissimo höchste Lust! It is all done with great feeling, and a worthy end of the opera. I only wish she could have tamed her occasional shrill high notes and the little irritating beat on the last note. I am afraid the Tristan, Wolfgang Millgram, doesn’t quite scale these heights. His first entrance displays a baritonal sound, quite common among Tristans, but it is also a dry voice with a tendency to a beat and his phrasing tends to be four-square. He improves, though, and in act II his voice is steadier, He doesn’t bark as he did in the first act, shows a great deal of glow and no one can deny the power and the stamina (CD2 track 7). An in the lovesong proper O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe CD2 track 8), his voice adopts a certain bloom which I couldn’t have dreamed about in the first act. In act III his two long scenes (CD3 track 4 and track 6) offer much impressive heroic singing and also his death scene (track 9) is full of drama and tragedy. But while I admire the physical power I can’t say that his is a particularly lovable sound. Still, I prefer him to a more lyrical voice, screaming his way through this super-human part.

So there we are: a very well conducted and played performance, a bit unevenly sung but convincingly acted. It is on three budget-priced discs, so for the cost of one fullprice disc we get the whole drama, 3½ hours long. There is a synopsis but no sung texts. These are available as PDF files at with the German original and an English translation, but be warned: they are not placed side by side. You get the English text first and then the German. To get them both I had to print out 173 pages! Then of course it is far more readable than the common CD booklets with their minuscule print.

A first choice for this opera is still Karl Böhm (DG, 3 CDs at mid-price) with Nilsson, Windgassen and a supporting cast of any Wagnerian’s dreams. But this version can hold its own against many of the others.

Göran Forsling

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