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WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

CD Button Nilsson, Hoffman; Windgassen, Hotter, van Mill; Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Sawallisch. Birgit Nilsson—The Great Live Recordings, Sony 88985392322 (discs 5–7)

Recordings Tristan Cover 1 1218
Critics Choice Button 1015

EVERYTHING THAT WAS included in Sony’s boxed set Birgit Nilsson—The Great Live Recordings was selected because, for one reason or another, it’s especially interesting. There are, for example, three roles that she never recorded in the studio: Elsa in Lohengrin (from Bayreuth, 1954) is a pure, classically sung performance that offers few hints of the heroic soprano that she would become; Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle (from Stockholm, 1953) is, unfortunately, severely cut; the Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten (from Munich, 1976, at the other end of her career) is an alternative performance to another available live version, from Vienna, recorded the following year. (This performance is also heavily cut; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Barak, also unrecorded in the studio, virtually disappears from Act III.) There’s also a blazing Nilsson–Franco Corelli Turandot from the Old Met in 1961, conducted by Leopold Stokowski in his only Met broadcast of a complete opera. And there are two Elektras to compare; the one from Montreal in 1967 is perhaps the peak of Peak Nilsson.

But above all, the set is essential for the chance to hear Nilsson in three different performances of Isolde. Even though she’s heard in two commercial recordings (conducted by Solti and Böhm), and a few live recordings circulate (including a pirate of her first pairing with Jon Vickers, in Buenos Aires in 1971), there are plenty of fresh insights in each of these versions. Nilsson’s Isolde at Bayreuth in 1957 demonstrates that, even so early in her assumption of the role, she was canny about where it was possible to stay out of the way of the orchestra. She had already worked out what to do vocally in the trickiest wide-ranging lines, such as “Rache für den Verrat.” But these are mere details; this is Nilsson in youthful, healthy voice, in one of her more intimate, vulnerable versions of the role. There are also major revelations in Wolgang Sawallisch’s conducting. (How can it be that he never recorded this opera commercially?) His Tristan is an endlessly flowing river that buoys the singers and shows how often the orchestra prompts the vocal lines rather than colors them. He locates the crisis point of the opera in the first duo scene for the two lovers (reminding us that the first hour is just exposition), then caps Act I with the most dizzying confusion ever heard in these final pages. He prolongs the tiny moment the two lovers attain in Act III until it’s heartbreaking. Less expectedly, Sawallisch shapes Act II into the opera’s dramatic highlight. The bass clarinet is a full character, and Arnold van Mill becomes a Marke for the ages. It’s impossible to say what Sawallisch and van Mill have done to make this monologue all of a piece, but they command our attention for thirteen minutes and show us that this scene is suddenly real life in the midst of a fairy tale, and there’s no possibility of turning back.

This performance is uncut, as was the norm at Bayreuth. The 1967 Vienna Tristan has the standard cut in Act II but is otherwise complete. Nilsson’s formidable technique is always in service to expressive ends. She understands that learning empathy was a turning point for Isolde, softening her expression in the Act I narrative when she sings, “He looked into my eyes, not at the sword,” but using her laser beam of a high B as the exclamation point at the end of a well-told story. In the ensuing scene with Tristan, she uses her voice at first to slash and pounce, the technique portraying her perceived control of the interview. At the end of the performance, “Mild und leise” is in better control than it was at Bayreuth, the bright beacon of sound at “wie er leuchtet” shining and the final phrase triumphant, in a single breath. She’s well-matched with the All-American, grade-A beef of Jess Thomas's Tristan, a performance that similarly makes it seem as if the demanding role is actually not. Thomas completely controls the uncut Act III, and the Vienna audience listens in the rapt wonder of people who know that something extraordinary is happening. Karl Böhm, one of Nilsson’s favorite Tristan conductors, finds more of the sounds of nature at the beginning of Act II than anyone else, after which the opening of the big duet is an aural version of suspended time.

Böhm also leads the Tristan performance from Orange, the only material on the Sony set that might already be familiar to some. (Nilsson didn’t appear on much home video, but a DVD of this famous night has circulated.) Nilsson continued to find details that deepened her character, and the early scenes, with Isolde still thinking that things might work out, are finely shaded. But ultimately Böhm and Nilsson produced something far deeper, a performance that is not made of moments but represents a lifetime of insights, reassembled whole. The partnership of Nilsson and Jon Vickers, always lightning in a bottle (they sang only one performance of this opera together at the Met, even though she sang thirty-three Isoldes there), is fire and ice. He’s all over the place in Act III, yet the interplay with the solo English horn has never seemed so personal and so much a part of the drama as it does here, and when Böhm’s full orchestra turns the solo music into Technicolor we feel everything that Tristan feels. Tristan is a never-ending obsession, and Nilsson, Sawallisch, Böhm and Vickers never stopped immersing themselves afresh. —William R. Braun 



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