WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde / Birgit Nilsson, sop (Isolde); Wolfgang Windgassen, ten (Tristan); Grace Hoffmann, mezzo (Brangäne); Erik Sædén, bar (Kurwenal); Josef Greindl, bass (King Marke); Josef Traxel, ten (Steersman); Fritz Uhl, ten (Melot); Hermann Winkler, ten (Shepherd); Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond / Orfeo C 951 183 (live: Bayreuth, July 26, 1958)
This is a reissue of Birgit Nilsson’s 1958 Bayreuth Isolde, which was not her first there: she sang it at Bayreuth the previous year, also with Wolfgang Windgassen and Grace Hoffmann, but with Hans Hotter as Kurwenal and Arnold van Mill as King Mark. It was previously released in 2009 on Myto Historical MCD 00186. As is usual with Orfeo, they use the best source tapes and then clean up as much hiss and ambient noise as they can, so the sound is probably superior (I’ve not heard the Myto release, however).
I was really looking forward to hearing this because it presents relatively young Nilsson. She was “only” 40 at the time and, despite having been singing professionally for more than a decade, her big, cutting soprano voice had only put her in the Wagnerian repertoire for about three years at this point. Previously, she had been singing a lot of Italian roles such as Lady Macbeth, Aida, and Tosca, the latter in a performance (if you can believe it) with the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, who was blown away by her voice. In addition, I’ve always been a big fan of Wolfgang Windgassen, in my opinion one of the three greatest Wagnerian tenors of the 20th century (the other two being Lauritz Melchior and Siegfried Jerusalem, though I also have a soft spot for Set Svanholm and Jon Vickers in the few Wagnerian roles he sang). I was not disappointed by the two leads. Nilsson actually sounds more dramatically engaged here than in her studio recordings of the opera, even the first one made only two years after this with Fritz Uhl, the Melot of this performance, as her Tristan, and her voice is unfailingly fresh and steady in emission. Grace Hoffmann, our Brangäne, is also in fresh voice, and I was delighted to see that the excellent Swedish baritone, Erik Sædén, was cast as Kurwenal.
The problem, surprisingly enough, is conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. His tempi are just fine—nothing drags here—but there’s very little emotional engagement by the orchestra. This was a big disappointment for me, since Sawallisch developed into an outstanding conductor over the years. It’s not that anything is badly played. He observes all the dynamics and phrase markings in the score. But he lacks the emotional commitment one heard from the best Tristan performances and recordings, such as Fritz Reiner (with Flagstad and Melchior from 1936), Hans Knappertsbusch (a surprisingly white-hot performance with Helena Braun and Günter Treptow from 1950), Wilhelm Furtwängler (the most sensuously-conducted Tristan, from 1952 with Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus), Karl Böhm (the 1973 Orange Festival performance with Nilsson and Vickers) and Daniel Barenboim (both his live and studio versions with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem). Of course, the singing actors are the center of the show, but without an equally intense frame for their work, the music lacks something.
Of course, we’re not watching the performance here, only listening to it. Had this been a video, it might well have added to the experience, particularly since this was given during the Wieland Wagner Era at Bayreuth. But taken simply as an aural document, the orchestra has a certain detachment from the drama. There are moments when Sawallisch seems to wake up, but he never quite reaches a point of full commitment.
Mind you, the singers do whip up a storm of their own…just listen to the singing after Tristan and Isolde take the love potion near the end of Act 1, or the “Isolde! Tristan!” portion of the great love duet in Act 2. But Sawallisch just isn’t quite there. Yes, his conducting at the beginning of the second act is fast-paced, as it should be, but the energy level is set on medium. Sædén’s bright voice is most welcome as Kurwenal, and he, too, sings in a lively manner. Greindl is very good as King Mark, though of course he always had a slight wobble to go with his dark-toned bass. His long monologue at the end of Act 2 is well-interpreted, and everyone’s voice sounds good bouncing off the famous Bayreuth reverb. Windgassen is surprisingly moving in Act 3, and in even finer voice than in his 1966 recording with Nilsson and Karl Böhm (another excitingly-conducted performance). One of Sawallisch’s better moments is when he whips up an orchestral storm at the moment when Tristan realizes that Isolde is coming.
This will surely appeal to Nilsson completists who want everything she recorded, but personally I’d go with either of the later Böhm performances, though the Orange Festival recording, given in an outdoor stadium, suffers from wind blowing across the microphones.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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