Tristan und Isolde

Karl Böhm
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
24 July 1962
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanWolfgang Windgassen
IsoldeBirgit Nilsson
BrangäneKerstin Meyer
KurwenalEberhard Waechter
König MarkeJosef Greindl
MelotNiels Möller
Ein junger SeemannGeorg Paskuda
Ein HirtGerhard Stolze
SteuermannHans-Hanno Daum

Karl Böhm’s live recording of Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth in 1966 with the same two protagonists has long been favoured by many critics as the best all-round version of the opera on CD. It does though have its controversial features, the most notable being the very brisk rendition which the conductor gave in his performances that year, which sometimes gives the impression of hustling the singers. He was also conducting the Ring at the time, and John Culshaw in Ring Resounding complained bitterly about his “stupefying indifference, as if the conductor could not wait to get back to Salzburg or wherever he was going for his next engagement.”

This live performance of an earlier production from four years earlier – surprisingly Böhm’s Bayreuth debut – takes longer over each of the Acts: around three minutes in the First Act, six minutes in the Second and two minutes in the Third. For that reason alone the recording is valuable, because Böhm’s slower speeds allow both Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen more latitude in the way they phrase their music. Windgassen, at the height of his powers in 1962 – he was recording Siegfried for Solti during the same period – is in fresher voice than he was to be in 1966.

Indeed, one of the principal causes for enjoyment in this set is Windgassen’s singing. Amazingly he never recorded Tristan in the studio despite it being one of his principal roles,. His singing in reply to Marke’s upbraidings (CD 2, track 14) is heartbreaking in its intensity. He shows no signs at all of tiredness in the most strenuous passages of the final Act. By his side Nilsson is a tower of strength as always. She was well-established as the leading Isolde of her day by this time – her earlier recording for Solti showed her still to a certain extent finding her way in the role – and she never makes an ugly noise or fails to provide heroic singing. She launches her high Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet (CD 2, track 5) as though they were the easiest thing in the world. Her introduction of the theme of the ‘love glance’ during her Narration has real delicacy. Eberhard Waechter, who also appeared in Böhm’s 1966 recording, is a superb Kurwenal, forthright in his hymn of praise to Tristan in Act One and singing with real sensitivity at the beginning of Act Three.

However when it comes to the other roles Böhm in 1966 had a generally superior cast of singers. Kerstin Meyer here is a young-sounding Brangaene, who floats her warning in Act Two (CD 2, track 8) with real delicacy but by the side of the incomparable Christa Ludwig in the 1966 set she sounds uninvolved. Josef Greindl never had a beautiful voice, and although he does his best to shade word-meanings in his long monologue in Act Two (CD 2, track 13) his higher notes give evidence of strain. Martti Talvela in 1966 is incomparably superior. Nobody buys a set of Tristan for the singing in the smaller roles, but Gerhard Stolze is an unexpectedly touching Shepherd with his natural propensity for rasping Sprechstimme held firmly in check. Georg Paskuda is a full-voiced Seaman (CD 1, track 2).

This brings us to one of the major problems with this production: the recorded sound itself. Presumably this comes from broadcast tapes, but the voices are always very present and forward and the orchestral tumult is often rather poorly served by the microphones. The Bayreuth audience is a real stinker, coughing and hacking their way through the quietest moments. The cor anglais solo at the beginning of Act Three, although very present, almost becomes a duet with the unmuffled noises coming from the auditorium. When the Philips engineers came to record their live set in 1966, they had access to a whole series of performances and dress rehearsals and were able to reduce the unwelcome interruptions to an absolute minimum. Here we get the sound raw and unvarnished, and the results could, I imagine, become absolutely intolerable with repetition.

There are two other live Böhm performances available. The one from Orange has the ‘dream cast’ of Nilsson and Jon Vickers in the title roles, but suffers from the ‘usual’ cut in the Love Duet. The other, taken from a single performance in the 1966 Bayreuth season, has a most unfortunate tape edit in Act Three just after the Shepherd’s “Ein zweites Schiff” where two or three seconds of silence are introduced – or at least it did in the Frequenz transfer which I once owned. Although I would generally prefer this 1962 Bayreuth version as a performance to the 1966 one because of Böhm’s more relaxed approach to tempo, the general superiority of his later cast and the incomparably better recorded sound inevitably means that the 1966 version should be preferred. However for those who would like to hear the individual members of the cast in this version, with Windgassen in fresher voice and a less frenetic approach to the score, this Myto recording will have its value.

Presentation is, as usual with these historic recordings, minimal: no texts, translations, or notes, simply cast and track listings. One major advantage of Böhm’s speeds is that each Act can be fitted complete onto a single CD without any breaks in the dramatic or musical continuity. Among studio recordings only Pappano manages to do this. Personally I prefer a rather slower treatment of the score, even if this means annoying breaks in the music between CD sides: Karajan, Goodall or Bernstein. Others will welcome Böhm’s more urgent approach, and will regard Culshaw’s observations as misguided. There is certainly no lack of dramatic punch here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Media Type/Label
GM, Myto, OOA, HO
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Technical Specifications
385 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 623 MiB (flac)
Broadcast from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (premiere)