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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) – highlights
Act One: Prelude [10:36]; Herrn Tristan bringe meinen Gruss [6:21]; Act Two: O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe [6:23]; Einsam wachend in der Nacht [4:47]; Unsre Liebe? Tristans Liebe? [4:46]; So starben wir, um ungetrennt [9:26]; Der öde Tag zum Letztenmal! … Das sollst du, Herr, mir sagen … Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir? [13:09]; Act Three: Kurwenal! Hör! Ein zweites Schiff [8:38]; Mild und leise (Liebestod)
Bonus tracks: Sir Georg Solti rehearses Tristan und Isolde, narrated by John Culshaw.
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) – Isolde; Fritz Uhl (tenor) – Tristan; Regina Resnik (mezzo-soprano) – Brangäne; Tom Krause (baritone) – Kurwenal; Arnold van Mill (bass) – King Marke); Ernst Kozub (tenor) – Melot; Peter Klein (tenor) – A Shepherd; Theodor Kirschbichler (bass) – A Steersman
Singvereinder Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, September 1960. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 8288 [78:03]


This recording of Tristan has never had very good press, the most serious criticism being directed against Solti’s conducting. Never one to think in long lines and carefully judging tempo relations he often worked for the thrill of the moment – and very often with stupendous results. Here, though, at the beginning of his long-standing collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic he wasn’t very happy with the orchestra - or the orchestra with him - as some reports have it. Tristan und Isolde of all works, although having its thrilling moments, is the epitome of an epic, seamlessly moving forward and needing careful architecture and fine nuances. It could be argued that the conducting is less damaging on a highlights disc. The orchestral prelude is well played and almost restrained, on the fast side but not unduly so. Compare Bernstein who takes almost unbelievably 14:02 as against Solti’s 10:36 and still manages to keep the intensity boiling!. There is a short snippet from act one; from act two we have the full second half of the love duet from O sink hernieder, around 25 minutes of continuous music, and then the scene with Tristan and Marke. From the third act we have the concluding 16 minutes. What is more disturbing than the possible lack of an overall view - and Tristan can survive all kinds of treatment, vide the Bernstein recording which I made Recording of the Month a year ago - is the balance between stage and orchestra and the obviously joint view from Solti and John Culshaw that this is orchestral music with some supportive voices. Birgit Nilsson recalls one of the recording sessions:

“He (Solti) revelled in climax and couldn’t get the orchestra to be strong enough. Once at a rehearsal he repeated the same section over and over again. Resnik and I were sitting on stage waiting for our turn. Finally the orchestral volume became almost unbearable and at the sixth climax we decided to fall down from our chairs as struck by lightning. We attracted great attention lying there like two dead fish, and of course we had the laughing orchestra on our side. Somewhat reluctantly Solti joined in the mirth. After this outburst the rehearsal could continue under more relaxed conditions.”

For the finished recording Solti obviously didn’t waive his demands for deafening climaxes and manages to swamp his singers far too often, with the exception of Birgit Nilsson of course, whose laser beam shines through whenever needed. To enjoy her soft singing one still needs to turn up the volume several steps and when Solti then lets loose one has to run for cover. I wonder if there would have been scope for remixing the original tapes to rectify the balance. This was however what conductor and producer wanted, and it’s a pity since we miss a lot of good singing. Birgit Nilsson in one of her signature parts is the central character here and she is as good as Solti allows her to be. She re-recorded the part live at Bayreuth six years later under Karl Böhm for DG and with a generally finer supporting cast – and more natural balance but it is good to have this first essay too. Fritz Uhl has a basically fine voice and he sings with both healthy Heldentenor tone and lyrical beauty. Regina Resnik’s Brangäne also suffers from the balance and her Einsam wachend solo within the love duet (tr. 4) is further weakened through her voice being even more distanced. Not that it is a great loss since she sings it rather shakily. Tom Krause in one of his earliest recordings is an eager and excellent Kurwenal, the little we hear of him. Ernst Kozub as Melot displays a voice of Tristan dimensions, more baritonal and indeed larger than Uhl’s.

The most pleasant surprise is Arnold van Mill’s Marke. He is warm voiced, dignified and sad. Even though he can’t compete with singers like Moll, Sotin and Talvela for vocal greatness he gives a moving picture of conflicting feelings. He sings better than I have heard him in other recordings. Together with Birgit Nilsson’s Liebestod Marke’s long solo (tr. 7) is the high-spot on this disc.

As bonus tracks we get two snippets from the rehearsals but they are frustratingly short and don’t add much to the value of the disc. At budget price this is still worth investing in, if one can accept the balance problems. Texts are not included but we get a track-related synopsis and also Barry Millington’s introductory notes on the opera, included with the 2002 reissue of the complete set.

Göran Forsling


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