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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1868) [233.13]
Birgit Nilsson (soprano) - Isolde; Fritz Uhl (tenor) - Tristan; Regina Resnik (mezzo) - Brangäne; Tom Krause (baritone) - Kurwenal; Arnold van Mill (King Marke); Ernst Kozub (tenor) - Melot; Peter Klein (tenor) - Shepherd; Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) - Young seaman; Theodor Kirschbichler (bass) - Steersman; Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, September 1960
Die Walküre (1870)) - Act Two, Scene Four) - Act Three [92.37]
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) - Brünnhilde; Otto Edelmann (bass) - Wotan; Set Svanholm (tenor) - Siegfried; Marianne Schech (soprano) - Sieglinde; Oda Balsborg (soprano) - Gerhilde; Ilona Steingruber (soprano) - Ortlinde; Claire Watson (soprano) - Helmwige; Grace Hoffman (mezzo) - Waltraute; Anny Delorie (mezzo) - Siegrune; Margarethe Bence (mezzo) - Schwertleite; Frieda Roesier (contralto) - Grimgerde; Hetty Plümacher (contralto) – Rossweise
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 13-27 May 1957
MAJOR CLASSICS M5CD501 [5 CDs: 75.19 + 70.34 + 65.39 + 43.16 + 71.03]

This set is marketed as a memorial to Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997) but might also be regarded as a testimonial to the beginnings of the partnership between the conductor and John Culshaw, the Decca producer who did so much to promote his recording career. We have here the first two of their collaborations in Wagner which were to culminate in the great recording of the Ring which I enthusiastically reviewed in its latest reissue last year (review). The two extracts from Die Walküre were indeed regarded by Culshaw as being in the nature of a ‘trial run’ for that recording, in which he and Solti experimented with the stereo staging of the operas for disc. These sessions were indeed experimental in another sense, as the first time that Solti had conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Wagner.
The results are, as might be expected, a somewhat mixed success. Both parts of Walküre recorded here are somewhat slower than in the complete cycle. Solti’s sense of pacing is not as sure-footed as it was to be seven years later. There are some slightly startling changes of speed, for example at the beginning of Wotan’s Der Augen leuchtende Paar (track 9), which - if they are not the result of editing - are somewhat abrupt. The sounds that Solti and Culshaw obtain from the Vienna Philharmonic are rather more brash than they afterwards became. Nor is the casting anything like as stellar. Four of the Valkyries here (Oda Balsborg, Claire Watson, Grace Hoffman and Hetty Plümacher) went on to take part in the complete Ring, but they hardly match the line-up that Solti assembled in 1964 which included two future Brünnhildes (Helga Dernesch and Berit Lindholm) as well as such stars in the making as Brigitte Fassbaender and Helen Watts. The rest of the warrior maidens here are an unprepossessing bunch, ill-matched in tone and sometimes almost drowned out by the brutal sounds that Solti conjures from the orchestra. Nor are the recording levels as well judged by Culshaw as he contrived later. In Ring Resounding he explains that he placed the off-stage Valkyries in boxes in the hall, but in 1964 he employed multi-studio techniques to much better effect. Marianne Schech, who could often be a squally singer, is steady but hardly imaginative here. Otto Edelmann, best remembered now for his Ochs in Karajan’s first Rosenkavalier, is a Wotan oddly lacking in bass resonance and hardly in the same league as the much more imaginative and regal Hans Hotter in the complete set. Nor is Set Svanholm, by this stage reaching the end of his career, a very heroic Siegmund in the Todesverkundigung scene. James King in the complete set had a much more appropriate voice, even though Svanholm scores here in many subtle points of interpretation. Incidentally the extract performed here extends into the beginning of the Fifth Scene, with Siegmund’s opening monologue included and Hagen’s offstage Stierhorn played on bass tubas.
The main interest in these Walküre extracts comes with the presence of Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde, her only stereo recordings of any part of this role. It has to be said that she too was coming to the end of her career; she was to die five years later. The voice is not as noble and magnificent as it had once been, as can be heard in the many live mono recordings that we can now hear. She lacks the sheer heft and sense of command that Birgit Nilsson brought to the role in the complete set. That said, she is still streets ahead of most of the singers that surround her here.
Five years earlier again Flagstad had recorded Isolde complete - if one discounts the top Cs obligingly furnished for her by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf - for EMI with Wilhelm Furtwängler. This was in mono but still sounds very passable sixty years later. When Birgit Nilsson was first contracted to Decca she insisted that she wanted to record Tristan und Isolde as a condition of her signature, and that the whole contract turned upon that point. Culshaw gives an extensive account of the negotiations in his autobiography Putting the record straight. The conductor originally suggested was Hans Knappertsbusch, but Culshaw wanted Solti and he got him. He also wanted Wolfgang Windgassen for Tristan, having failed to persuade Jon Vickers to undertake the role. Windgassen was under exclusive contract to DG and Nilsson was not prepared to wait for that contract to expire. Culshaw therefore turned to Fritz Uhl, a tenor who had been around for some time but had never previously undertaken any of the major Wagnerian roles. He reports in his autobiography that Nilsson’s only comment was that she “had never heard of him”.
In fact Fritz Uhl did an extremely creditable job in this recording, matching Nilsson well in the love duet even if clearly with some assistance from careful placing of the microphones. He is an intelligent artist who makes the most of his extended scenes in Act Three. After the recording was issued however his subsequent live stage recordings - he can be heard as Erik in a Bayreuth Flying Dutchman, for example - raised serious questions about precisely what the engineers had done to his voice in Tristan to get such impressive results. His performance here has been discounted by several critics on that basis. However nowadays when Plácido Domingo can sing the role on disc for Pappano without any stage experience in the part, or when Margaret Price can sing Isolde for Carlos Kleiber under the same circumstances, we can perhaps be more understanding. Uhl would be regarded nowadays as very good. He doesn’t have the unpleasant vibrato that can affect so many heldentenors in the role and unlike many modern exponents of the part, who bellow their way through the score, he engages fully with the text.
Two years later when Culshaw was looking for a tenor to take the leading role in Siegfried - he was sceptical about Windgassen’s willingness to participate satisfactorily in the concept he had in mind - he does not seem to have even considered Uhl. He did seriously consider Ernst Kozub, heard here in the small part of Melot, to the extent of offering him a contract. Listening to Kozub here, one can see why. He clearly has a more heroic voice than Uhl, as their brief scene together at the end of Act Two demonstrates. One can only regret that Kozub’s lack of preparation led to the abandonment of his participation in Siegfried. He too later recorded Erik in The Flying Dutchman (for Klemperer), but by that stage his voice sounded no better than had Uhl in Bayreuth. Missed opportunities.
The main raison d’être of this set, however, remains Birgit Nilsson’s first recorded Isolde. It is a really magnificent assumption of the role. She rides fearlessly over Solti’s orchestra during the First Act and her Liebestod is radiant. Here she is challenged by her own later Bayreuth recording with Karl Böhm and Wolfgang Windgassen, where with the benefit of several years of stage experience she engages more fully with the words. I personally am not over-fond of Böhm’s sometimes very fast speeds in the music, but the Bayreuth set has generally been preferred by critics.
The rest of the cast is middling to good. We have heard better and more heartfelt performances of King Mark and Brangäne than those here from Arnold van Mill and Regina Resnik; according to Culshaw the latter was suffering from a cold throughout the sessions. The young Tom Krause is very fine as Kurwenal, virile and strong. There seems to be an odd tradition of casting singers at the beginning of their careers as the old retainer – Fischer-Dieskau sang the same role for Furtwängler when he was almost unknown – but it works well here. Waldemar Kmentt is strong if not overly subtle in his off-stage solos in Act One and Peter Klein is properly plaintive as the inquisitive shepherd. The off-stage pipe which the shepherd plays when Isolde’s ship is sighted was originally scored by Wagner for a cor anglais, but he later changed his mind and asked for a “specially built natural instrument”. Many recordings stick with the refined sound of the cor anglais, but here Solti employs a wooden trumpet that was used in Vienna State Opera productions. Although it doesn’t sound anything like the pipe the shepherd was playing earlier, it fits the music ideally.
When the Solti set was first issued it was hailed ecstatically by the authors of the Stereo Record Guide: “This is one of the finest Wagner sets ever made, equaling and often surpassing the earlier HMV recording with Furtwängler and Flagstad.” The enthusiasm soon waned – those opening remarks do not appear in later editions of the Guide – and part of the reason for this seems to have been the nature of Culshaw’s recording. Now Culshaw goes to great lengths in Putting the record straight to explain precisely what he was after here. He wanted a saturated orchestral sound, with the voices enveloped in the general melos to produce a sort of symphonic poem. Karajan, when he came to record Tristan for EMI ten years later, seemed to be aiming for the same sort of effect, with very obvious acoustical manipulation of the sound in a manner that could not be emulated in the opera house. Whereas Karajan’s extremes of dynamic and sometimes deliberately distanced singers can seem merely eccentric, it seems to me that Solti and Culshaw get the balance here just about right. The off-stage horns at the beginning of Act Two are only just behind the scenes, receding into the distance as the action progresses; with Karajan they are already far away. Solti’s chorus at the end of Act One bursts onto the scene, bringing the harsh reality of daylight to blight the lovers’ new-found ecstasy; with Karajan they remain obstinately a distant but threatening menace. During the Act Three battle which follows Tristan’s death, the brutal nature of the music is not down-played. Karajan had his singers set very far back on the sound stage, which diminished their impact.
Decca have reissued this Tristan several times, but their re-masterings have always been plagued by a problem of breaks between discs. Solti’s Act One is just too long to fit onto a single CD, but it would seem to me that nevertheless the whole of Act Two could be squeezed onto the second disc leaving the Third Act complete on the third disc. This would result in a second disc of just over 79 minutes and a third of about the same length. There would then be only one break during the music. But no: the Decca issues all make a musically and dramatically nonsensical break in the middle of the Love Duet, and one that is nearly as bad during Act Three. The break here during the First Act is the same as in the Decca sets - it is the only logical place to make a break during the music. Major Classics still persist in making unnecessary breaks in the later two Acts, although the ones they do make are better judged than on the Decca sets - they correspond to breaks in the original LP sides.
But, oh horror and disaster! where the original LP sides have been joined together on one CD, some illiterate and unmusical engineer has very precisely and carefully on each occasion inserted a break of a second or two. This is bad enough each time it happens but is utterly disastrous when it occurs in the middle of the Love Duet where Decca make their equally unnecessary CD break. The orchestra leads up to the key change which introduces Tristan’s words “Unsre Liebe? Tristans Liebe?” and then suddenly we have a couple of seconds silence before the music resumes. This is not the first time that such a monstrosity has been perpetrated on disc; last year I had reason to complain about a similar nonsense in the Blu-Ray CD included in the reissue of the Decca Ring. When Culshaw bowed to necessity and made a side-change on the LPs - he discusses the problems in Ring Resounding - he never in his wildest dreams imagined that this would be seen as anything other than a temporary expedient. Does nobody ever think to consult a score? If they really have nobody on the staff who can read music, does nobody think to employ someone to check out what they are preparing to foist onto an unsuspecting public by way of adding silences that Wagner never wrote?
When reviewing the reissued Ring set in the March 2013 issue of Fanfare magazine, Arthur Lintgen referred to my complaint about the similar issue there as the views of an “obsessive Wagnerite” – at least I presume it was me to whom he was referring, as I can find no other reviewer who has made any reference to the matter at all - although the issue has subsequently been picked up on a number of internet blogs. Well, I would not like to think of myself as an obsessive about anything; but I do happen to think that it is important that the manner in which Wagner wrote the music is correctly presented on record, without any intrusive pauses which are simply the result of the limitations of outdated LP technology. Nor is it only Wagner who is subjected to such barbarous inanities. EMI have persisted for years - and over a number of reissues - in the insertion of unauthorised pauses and silences corresponding to old LP side breaks in Boult’s recording of Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, and even more heinously in Willcocks’ recording of Sancta Civitas where they actually fade down and fade up what is supposed to be a sustained note in order to insert this pause.
If Major had managed to cram the whole opera properly onto three CDs - and it could have been done - they could then have let us have the fascinating disc of rehearsal sequences that came with the original LP set, and which has been subsequently reissued by Decca with their complete set of Solti’s non-Ring Wagner operas. Otherwise it would have been preferable to leave a very short fourth disc containing just the Todesverkundigung - which here follows far too quickly on the last chord of Tristan - and preserve the integrity of the music in the Second and Third Acts of Tristan. Another opportunity missed, I’m afraid.
In the last years of his life Solti often stated that he wanted to record Tristan again because he was dissatisfied with his earlier attempt but he died before this could be accomplished. I don’t think he should have been ashamed of this recording, which still sounds very good and has come up well in this re-mastering. I am assuming this was done from the original LPs, since the recordings here are now out of copyright. Fashions seem to come and go with sets of Tristan – first it was the Furtwängler, then it was this Solti, then it was the Karajan, then the Bernstein, then the Pappano set which received critical acclaim. However this was, and remains, a very worthwhile recording in its own right and the Walküre excerpts are an interesting bonus. John Kehoe contributes a lengthy booklet note which sets the recordings in the context of Solti’s early career. There are no texts, translations or synopses, but these are readily available elsewhere.
Paul Corfield Godfrey