INKPOT#70 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: WAGNER Tristan and Isolde. Various/Böhm (DG/Philips)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan and Isolde
music drama in 3 acts

Tristan Wolfgang Windgassen
Knig Marke Martti Talvela
Isolde Birgit Nilsson
Kurwenal Eberhard Waechter
Melot Claude Heater
Brangne Christa Ludwig
A Shepherd Erwin Wohlfahrt
A Pilot Gerd Nienstedt
A Young Sailor Peter Schreier

Production & Staging Wieland Wagner
The Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra Chorus Master Wilhelm Pitz
conducted by Karl Böhm

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Originals 449 772-2
Also available as PHILIPS Classics 434 425-2
3CDs [7510″+7218″+7120″] mid-price

(Philips Wagner Edition full-price unless you buy the whole set).
Notes and Synopsis in English, German, French and Italian. Full Libretto in German, French and English.
Recorded ‘live’ at the Bayreuth Festival, 1966

by Ng Yeuk Fan

I ended my inktroduction by saying that “few will understand the magnitude of the love and torment that Wagner himself must have suffered.” Karl Böhm, however, creates a more believable Tristan und Isolde than any other conductor I have heard.

Measured and sterile development of musical phrases build up into something which is often grand but dry in passion. None of this is heard in his extremely taut and teething reading of the opening Vorspiel, infused with an equal measure of tender and lyric passion. Böhms brand of musical teasing is able to keep on the edge of sanity – never beyond reality and never saccharine dreamy sweet as some conductors are wont to do. This creates a uniquely individual reading which some may find uncommon and idiosyncratic.

Right: Detail from “Morning after a stormy night” (1819) by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788-1857)

Whorls of sounds collapsing into each other a reflection of his great mastery of orchestral prowess and sound an understanding necessary to allow the intended seascape sonorities to reveal themselves. The speeds are rocking but kept unrelenting, much as a tempestuous affair in a calamitous sea would be a truly apt description of this music. Each whorl of fantastic orchestral colour collapses into the next, conjuring images of blue green waters crashing onto the ship sailing towards Cornwall…it is important that no one breathes at all, phrases after phrase and then after the prolonged anoxic experience one becomes intoxicated with the strangulating power of epic love. Böhm must have understood this and intended it.

Elsewhere, there is often a sense of perfect pace and well measured sensibilities. Listen to how Böhm supports Nilsson through out her changing moods in her Act 1 recitatives…and listen to the opening prelude of the third act… Such immaculate timing! Karl Böhm is without a doubt the single greatest musician in this operatic tour de force.

Birgit Nilsson (left), who sang the part of Isolde 208 times in her career, thereby establishing an unbeatable record, is perfect in this interpretation of Isolde. One only need to hear the vocal stamina available to this Swedish soprano to believe that Wagner never saw a more formidable heiress of its leading heroine roles. She rises to her top notes with ease while retaining the ability to colour words with meaning and depth of emotion – her Act 3 finale, the famous Liebestod, is clearly the very best. Examples of Nilssons artistry abound in this very finest of performances of Tristan und Isolde.

Nilsson was also one of few ever opera singers to make headlines in the New York Times – the occasion was one when she was obliged to sing opposite three different Tristans, one for each act. Here, we hear her with Windgassen. This coupling , the Windgassen-Nilsson pair, has been described as the ideal couple for Tristan und Isolde. From the very beginning in the ship when Windgassen first utters his first lines, I can feel the immense authority of his interpretation. More than just assuredness – when he meets Isolde unwillingly in her chamber – an immediate sense of a communication is transmitted. I can hear the entire opera benefiting from an infusion of both their greatness. It is almost as if I can now see the opera in my head – and vividly too.

Again, in Act 2’s love scene between Tristan and Isolde, where a very much philosophical discussion which represents a search for a metaphysical solution rather than a physical satisfaction of their love is undertaken – their eternal night discussion is truly compelling and absolutely breathtaking as they work towards a frenzy…such a powerful mental image of brain sex! Wagners alternative to physical consummation is certainly satisfying. You wouldnt believe me but it is true. Listen for yourself.

Wolfgang Windgassen’s Tristan convincing. There is much youthful excitement and this is matched only by the tireless Nilsson and a comparable Böhm. Vocally, Windgassen can sometimes disappoint – I have mentioned before that the true heldentenor is a dying breed. Perhaps – I have yet to hear one with which I am entirely satisfied with. However – I reiterate that Windgassen’s greatest achievement for this favorite of Wagnerian roles is not one of vocal achievement – it is his soul which he lends to this human-god character.

This said, where Windgassen is required to be tender and lyrical and where he is most meditative – such as in his many long recitatives in Act 3, he is nothing short of exquisite. Listen to his tortured voice in his delirious outpouring and longing for the faraway Isolde. Further, Böhm (right) is at his most compelling accompanying Windgassen in Act 3.

Martti Talvelas King Marke is exceptional if one can excuse his strangely accented German. In the extremely elongated aria-recitative in Act 2 Mir dies? in which he expresses his sadness in being doubly betrayed by both Tristan and Isolde, what could possibly be a long drawn bore is transformed into a trance of great beauty.

Christa Ludwig is one of my most respected mezzos. I last saw her in Bernsteins Candide, a stage performance, and I was completely amazed by this woman who clearly has music in her blood. In this taxing role of Brangne recorded in 1966, she is at her prime. She shines despite a small shaky wobble in her voice. At times, there is a tightness in her voice which belies her greatness. But no one can match this woman for dramatic roles, each word is nuanced in its proper place in the entire sequence. In this most important of supporting roles in Tristan und Isolde, this collaboration is certainly richer with her contribution.

The supporting casts and chorus are never boring to listen to if one has the patience for them. Sound quality is above average for a ‘live’ recording made in the 1960s. The stage noises such as footsteps do not distract but add to the realism. Coughs and audience noise is virtually undetectable. Few CD releases today can claim so unparalleled a success both in its artist line up and sheer music accomplishment than this worthy issue now available at mid-price on DG Originals.

Truly the greatest of love stories – few other works I know can match the delicate detailing that Wagner has imbued in this his masterpiece. It is said that Richard Strauss described the works final cadence as the most beautifully orchestrated in all music. And indeed, how true – when the last curtain falls upon the transfigured deaths of two of Loves greatest heros, one is reminded gently by these wondrous chords of the succulent nectarine adventures that would await one in the sweet fruit of love.

In Singapore, this set is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Borders (Wheelock Place), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or HMV (The Heeren).

Ng Yeuk Fan will pause for his drink now…

404: 5.2.1999. up.21.3.1999 Ng Yeuk Fan

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