SPARS Code: ADD
Number of Discs: 4
Size: 1.12 GB
Isolde – Birgit Nilsson
Tristan – Fritz Uhl
Brangane – Regina Resnik
Kurwenal – Tom Krause
Konig Marke – Arnold van Mill
Melot – Ernst Kozub
Ein Hirt – Peter Klein
Ein junger Seemann – Waldemar Kmentt
Ein Steuermann – Theodor Kirschbichler
Sir Georg Solti
Good for a first recording by Nilsson and Solti Though They Should Have Waited!
The producer of this recording of “Tristan” was John Culshaw. If one wants to understand what the POINT of this recording is, one needs to read Culshaw’s very hard to find autobiography, “Putting the Record Straight”. I’m kind of surprised none of the other readers mention it, though maybe I missed it if they did. Any lover of Solti’s operatic output will be aware of Culshaw’s key role in getting his career started and then giving him the greatest recording opportunities of the second half of the 20th century. Beware if you try and find the book now, though. The prices range from $26 dollars to $300! Outrageous. Its just NOT that interesting! Unless control room gossip and the day to day running of a slowly collapsing record empire such as Decca is interesting to you in a big way, save your money. I got it when it was new in 1982.
First, this opera HAD TO BE recorded within 12 months of Nilsson’s signing her exclusive contract with Decca. That was her singular demand. Culshaw makes no bones about not caring for Nilsson as a person and clearly the feeling was mutual. He makes this very bright and tough woman sound as though she’s a child in places. Its unnecessary. Charles O’Connell, the man who ran the RCA recording program in the ’40s is Culshaw’s inspiration and in similar fashion he takes many artists to task in his book “The Other Side of the Record”. He went headlong after Toscanini to the point that he was fired by NBC, RCA’s then parent company.
Regardless of what Culshaw thought of Nilsson, though, he realized there would be no “Ring”, “Salome”, “Elektra”, etc., without her “Tristan” and she was deadly serious about the 12 month deadline. Via his boss in Switzerland he managed to get hold of Uhl. Sadly, Windgassen could have sung the role only two months later and was ready to do so, but Nilsson did not trust Decca or Culshaw (that’s pretty standard in the record business) so Uhl was the only available singer who knew the part of Tristan and could do it in a “recording only” setting. He manages well by today’s standards. At least he doesn’t bellow throughout. I can see that in 1960 he would not have been appreciated as Vinay and Melchior were still in people’s ears.
Solti wanted to make “Tristan” very badly. After hearing the final product, to me it seems he was not yet ready to make it his own. Many seem to agree with this assessment. This “Tristan” does not have the cohesive quality Solti brings to his other Wagner recordings and its pacing can leave much to be desired in places. The structure of “Tristan” was never replicated by Wagner again and Solti seems to miss the long line that is indigenous to the work. The constant avoidance of a full cadence is not made into a dramatic device throughout the recording, though from time to time Solti manages to hit high points. The sound, too, can be exciting in the big moments, but at others it gets terribly dull. It is not on par with the “Ring” for instance. I get the impression that things were rushed and therefore not fully thought out.
Culshaw felt they would never outdo the EMI/Furtwangler/Flagstad version, except in stereo sound. He had already had a huge success with “Das Rheingold”, something no one in their right mind would have predicted. But Culshaw’s team knew how to manipulate the stereo signal and he was able to get the press to pay attention to this anomalous recording. Of course “Das Rheingold” is STILL fantastic and Culshaw became nearly as famous as the operas he produced after that. Up to then he had been unknown. This new ‘awareness’ on the part of the world at large may have goaded him into doing what he did with “Tristan”. He discussed his ideas about the stereo approach to Tristan with Solti and they quickly adopted it. The idea was simple though hardly a new concept – that is, “Tristan” had made people go mad for a hundred years (up to that time at any rate – it now puts me to sleep at the Met) and Culshaw felt the orchestra was the chief reason for this. Culshaw finds “Tristan” to be a symphonic work with vocal accompaniment though he might not be quite so blunt in saying so. The singers carry the story when the orchestra is soft, (well, when the voices are audible) but the vocals are often somewhat overpowered when the orchestra takes over in its “emotional” outbursts. The old formula had been for a soloist or ensemble to express a certain emotion. Take “Il balen” from “Il Trovatore”. The action stops and the baritone sings of his love. Culshaw felt the orchestra should take the place of the soloist in expanding the emotions being expressed at a given moment and stereo sound now made this a far more interesting proposition. As to its true viability, that’s up to each listener to decide.
As a sideline, Culshaw had approached Jon Vickers to do Tristan, but he writes that Vickers wouldn’t hear of it in 1960 (good!), but was instead interested in Tannhauser, a role he never did sing. Its too bad Culshaw didn’t take that cue and offer him the early Wagner work! He could have sung it at that time.
For those that don’t care for Resnik in this set, she had a terrible cold, according to Culshaw, throughout the sessions, but managed to sing ‘over it’. No, its not her best work, but the recording would have been cancelled without her. “A” for effort on her part, as she saved the day.
Finally Culshaw writes that after he finished recording and editing this set, he had to go to bed for a number of days. “Tristan” unique qualities had cast their spell on him too. I understand that. He got too close to the fire. Still, the performance compared to so many others is only good. I’ll say it again – Solti was NOT ready to do this in the way that Culshaw envisioned it. I believe that’s why it was not received as “Das Rheingold” had been.
Nilsson is wonderful, but I will always prefer the DGG Bayreuth version with that Liebestod that has no equal in vocal terms; the horn crescendo at its climax is matched by Nilsson’s power giving me a thrill every time I hear it! Just my opinion, that – Too bad Decca didn’t record Bohm in Bayreuth – their sound would have blown the socks off DGG!
Finally, I’m fascinated by the difference in sound of this September 1960 “Tristan” and the 1961 “Salome” with the same conductor, orchestra, hall, producer – all of it. The “Salome” sounds much better to me – it is more cohesive even though its a bigger orchestra. Maybe the experiment to make the orchestra the prime object of the recording didn’t fulfill its promise with “Tristan”. What do you think?