Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [202.30]
Ramon Vinay (tenor) - Tristan; Birgit Nilsson (soprano) - Isolde; Irene Dalis (mezzo-sop) - Brangaene; Walter Cassel (baritone) - Kurwenal; Jerome Hines (bass) - Marke; Calvin Marsh (tenor) - Melot; Paul Franke (tenor) - Shepherd; Charles Anthony (tenor) - Seaman; Louis Sgarro (bass) - Steersman
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Karl Böhm
rec. live broadcast 9 January, 1960; Metropolitan Opera House, New York
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO135 [3 CDs: 76:24 + 64:16 + 61:52]
For those who think Böhm’s more celebrated live recording from Bayreuth in 1966 is too fast, this performance from the Met six years earlier will come as a shock: excluding Milton Cross’s radio announcements it is a mere three hours and seventeen minutes, compared with just under three and a half hours in 1966 and about 3:20 at Bayreuth, with the same two principals, in 1962.
The latter certainly benefits from somewhat more relaxed speeds, as the review by my MusicWeb colleague Paul Godfrey points out but for some the febrile excitement of Böhm’s attack on the score will carry its own thrill. To be fair, the love music of Act II does not sound too rushed, climaxes are skilfully paced and weighted, and key orchestra passages such as the one in Act I following “Herr Tristan trete nah” are beautifully judged, but for those who prefer a more temperate approach the 1962 Bayreuth performance will suit. Unfortunately, as with the Met relay here, the audience there is maddeningly bronchial; the 1966 recording is composite so the engineers were able to edit out the worst intrusions and select the best passages from both performances and rehearsals; here in 1960, you get what you get, as it was broadcast, persistent hacking and all. The coughing through the cor anglais solos opening Act III is especially irritating and the Met orchestra is perhaps lacking a tad in weight and “grunt” compared with its Bayreuth counterpart but it is still very fine.
However, there are distinct advantages to this recording, not least the usual superb Pristine XR remastering which enormously improves upon the original tapes and provides a realistic, unobtrusive Ambient Stereo effect. The sound is well balanced although a little brittle and peaky on higher, louder notes; nonetheless it is miraculous for its age and provenance. Furthermore, for those who like me admire Windgassen’s artistry but find his tone rather whining, we hear a more virile, heroic Tristan from Ramon Vinay, still at his peak two years before he reverted to baritone roles. Finally, the thrill of Birgit Nilsson’s debut as Isolde is captured in full; her actual debut which created a front-page sensation was three weeks earlier but she was partnered by a lesser tenor than either Vinay or Windgassen in Karl Liebl, subbing for an indisposed Vinay, so this is a more desirable memento of her Isolde in her youthful prime. Nilsson herself is of course phenomenal, the top C’s effortless, the narratives full of bite and the concluding “Mild und leise” transcendent. Of course she also made a studio recording under Solti later that same year but while Fritz Uhl is serviceable and musical, there is something of the same imbalance between the lovers’ voices which mars Nilsson’s live performances with Windgassen. By all accounts, she preferred him above all as her Tristan but my preference remains for Vinay, whose baritonal heft and agonised delivery of the text rival Melchior and Vickers for animal passion. He was the pre-eminent Tristan for whole of the 1950’s, taking over from Melchior, Lorenz, and Svanholm and his powerful voice matches Nilsson’s in amplitude, whereas other tenors tend to be swamped by her laser-like intensity. The erotic intensity generated in the extended Act II love duet is electric and hardly compromised by Böhm pressing on the tempo.
The supporting cast has no weaknesses but few are as good as the 1966 Bayreuth recording. Irene Dalis’ Brangäne is vocally not as beguiling as Christa Ludwig’s – there are some slides and glottal mannerisms, and her rich tone can be a little “clotted” but the sound is voluminous, she has a splendid lower register and can keep up with Nilsson in their exchanges. Walter Cassel as Kurwenal cannot match Waechter or Hotter in his prime; he is rather blustery in Act I but smoother in Act III, even if again he occasionally barks a bit. Charles Anthony makes a lovely Sailor, better than Georg Paskuda in 1962 or Peter Schreier in 1966 and Jerome Hines delivers a big, warm stream of sonorous bass tone. His nobility and steadiness are admirable but his characterisation is rather generalised compared with the superb Martti Talvela, whose anguish is more touchingly palapable.
To sum up, this remains a highly desirable memento of a great occasion, compromised by audience coughing but greatly enhanced by Pristine’s splendid remastering.