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4.0 out of 5 stars Tristan und Isolde Vienna 1976, 12 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Audio CD)
When I got into opera several years ago, a book mentioned recordings of Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nilsson (Bayreuth 1966) and Jon Vickers (Karajan) suggesting there ought to be a recording with both together, which would be amazing. This is the last of four live recordings with this ideal pairing in the title roles. Could this be the recording that writer sought?

There are at least 20 live recordings of Nilsson as Isolde (1957 - 1976) and one studio version (Solti, 1960) - there is little to differentiate these vocally, though her interpretation improved with experience. In general, Nilsson sings Isolde beautifully, with gleaming silvery focussed tone and an almost inhuman stamina and ease of voice production. For this review brief choice moments from the other three Nilsson / Vickers Tristans (1971, 1973 and 1974) were auditioned. In this (1976) performance, Nilsson is on blistering form in the Act One Narration and Curse, including an ear-splitting top B on Preis. As the performance progresses, there may be just a slight lack of the trademark ease. The evening ends with a fine Liebestod, the final Lust is floated, albeit not with absolute ease. Detractors are losing sight of the fact this is still a very good Isolde performance. Comparing with Nilsson's earlier Isoldes is like saying she ONLY got Olympic Silver after twenty or so Golds! Nilsson's 1976 Isolde is still way better than many others in the part before or since. Jon Vickers reins in his powerful but soft-grained voice, though has cutting power when needed, he can float his voice and soften its essentially coarse timbre, the overall effect is he sounds appropriately manly and tender. Their voices contrast yet really blend so well, great Act Two love duet. Ruth Hesse (Brangaene) is good but a bit hooty. Hans Gunter Nocker is a sturdy sympathetic Kurwenal, appropriately a bit gruff at times, also singing beautifully in the Act Three exchanges with Tristan. Hans Sotin a good, smoothly-sung Marke. The supporting cast includes veterans Anton Dermota (Sailer) and Gerhard Stolze (Shepherd).

The orchestra of the Vienna State Opera play with conviction. Horst Stein's reading is attractive and straightforward with plenty of rhythmic pulse, a good, fairly dramatic and passionate account of this powerful score. There is a blazing intensity of orchestral playing especially in Act 3 - overall an excellent orchestral performance. The performance is complete except the usual big cut early in the Act 2 love duet. Sound quality is basically excellent for a mono live taping of this era with just slight tape hiss - but - well, actually there are a few buts. Recorded balance favours the orchestra and the very prominent brass and percussion may be offputting to some listeners. The singers are toward the back of the acoustic pespective but are perfectly clear, one exception being the orchestra drowns Vickers out for a few softly sung words in Tristan's Act 3 monologues. There is also a supporting cast of audience coughers determined not to be left out, their occasional throat-clearing and spluttering is only annoying in some quieter musical passages. There are three bad edits. On CD 1 track 11 1,49 there is a split second of missing orchestral music before Drum such es meine Huld. On track 13 0,36 there is quite a chunk of orchestral music missing after Herr Tristan trete nah! On CD 2 track 11 0,02 there is another chunk of missing orchestra after Rette dich, Tristan! On CD 3 track 5 4,40 there is a second or so of rough sound. If possible it would have been better to loop these in from another performance for the sake of musical continuity. There is a booklet with some notes and b/w photos - I'm sure on the cover Nilsson looks like Cher - including one of Nilsson and Vickers posing together in Vienna. There is a German-only libretto in miniscule print.

With all this in mind, this may not be that ideal recording with Nilsson and Vickers. However I am not sure any of the other three are, either. All have some problem with the sound. Buenos Aires 1971 (VAI) is a bit boxy and warbly. At times it is very clear, other times very faint. Voices are recorded very well but the orchestra is a bit muffled. Orange 1973 (Allegro) is an open air recording. Wind noise spoils the sound. The orchestral sound is diffuse especially the strings. Voices are recorded well. New York 1974 is an in-house taping with the balance favouring the orchestra. There is occasional coughing. Nilsson and Vickers are on superb form, Leinsdorf gets an excellent orchestral performance. This 1976 performance is very interesting and recommended to enthusiasts who will accept it as it is. To hear the voices clearly I played the CDs loud. With the blazing ferocity of the orchestral sound, by the end of the performance I was reeling on the floor clutching my burning ears. I'm okay, I'm okay. I just need to - lie down here for a minute - uh.
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