Sunday, November 28, 2004

Solti and Tristan: Match made in hell

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Nilsson, Uhl, Resnik, Krause; Solti, cond. Vienna Philharmonic Orch. & Chorus (Decca 470814: 4 CD's, originally released in 1960)

The conducting on Solti's 1960 Decca recording of Tristan is of course silly--Boehm, to name just one, understands this music whereas Solti kind of slugs along from moment to moment--the opening to Act II is almost humorously jumpy. Too bad, because Nilsson is in spectacular early voice. That said, her later singing for (there's that name again) Boehm is far more inflected and passionate, though the tone isn't quite as sweet--it's a tradeoff I'm willing to make. Uhl isn't quite up to the task of Tristan, though he's not much worse than, say, a Rene Kollo, except that the tone isn't as pretty. Resnik's Brangaene? More secure than in her slightly later and distinctly wobblier and more sour-toned Decca Carmen, but none too pretty either.

Sonics: this was one of the great Deccas, but here they've de-noised it, which is a crime against humanity. They call it CEDAR de-hissing, but it's EQing by any other name, and no matter how you slice it, it takes some music--in this case fine detail and upper string sound--with it. The lack of hiss gives the whole thing an oddly dead noise floor--it's simply not meant to sound this way; something's seriously out of whack. Better they should've left it alone and done a straight transfer, which at least would've suffered only from being digitized and having all its frequencies above 20kHz being thrown out. Sound good? It doesn't. If I had it to do over again I'd go straight to the older CD transfer, or far better yet, to the LPs.

That close to Act I is still a Culshaw spectacular, though you have to take a great deal of it on faith here. Not only is it the production and engineering, it's--at the start of Act II as well--the stunning brass of the VPO, which sound like no other. Too bad Decca didn't enlist Kna for this set; Solti was their big marquee name at the time, especially right after Rheingold, and thus the obvious choice.

Played at a healthy volume, incidentally, the voices are not really recorded too distantly at all. Culshaw was no idiot, and he knew this would force listeners to play the recording loudly, thus enjoying the full impact of the climaxes. If you can't accommodate that, well, don't blame him--blame your pathetic little squawk-box.



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