Tristan und Isolde

Karl Böhm
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
9 January 1960
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRamón Vinay
IsoldeBirgit Nilsson
BrangäneIrene Dalis
KurwenalWalter Cassel
König MarkeJerome Hines
MelotCalvin Marsh
Ein junger SeemannCharles Anthony
Ein HirtPaul Franke
SteuermannLouis Sgarro
Reviews (I)

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 II 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.

Ralph Moore (II)

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 | January 2017

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Walhall Eternity, Pristine, Line, HO, OOA, PO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 442 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Herbert Graf (1959)