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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Ramón 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
XR remastering
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO135 [3 CDs: 76:24 + 64:16 + 61:52]

If for nothing else, this release is worthwhile for capturing Birgit Nilsson’s New York debut in one of her most celebrated roles. She had sung her first Met Isolde one month before this live matinee broadcast was recorded, and one of the pleasingly nostalgic elements of this release is that the CD inlays give us the text of one of the reviews of that performance. Another is that the radio announcements of Milton Cross are left in to give context to the original audience (and a wry smile to those of us who still tune in to the Met’s matinee broadcasts today).

Nilsson is stunning here. In Act 1 the voice has the clarity of a laser-beam and a sheen of ice throughout her desperate narrative, and she adopts a tone of breathless, almost teenage excitement during the anticipation at the beginning of Act 2. She is then utterly commanding throughout the love duet, and the strength of the voice is remarkable, even for those who have heard her other recordings from the 1960s. She was a total one-off, probably the finest Isolde of the 20th century, and the more recordings we have of her the better.

When he reviewed the disc, my colleague Ralph Moore made it one of his discs of the year. Much as I enjoyed it, I can’t agree, however, and there are several things that keep this away from the top of the lists of recommendable Tristans for me. For a start, Nilsson tires by the time of the Liebestod and, for whatever reason, she just doesn’t sound her usual, fearless self, to my ears. Furthermore, while Karl Böhm is on very fine form, he adopts in far too many cuts to make this version seriously competitive. Not only does he observe the fairly usual tenor-saving cut in the second act love duet, but he takes the scissors to much of Tristan’s Act 3 monologue, and to Isolde’s first entrance in the same act. You just wouldn’t get away with that nowadays, which is all the more of a shame because Böhm is a master of what’s left. His timing is shorter than his famous 1966 Bayreuth reading, though that’s mainly due to the cuts. To my ears, however, his pacing was fairly steady throughout, even a little cautious in the Prelude, and the only time he really lets rip (in a slightly undisciplined manner) is in the ecstatic orchestral introduction to the lovers’ first meeting in Act Two.

The other major impediment is the Tristan of Ramón Vinay. So magnificent on Karajan’s 1952 Bayreuth set, his voice had become much less attractive by 1960. The power and the scale are still there, but he had developed a tendency to bark, which is particularly damaging for the last section of the love duet (So stürben wir um ungetrennt) where Nilsson is airborne but he is earthy, and it’s only the strength of the voice rather than the overall dramatic power that marks out his third act. A lesser problem is that his baritonal tenor makes it pretty difficult to distinguish between him and Kurwenal during that scene. A shame, because Walter Cassel sounds very good, as does the compassionate Brangäne of Irene Dallis. I also really warmed to the King Marke of Jerome Hines, who sings beautifully and humanely, though it didn’t stop me wishing that King Marke’s interminable monologue was half its length. Why on earth didn’t Böhm cut there?

No complaints about Pristine’s impeccable remastering, either, which has done a fantastic job of cleaning up the sound and creating an “ambient stereo” effect which must mean that this performance hasn’t sounded better than since the afternoon it was first sung. It’s the performance that leaves me sceptical, however. This is primarily for die-hard Nilsson fans who can use this recording to trace the developments of her interpretation as the 1960s began.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

At the time of publication, the Pristine Classical website had been offline for a few weeks due to server problems. The temporary home page provides ordering information.



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