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WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

CD Button Nilsson, Hoffman; Windgassen, Saedén, Greindl; Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival, Sawallisch. Orfeo 951183 (3)

Recordings Nilsson Tristan cover lg 1118
Critics Choice Button 1015

TWO GREAT WAGNERIANS, both near the beginning of their careers, make this Bayreuth Tristan from July 26, 1958, enthralling. Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, not yet thirty-five, leads a young man’s performance, charged with drama and passion. Rather than treat Tristan as myth, a ritual enactment of preordained fate, Sawallisch draws us right into the human conflicts that propel the tragedy. The gathering tension in the prelude foreshadows the turmoil to ensue. The febrile intensity of Act I suggests a situation perpetually on the brink of cataclysm. Even in the passages of the Liebesnacht in which some conductors relax in erotic repose, Sawallisch’s forward-driving reading tells of the disaster soon to come. True to Wagner’s theatrical scheme, the dramatic tension only dissipates in the work’s transcendent finale: in the Liebestod, we truly sense Isolde leaving behind the world and its troubles.

Birgit Nilsson in 1958 was at the brink of her worldwide fame—her breakthrough Met debut, also as Isolde, came a year later—but the qualities that made her the leading Wagnerian soprano of her time were already in place. The clarity and strength of her voice here often defy credibility: as I listened to Nilsson, time and again riding over the surging orchestra with surpassing power and ease, I would think, “Really? That happened?” The sound has a steely edge at the outset, perfectly appropriate for the angry princess of Act I, but as the voice warms up, the texture softens, and she brings real sweetness to Isolde’s tender utterances (if not, it must be noted, the consummate legato that Kirsten Flagstad achieved at those moments). In the Liebestod, she really does seem to have transcended human fallibility: her voice brings us in touch with divinity.

At Nilsson’s side in the first two acts, Wolfgang Windgassen makes an impression not quite so overwhelming. The reasons for his hegemony at Bayreuth in the ’50s and ’60s are fully in evidence, especially the metal that let his essentially lyric instrument carry over Wagner’s orchestra. But his voice is leathery and monochrome, and the dynamic gradations of his leading lady’s singing are seemingly not his to command. In Act III, however, it becomes clear that he’s been marshaling his resources for Tristan’s most decisive battle. His stamina throughout the brutally demanding act is impressive, and so is the clarion power he brings to the climaxes. As the marathon nears its end, he delivers “Wie sie selig” with melting lyricism. An honorable performance suddenly becomes stupendous.

The girlish, even soprano-ish tinge of Grace Hoffman’s voice casts Brangäne as Isolde’s contemporary. The Watch, echoing from the wings, is properly haunting, both a balm and a tocsin. The dark authority of Josef Greindl’s bass tells us that Marke is a king, a man of formidable power held in check. In keeping with the dramatic cast of Sawallisch’s reading, he delivers the monologue in anger as much as in sorrow, the shock of the betrayal still fresh. The summer of 1958 marked the only Bayreuth engagement for Nilsson’s compatriot Erik Saedén, whose most notable subsequent assignment was the Speaker in Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film of The Magic Flute. Here, in the role of Kurwenal, his voice is bright and firmly produced, if a little shallow in tone, and it gets submerged during some of Act III’s orchestral climaxes. A special bravo is due to the uncredited cor anglais player’s plaintive Act III rendering of “die alte Weise.”

The release boasts fine monaural sound from Bavarian Radio tapes. Some overloading toward the beginning made me wonder whether the engineers weren’t at first fully prepared for the scale of Nilsson’s voice, and a slight transmission buzz in Act III unfortunately becomes most obtrusive in the work’s final measures. But generally these discs deliver a visceral sense of Bayreuth’s fabled acoustic. —Fred Cohn 



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