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--Standard Repertory--


By Richard Wagner

I may be in a minority, but I don't feel there are
any really satisfactory complete recordings--some splendid excerpts yes,
but that is about it.  Among complete recordings, many swear by the Flagstad/Furtwängler or the Nilsson/Böhm, but neither of them, particularly
the Böhm, completely satisfies.  Some longtime operagoers who actually saw Windgassen--Böhm's Tristan--claim his fine artistic control was
readily apparent in person, but I don't think he translates to disc as a plausible
Hero, while Nilsson's grander vocal resources rarely encompass any real
tenderness.  The Furtwängler recording has a few grand peaks, no
question, but it's spotty.  Still, few other recordings can surpass
it.  A few other sets may equal it -- and some may even
surpass it in one respect or another, though rarely across the board.  [G.R.]

VIDEO: L'Orange Festival video, 1973, featuring Jon Vickers, Birgit Nilsson; Karl Böhm conducting; dir. Pierre Jourdan; Japanese subtitles; DMVB 18/19; two vocally solid principals, though Nilsson is definitely the less sympathetic of the two--what with Vickers giving the most searing (and musical) interpretation of Tristan I have ever heard [G.R.]

AUDIO: A) MYTO (also available on: ARKADIA[good]/OPERA D'ORO[bad]): Ramon Vinay, Martha Mödl, von Karajan conducting ("live," Neu Bayreuth Wieland Wagner production, 1952); Over the years, at first with respect and then with growing amazement, I've become more and more drawn to this surprisingly strong performance; "surprisingly,” since neither of the two leads are flawless vocalists: in fact, most of the principals, not just Vinay and Mödl, suffer acute "warmupitis" in Act I, meaning we don't settle down to some real music-making until Isolde's Narrative and Curse thirty minutes in, while, in Act III, Mödl tires somewhat; yet it's clear from the otherwise assured singing of both leads that they are still in their vocal prime; in addition, both voices are so emotionally responsive that they encompass, in their innate variety of color, all the tenderness, the heartbreak, the longing, the self-destructiveness and the sheer loneliness that make this such a unique work; arguably the high point of Karajan’s operatic output is his earliest association with the Neu Bayreuth Festival b'casts of the early 50's (for instance, his Edelmann Meistersinger, '51), and this '52 Tristan, Wieland Wagner's first at Neu Bayreuth, is as acutely and energetically led as Bernstein's (see I below) but with much more attuned protagonists; I now believe this recording is the only one that gives the famed Furtwängler studio issue from the same year (EMI) a run for its money; it may hold up better than the great Furtwängler’s in the end, primarily because of Mödl’s towering rages in Act I versus Furtwängler’s (and Flagstad's) comparative stolidity (surprisingly so) and because of Vinay’s greater vocal excitement and imagination in Act III compared with the once-great Suthaus's faded efforts under Furtwängler; make no mistake, there are still vocal compromises in this "live" set, but Wieland Wagner's aims shine through all the same and give us perhaps the most consistently unified and wide-ranging interpretation available without cuts; Mono  [G.R.]

B) EMI: Ludwig Suthaus, Kirsten Flagstad, Furtwängler conducting (studio, 1952); The greatest Wagner conductor of them all, Wilhelm Furtwängler, in so-so form (for him) in Act I, grand, surging and incomparable for II and III; Flagstad's Isolde the richest vocal sound available in this role, but not the richest interpretation; Suthaus, with a plangent and genuinely heroic tone, now past his prime and showing uneven control; though one can see why many collectors would view this as the best available CD, that is still open to debate when one considers, first of all, how electrifying Flagstad can be with Furtwängler's faculties fully engaged during a live performance (as in the La Scala Ring cycle), or, secondly, what Suthaus accomplishes five years earlier at a "live" '47 Berlin Tristan, of which only a few tantalizing extracts survive; the ingredients were here to make something unforgettable, but it does not quite come off; Mono [G.R.]

C-1)  NAXOS: Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Leinsdorf conducting (Met broadcast, 1943); one of those rare Tristan performances where all are very much at home in their parts and at their peak, including Leinsdorf; musically, Melchior is on relatively good behavior because of Leinsdorf: he swims about less than usual; however eccentric, his Tristan is unsurpassed in technical ease and vocal splendor; I'm too young to have caught either Flagstad or Traubel "live," but I can't help agree with Ethan Mordden when he compares recorded excerpts of their Isoldes (whether or not those impressions mirror their "live" impact): "the St. Louis Woman Traubel enacted the titanic Isolde that Flagstad could deliver only through lung power"; it's even more than that: Traubel grew up in a German-speaking home, and this shows in practically every line; the kinetic sparks fly off Wagner's poetry in a way almost reminiscent of Mödl, while the rare combination of this kinetic gift with one of the most sumptuous instruments ever to assume the role (though she ducks the high C's in Act II!) makes Traubel's Isolde unparallelled among complete sets;  unfortunately, this performance still adopts some notorious cuts of the Bodanzky era, though a fair number of passages get restored; also, while the source used for this broadcast may have fairly good sound considering -- these air checks could be improvised affairs indeed(!) -- there are, unfortunately, a few tracking skips on the original acetates; Fair Mono  [G.R.]

C-2) EMI: Jon Vickers, Helga Dernesch, von Karajan conducting (studio, 1970-72); This early 70s outing does not hold a candle to Karajan's earlier effort (let alone Furtwängler's) -- a shame, since this is the best sung recording in hi-fi and is uncut; both its Tristan and its Isolde are finer than Karajan’s Vinay and Mödl of ‘52, IMO, and because of them, this set was once a favorite of mine; sadly, the mannered and enervated conducting from the mature (???) von Karajan wears thin--and compromises the most touching and vulnerable interpretations of the leading roles ever; Vickers and Dernesch could have left us a galvanizing, once-in-a-lifetime experience; indeed, Vickers' Tristan, like Traubel's Isolde in C-1, is in a class by itself; but Karajan rarely matches his '52 standard: excepting a fine Act II Love Duet, all we get are an assortment of tableaus, presenting "Moments From Tristan" with no steady vision of how A leads to B leads to C, etc.; an unfortunate torpor, after such a promising (more than promising!) achievement twenty years earlier; Stereo  [G.R.]

D-1) MELODRAM: Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting ("live", Covent Garden, 1937); The fabled Flagstad/Melchior duo are both at their very best with Sir Thomas; cloudy mono sound and a few cuts offset the virtues of this broadcast, and Sven Nilsson is a bitterly disappointing Koenig Marke, suggestive of the dreary 1980s!--avoid the EMI Beecham, not the same: a confused hodge-podge with extended sections lifted from a less compelling Reiner broadcast of the year before; this MELODRAM Beecham is the one to have if you want Flagstad and Melchior; these two giants are, vocally, the plushest sounds one could ever hear in this music; fair Mono   [G.R.]

D-2) MYTO: Set Svanholm, Kirsten Flagstad, Erich Kleiber conducting ("live", Buenos Aires, 1948); Almost as special a partnership as in D-1, with a more slender-voiced Svanholm in more scrupulous control of both music and text than Melchior, staying the course handsomely through the final "O diese Sonne!"; Flagstad, in splendid form, still rings out clearly up to a fine high C in the Act II Liebesnacht, although she "marks" the second one; combining the depth of her reading with Furtwängler in B and her spontaneity with Beecham in D-1, she gives to my mind her finest interpretation of this role on disk in this performance; her interpretation has become more internal and more nuanced since 1937; Kleiber maintains a natural flow throughout, allowing the inherent eroticism of the Love Duet to flower spontaneously to a degree almost unmatched in other interpretations; he adopts some of the usual cuts of this period; in fair mono (some places sound amazingly good, while other spots are afflicted with haze and scratch), a broadcast but with distant mike placement (particularly flattering to Flagstad's voice - the Transfiguration is ineffably sweet!) [G.R.]

D-3) VAI: Jon Vickers, Birgit Nilsson, Horst Stein conducting ("live", Teatro Colon, 1971); Generally reckoned the only duo, so far, to match, vocally, the Flagstad/Melchior pairing on disk, though Nilsson, with the occasional pitch problem and spiky attack, does not strike me as entirely Flagstad's or Traubel's equal in sheer opulence, nor even Dernesch's equal for combining melting legato and ideal warmth; nevertheless, Nilsson certainly has her stunning moments in Act I, and her pianissimi later on are luminous; in Vickers' first reading of this role, he establishes a standard, vocally and interpretively, that may never be surpassed; he has intuited the secret of making Tristan's suffering horrifying, noble, beautiful, poetic and intrinsically musical all at once; unfortunately, Maestro Stein opts for a few cuts in this performance, and his conducting sometimes lacks drive, though he doesn't hamper Vickers' intensity in quite the same way that Karajan does in C-2; sonics are quite good [G.R.]


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