Tristan und Isolde

Georg Solti
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien
Wiener Philharmoniker
2-30 September 1960
Sofiensaal Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanFritz Uhl
IsoldeBirgit Nilsson
BrangäneRegina Resnik
KurwenalTom Krause
König MarkeArnold van Mill
MelotErnst Kozub
Ein junger SeemannWaldemar Kmentt
Ein HirtPeter Klein
SteuermannTheodor Kirschbichler

This recording of Tristan has never had very good press, the most serious criticism being directed against Solti’s conducting. Never one to think in long lines and carefully judging tempo relations he often worked for the thrill of the moment – and very often with stupendous results. Here, though, at the beginning of his long-standing collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic he wasn’t very happy with the orchestra – or the orchestra with him – as some reports have it. Tristan und Isolde of all works, although having its thrilling moments, is the epitome of an epic, seamlessly moving forward and needing careful architecture and fine nuances. It could be argued that the conducting is less damaging on a highlights disc. The orchestral prelude is well played and almost restrained, on the fast side but not unduly so. Compare Bernstein who takes almost unbelievably 14:02 as against Solti’s 10:36 and still manages to keep the intensity boiling!. There is a short snippet from act one; from act two we have the full second half of the love duet from O sink hernieder, around 25 minutes of continuous music, and then the scene with Tristan and Marke. From the third act we have the concluding 16 minutes. What is more disturbing than the possible lack of an overall view – and Tristan can survive all kinds of treatment, vide the Bernstein recording which I made Recording of the Month a year ago – is the balance between stage and orchestra and the obviously joint view from Solti and John Culshaw that this is orchestral music with some supportive voices. Birgit Nilsson recalls one of the recording sessions:

“He (Solti) revelled in climax and couldn’t get the orchestra to be strong enough. Once at a rehearsal he repeated the same section over and over again. Resnik and I were sitting on stage waiting for our turn. Finally the orchestral volume became almost unbearable and at the sixth climax we decided to fall down from our chairs as struck by lightning. We attracted great attention lying there like two dead fish, and of course we had the laughing orchestra on our side. Somewhat reluctantly Solti joined in the mirth. After this outburst the rehearsal could continue under more relaxed conditions.”

For the finished recording Solti obviously didn’t waive his demands for deafening climaxes and manages to swamp his singers far too often, with the exception of Birgit Nilsson of course, whose laser beam shines through whenever needed. To enjoy her soft singing one still needs to turn up the volume several steps and when Solti then lets loose one has to run for cover. I wonder if there would have been scope for remixing the original tapes to rectify the balance. This was however what conductor and producer wanted, and it’s a pity since we miss a lot of good singing. Birgit Nilsson in one of her signature parts is the central character here and she is as good as Solti allows her to be. She re-recorded the part live at Bayreuth six years later under Karl Böhm for DG and with a generally finer supporting cast – and more natural balance but it is good to have this first essay too. Fritz Uhl has a basically fine voice and he sings with both healthy Heldentenor tone and lyrical beauty. Regina Resnik’s Brangäne also suffers from the balance and her Einsam wachend solo within the love duet (tr. 4) is further weakened through her voice being even more distanced. Not that it is a great loss since she sings it rather shakily. Tom Krause in one of his earliest recordings is an eager and excellent Kurwenal, the little we hear of him. Ernst Kozub as Melot displays a voice of Tristan dimensions, more baritonal and indeed larger than Uhl’s.

The most pleasant surprise is Arnold van Mill’s Marke. He is warm voiced, dignified and sad. Even though he can’t compete with singers like Moll, Sotin and Talvela for vocal greatness he gives a moving picture of conflicting feelings. He sings better than I have heard him in other recordings. Together with Birgit Nilsson’s Liebestod Marke’s long solo (tr. 7) is the high-spot on this disc.

As bonus tracks we get two snippets from the rehearsals but they are frustratingly short and don’t add much to the value of the disc. At budget price this is still worth investing in, if one can accept the balance problems. Texts are not included but we get a track-related synopsis and also Barry Millington’s introductory notes on the opera, included with the 2002 reissue of the complete set.

Göran Forsling


Solti’s Impassioned ‘Tristan’

There are a number of different ways in which Tristan can be approached by conductor. singer and listener. Indeed the very order in which I have put the word ‘conductor’ first shows that to some of us Tristan is a wonderful symphonic poem for orchestra with voices. That is how Sir Thomas Beecham approached it; and, if my re-reading of the many notices of Nikisch’s performances is correct, so did that great Hungarian conductor. The German conductors, however, like Furtwangler and Walter, regard it. in Wagner’s own words. as ‘poetry fertilized by music’. To them the words, Wagner’s words, which contribute so much to the lovers’ philosophy, are of the greatest importance. Furtwangler by his very nature knew the exact relationship there had to be in sound between voice and orchestra to realize this. To appreciate this approach one must surely be more than German-speaking: one must have been brought up to understand Wagner’s peculiar philosophy, influenced, in Tristan especially, by Schopenhauer. This is all second-nature to the cultured German, be he conductor, singer or listener. To the rest of us. who do not worry about such things. Tristan is a moving, universal drama, in which often the orchestra is the protagonist. It is natural therefore that Georg Solti, a non-German, should approach this miraculous score much in the same manner as did Beecham. Nikisch, and, judging on memories of Scala broadcasts. Victor De Sabata.

From this preamble. readers will gather that I do not share the feelings expressed by Mr Hugh Preston. whose letter we publish elsewhere in this issue, that this Tristan is a technician’s rather than a musician’s recording. To be sure. the voices seem to be overwhelmed at times, but in the opera house under some of the great Tristan conductors this has often been the case. The drama and story are in the orchestra, and what a joy !t is to hear such impassioned and fiery playing as we get here from the Vienna Philharmonic under Solti! I defy any listener tr) remain unexcited by this performance. The climaxes are overwhelming, and tne playing vibrates with the feeling of youth. Some may find Solti’s approach impetuous, but the vitality and drive he brings to this music are irresistible. I have not timed the playing of each act. but I do know that some of the passages that in the past have sounded long are here almost too short. I know one can often be deceived about conductors’ tempos, and indeed the actual length of time an act may take under two different conductors may differ by only a few seconds, yet to the listener one interpretation can sound slow and another fast. That is not to say that some conductors do not take longer over Tristan than others. I have just been looking at the official Bayreuth timings for Tristan and find, to my very great surprise, that Toscanini was the slowest on record, taking four hours eleven minutes, De Sabata was the fastest with three hours thirty-nine and Furtwangler comes half-way with three hours fifty-five! It has become fashionable to point out that Birgit Nilsson’s Wagnerian interpretations are ‘still maturing’, that she `has deepened her conceptions’ of Isolde and Brtinnhilde, but that ‘she has still not brought out all the subtleties of the part’. Colleagues point out that Flagstad had been singing Isolde for twenty years before she recorded it in 1952 when she was 56 years of age. One should also remember that in 1949 she had sung her 150th Isolde. Nilsson has been singing Isolde since 1953, but owing to the scarcity of Wagner sopranos today. she sings the role all over the world: in the 1959-60 season alone she was heard in the part in Lisbon. Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Vienna. New York and Bayreuth. I do not know whether Nilsson has yet equalled Flagstad’s 150.

Is°ldes—but she can’t be very far off ! And the youthful, fresh tone, and complete ease and assurance with which she sings Isolde’s music make her the incomparable Isolde of today. As Solti says, in the excellent rehearsal record that comes with the set. ‘She’s in fabulous voice’.

About the young Munich tenor, Fritz Uhl, who sings Tristan. I have certain reservations. Herz the lack of experience in the role is obvious. He seems still to be feeling his way. and lacks true heroic stature in Act I. In his great scene of delirium in the last act however, he sings with great feeling and beauty of voice. Regina Resnik’s Brangaene has stature and authority, but her voice was not at its best when she made this recording, and there is a sense of strain more than once. A new young baritone. Tom Krause, is a forthright and touching Kurwenal; and Arnold van Mill is a dignified and quietly moving King Mark. The parts of Melot (Kozub). the Shepherd (Klein) and the Young Sailor (Kmentt), are all in admirable hands.

I do not propose to go into the technicalities of this recording: there are long essays and diagrams in the excellent illustrated libretto. I will say however that the illusion of being in a theatre is complete, and that the recording of the orchestra both as an instrument and in sections is first-rate.

June 1966

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Decca, London
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602 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.0 GByte (flac)
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