Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Böhm’s Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival

Original cover of Böhm’s Tristan album (from

There is no doubt that Karl Böhm brought considerable insight to his interpretations of the operas of Richard Wagner. This was clearly one of the benefits enjoyed by the Metropolitan Opera through his extended relationship with them. However, as was observed this past Saturday, the recent Deutsche Grammophon (DG) box set, Karl Böhm: The Operas, has only five Wagner CDs, which amounts to recordings of only two operas. While this is a modest offering, it is still a significant one. Both of the operas have been documented through live recordings made at the Bayreuth Festival.

The earlier of these is the recording of Tristan und Isolde. This was the opera with which Böhm made his Bayreuth debut in 1962, and he continued to conduct Festival performances through 1970. The recording was made in 1966 with the sort of casting that continues to be vivid, even when mediated by legacy recordings. The title roles were sung by tenor Wolfgang Windgassen and soprano Birgit Nilsson. (Böhm had conducted Nilsson’s Metropolitan Opera debut in this role in 1959.) Those who know the opera know that each of these characters has a “lower-voice counterpart.” These are the roles of Kurwenal, sung by baritone Eberhard Waechter, and Brangäne, sung by mezzo Christa Ludwig. Equally significant is the voice of bass Martti Talvela in the role of Marke, King of Cornwall; and tenor Peter Schreier, whose presence on the First Viennese School recordings was so significant, enjoys the very first notes sung from the stage in the role of the young sailor.

The later recording was of The Flying Dutchman, made during a 1971 Festival performance. This seems to have been recorded at Böhm’s last season at Bayreuth; and, as might be expected, it involves a new generation of singers. The role of the Dutchman was sung by Thomas Stewart, complemented by Gwyneth Jones as Senta. The earlier generation is represented by mezzo Sieglinde Wagner in the role of Mary (Senta’s nurse) during the second act. This performance follows Wagner’s original conception of an uninterrupted performance with instrumental transitions separating the three acts.

I shall not repeat my observation that the Tristan recording did much to draw my attention to Böhm. However, it is important to note that both of these operas are given briskly energetic treatments, thus strongly undermining any attempt to accuse the conductor of being boring! One may not have the advantage of viewing what was taking place on the Bayreuth stage, but these were clearly productions in which one could easily appreciate the suspense that comes with the unfolding of the narrative line. Considering how many operas Wagner wrote, this is a modest sample; but quality definitely makes up for any lack of quantity!

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