Partial Overview
of a Few Tristans



The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK






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--Geoffrey Riggs

The Wilhelm Furtwaengler set from 1952 is the first studio recording of the complete opera, a general favorite and a towering reading: endless line, amazing dynamics, Flagstad's sumptuous tones, the underrated Thebom (her exchange with Kirsten Flagstad at the opening of Act II is a highlight of the recording). But Furtwaengler's Tristan, Ludwig Suthaus, was already on the way down by the time this was made, and he is also oddly uninvolved (comparatively) in the Act III delirium. Flagstad too fails to mine all the feelings raging in Isolde in Act I, though she is clearly superb and thoroughly engaged in the later scenes (some listeners are bothered by the fact that Elizabeth Schwarzkopf provided Isolde's high Cs in the second act, but this doesn't really bother me at all). Moreover, I find that Furtwaengler himself, while supreme in the opening scene of Act II and the closing scene of the opera, and very involving for the bulk of Acts II and III, strikes me as atypically rigid in much (though not all) of Act I. That said, his peaks here are still unsurpassed.

The other supreme Tristan conductor, Hans Knappertsbusch, is available in a set that boasts a Tristan, Gunther Treptow, in his prime. Treptow's discography is spotty, but here, for once, he reaches his full potential. This performance is recorded "live" at Munich (1950). Unfortunately, it's the Isolde here, Helena Braun, who is found wanting. This set remains notable for probably the most hugely satisfying conducting of all on disc, combining a superb sense of flow with an innate sense of theater -- what the Furtwaengler set might have been had it been "live". Moreover, this is the earliest extant performance with no cuts at all.

Going back to the earliest generation to be preserved in complete "live" broadcasts, the Fritz Reiner and Sir Thomas Beecham sets from Covent Garden (1936 and 1937) feature Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in their prime. These two combined an opulence of tone and a sheer staying power that, together, made them the chief box-office draw of their generation. But there are regular cuts made in all their extant performances together that, on rehearing, start to grate. And other rare broadcasts of these two from the Metropolitan Opera under the fine Artur Bodanzky cut even more than these Covent Garden readings! Sure, a few later sets without these two also take out the same large snip in the "Tag und Nacht" exchange in the Act II duet. But in addition, it's in these Flagstad/Melchior sets, even those from Covent Garden, where we still miss, for instance, Tristan's "Isolde noch im Reich der Sonne!" passage that might also sound particularly apt in a voice like Melchior's, who never recorded the whole role commercially. It's omissions like this that, taken together, loom more and more on rehearing rather than less. At the same time, Melchior's Tristan, especially in the Beecham performance, happens to rise to vocal heights rarely (if ever) equalled by others elsewhere. These rare broadcasts are all available on various different labels, but avoid EMI's one-time issue of, purportedly, the Beecham version, which is, in fact, a botch, clumsily patching together a mix-and-match of the Reiner and Beecham, using somewhat more of the Reiner than of the slightly more satisfying Beecham, which is more on a par, artistically, with the Bodanzky readings from New York.

Though Helen Traubel (on a hard-to-get NAXOS set), "live" with Melchior conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (1943), strikes me as an even greater Isolde than Flagstad, there are still those usual cuts of the time. But Traubel is one of those rare birds who combines intensity with vocal opulence. That alone places this set in a special niche. Melchior's Tristan is heard in an unusually disciplined musical reading (for him, that is), but his voice, while still impressive, is no longer at its freshest. Of course, Melchior at less than his freshest is still worth hearing.

For the one Isolde from Flagstad that strikes me as coming closest to Traubel's intensity, one has to look to the postwar period: I would take her "live" reading from Buenos Aires (1948) under Erich Kleiber as the best Flagstad Isolde. In spite of a few cuts here, as well, and Flagstad's taking only one of the two high Cs in the duet, there is such a striking variety of expression from her, compared to what we hear elsewhere, that our knowledge of Flagstad's Isolde would be incomplete without this set. And Erich Kleiber's attentive command of the entire score matches Flagstad on a musical level all the way. Kleiber's reading, in fact, is one of those that come closest to the Furtwaengler/Knappertsbusch standard, although it does not fully equal it. Flagstad's Tristan here, Set Svanholm, is also in fine form. If not for those cuts....

Another great Isolde who, alongside Traubel, habitually combines intensity with genuine vocal opulence is Gertrud Grob-Prandl. Unfortunately, her one available Isolde, from La Scala (1951), is simply in lousy sound. And there are also numerous cuts, more than in the Flagstad/Melchior sets! On the other hand, Victor De Sabata's conducting offers one of the most incandescent readings on disc, thoroughly attuned to Grob-Prandl's inspired vocalism. However, she is stuck with a Tristan, Max Lorenz, who's all over the place.

One cut continues to rear its head from time to time in the LP era: that snip of the "Tag und Nacht" sequence. This bedevils the otherwise uncut and strongly sung Birgit Nilsson/Jon Vickers performance from Orange (1973). As it is, this is still a top contender. But it's a shame that not at New York, not at Orange, not in South America, not at Vienna, do Nilsson and Vickers ever do the "Tag/Nacht" section together. The happily energized Karl Boehm (in Orange anyway, where he's "up"), Nilsson vintage '73 and Vickers vintage '73 would have filled a big gap in their discographies had the three of them performed the duet uncut at Orange. How unfortunate it was not to be. Yet despite all that, Vickers' delirium in the last act, as heard here with Boehm, is arguably the only other reading, aside from Melchior's with Beecham, that can be appreciated for its own sake as something which is as magnificently self-sufficient and artistically complete as any other achievement by any other artist ever recorded in this work. Since this CD is also available on DVD, it is now possible to savor this performance in its original setting as an inspired Lehnhoff production. We have here the chief Wagner heroes of their generation together, towering presences that were never given the opportunity to partner each other in this work in the recording studio. Since this is a "live" performance from an outdoor festival, that entails frequently audible breezes throughout the evening, occasioned by the mistral in full force during that part of the year. But I find that this detracts far less than the occasional cut.

Returning to a clutch of commercially released recordings that started appearing roughly ten years after the pioneering Furtwaengler set, both Nilsson and Vickers are available in uncut sets but never together. Nilsson is heard in two generally available Tristans: one with Fritz Uhl and Georg Solti from circa 1960 (DECCA/LONDON), and the other with Wolfgang Windgassen and Boehm from 1966 (DG). Solti is sometimes inspired in Wagner, but I find this one of his most disappointing recordings. It doesn't lack for energy and general commitment. But there is too little variety of mood and, while some prize the clarity of the orchestra here (in fact, the sonics as such are simply superb throughout this set), I will always opt for a balance more like Bayreuth's, where the intimacy of the scenes can come through better. Moreover, aside from Nilsson, no one here seems to be in good vocal form or vocally effective. Granted, I have heard Uhl in worse voice elsewhere, but in this role he simply lacks impact, which would be less of a concern if his Isolde were not one of the most powerful voices anywhere on disc. I find the contrast too jarring. For me, this has to be one of the least satisfying sets available.

As for the Nilsson/Windgassen/Boehm, this has become, like the Furtwaengler recording, a general favorite. It features Windgassen's Tristan and Boehm at the podium. Windgassen is also an inapt partner for Nilsson, I find, though he exerts somewhat more presence than Uhl. That said, his approach to certain critical passages can seem crude alongside Uhl's. What this set has, in far greater measure than the Solti, is strength of ensemble: Christa Ludwig's Brangaene and Martti Talvela's Koenig Marke are particularly noteworthy and help enhance an eminently theatrical experience, combining more intimate specifics of characterization than in the Solti (although still not ideal) with a commendable energy similar to Solti's. This recording, made from Bayreuth performances in 1966, may be a more consistent recording in a way than the Furtwaengler, but without its emotional peaks. For that reason, I view this as more of an also-ran than the Furtwaengler.

The other hero of the Orange performance, Jon Vickers, is available uncut with Helga Dernesch, in a studio recording from the early '70s, on EMI. This is a heartfelt and entirely apt partnership. These two principals show great beauty of tone and fine emotional commitment, hobbled by Herbert von Karajan's "matured" (read "devitalized"!) conducting. He gives nowhere near the unified sweep to this work that he was capable of decades earlier (see below). Despite the warmth and humanity in the two principals, this set, after rehearings, comes off as more and more fragmentary and capricious (only in the second-act love duet do things "click").

The Leonard Bernstein recording (Munich, 1983) is somewhat more cohesive. It shows a better sense of flow, albeit at extremely distended tempi, a polar opposite to Boehm. People disagree on the extent to which this vitiates the energy in the music. I find, for the most part, that it doesn't. There is still a vivid projection of the hallucinatory that lies at the centre of this drama, and I prize Bernstein for that. Unfortunately, his leads split the difference between an attractive instrument indifferently handled (Peter Hofmann), and an indifferent instrument adroitly handled (Hildegard Behrens). They both project uncommon dramatic commitment. But they both embody too many significant vocal compromises that can be a deal-breaker for many (I find some of Hofmann's "sleights" especially regrettable, since he had such an unusually telling vocal color and a distinct persona).

Sir Reginald Goodall marks the emergence of a small number of state-of-the-art stereo recordings with conducting that recalls some of the hallmarks of Furtwaengler and Knappertsbusch, if not their full theatrical genius. Conductors like Goodall, Carlos Kleiber, Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann all recover, to one degree or another, the knack of transforming the musical line in Wagner into endless melody. In earlier sets on disc, only Furtwaengler, Knappertsbusch, the young Karajan (on occasion, see below), De Sabata (on occasion), Reiner (on occasion), Beecham (on occasion) and Bernstein (on occasion) had demonstrated this same capacity. While generally effective, I don't find the same cohesion in Solti and Boehm, even though they're both capable of being master colorists. Goodall's is one of the most flowing Tristan readings available in modern stereo, although hardly the most theatrical. Still, it also boasts a thrilling Isolde in the riveting, however eccentric, Linda Esther-Grey; but her Tristan, John Mitchinson, doesn't even begin to come up to her level.

The Carlos Kleiber recording, albeit in a very, very different style from the Goodall, parallels that set in featuring a maestro who has the same superb knack of sustaining a true flow throughout the music -- while using a remarkably sinuous approach in contrast to Goodall's. The Kleiber also parallels the Goodall in excellent sonics, a superb Isolde (Margaret Price, highly effective at least in the recording studio) and an iffy Tristan (the spindly Rene Kollo, who is, however, far more effective in the Ponnelle video under Daniel Barenboim with Johanna Meier as Isolde).

The Daniel Barenboim CD with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem features an efficient enough pair, occasionally insightful, occasionally pressured (more so Jerusalem). Essentially unobjectionable, neither performer exactly overwhelms in the way that others do. What distinguishes this Tristan is Barenboim's superb conducting, a fine antidote, I find, to the occasionally hard-bitten Boehm. Barenboim reflects, to an extent, the mercurial but flowing ideal that I most treasure. He defers to Goodall slightly when it comes to immacculate musical flow, but he is Goodall's superior in his keener theatrical spirit. He is not as consistent as Furtwaengler and Knappertsbusch, but his lively projection of what binds the connective tissue of Wagner's score together is welcome.

The Thomas Moser/Deborah Voigt set under Christian Thieleman is distinguished by conducting that is at least on a par with Goodall's. Voigt does not get very deeply into the role, although she is generally in viable enough vocal form. Unfortunately, Moser isn't even that -- he is the main liability here. But Thielemann's genius is so special that the Tristan discography would be the poorer without this set. Thielemann now rivals Barenboim as a true inheritor of the Furtwaengler/Knappertsbusch tradition, and in his matching of Goodall's superb sense of flow he excells Barenboim's, although Barenboim still has a somewhat sharper theater feel. Taken together with the fine engineering in this set, we have an unusual combination: a set comprising authentic Romantic conducting in the most up-to-date sound. Thus, the Goodall and Barenboim sets finally have company. It's just a shame that here too both lovers could not dominate.

The newest set comes from EMI and stars Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme, with Antonio Pappano at the podium. Pappano has given us a strong and energetic interpretation, which never flags. On paper, one would expect Stemme, whose Senta has been incandescent and whose Isolde, particularly at Stuttgart, a year or so prior to this set, showed such mastery over Isolde's musical volatility, to display a more natural command of the sheer sweep of her role and of the Wagnerian idiom than her more celebrated partner. Domingo, who has never performed Tristan on stage and whose undeniable effectiveness on stage in other roles can sometimes be offset by somewhat monochromatic delivery, however adroit the musical assurance, could be expected to give a reading with efficient musical manners and somewhat restricted expression.

Yet all this is not quite what we have. In fact, Domingo has left us a Tristan of uncommon variety and feeling, matched to his customary musical aplomb. Although there are fleeting moments of slight unsteadiness, they remain fleeting, and far more remarkable is the continuing resilience of his unfailing legato and plangent tone. Given his age in this set, this is nothing less than astonishing. The one caveat one must concede is his continued inability to provide a full-fledged pianissimo head tone, of a sort we hear from a Melchior or a Vickers: no such note, for instance, at the word "zeronnen" in the Act II Love Duet, and other similar moments. Yet he has developed a reading of genuine dynamic variety for all that. Short of such a head tone, we still have genuinely tender, intimate singing when needed, and even here, the core of the tone always remains intact. Domingo unfailingly projects an awareness of Tristan the knight, half savoring his love with Isolde and half tormented by its threat to his honor. And there is also a feeling of a true journey made as we follow that torment. This is an honorable and sincere and detailed response to Wagner's characterization.

Stemme too shows alert sensitivity to the journey Isolde takes emotionally. Her sense of color and communication are sure. Yet, surprisingly, she fails to come up to her partner's level of musical control, let alone her own of a couple of years back, which was arguably at an even higher plane than Domingo's here! Sounding frequently pressed and uncomfortable throughout, her singing here projects strain and uncertainty as often as it projects Isolde the character. There is also a more marked and slower rate of vibrato from her than we ever hear from Domingo, whose occasional unsteadiness rarely becomes a downright wobble at all. It is this pronounced unsteadiness from Stemme that sometimes throws her pitch off in addition. Consequently, although Stemme is a much younger singer than Domingo, this whole recording suffers from an inherent dramatic imbalance throughout: Tristan and Isolde simply do not sound like contemporaries at all..............the Isolde sounds older!

Finally, we go back to Neu Bayreuth in the 1950s for a pair of "live" recordings featuring the Tristan of Ramon Vinay. In the latter of the two (1953), we have Eugen Jochum conducting a cast headed by Ramon Vinay and Astrid Varnay. There is something forbidding in the Astrid Varnay persona that, I find, prevents real sympathy for her Isolde. Ramon Vinay was one of the great Tristans, but he's just starting to show some wear and tear, particularly in the Love Duet in Act II. He is heard to better advantage in the one reading that I find I prefer now to all others..........

...........The "live" Martha Moedl/Ramon Vinay/Herbert von Karajan performance from a year earlier (1952), not the greatest in each and every respect, hangs together in a marvelous way as a whole. Available on MYTO, MELODRAM and ORFEO (excellent transfers all) and on OPERA D'ORO (an awful transfer/pressing), this broadcast preserves Wieland Wagner's first Tristan production for the so-called "Neu Bayreuth". Here is a thrilling dramatic interpretation that is uncut, boasting two genuinely heroic voices that are caught in prime condition under a conductor who is clearly "up" for the occasion. What other set brings it all together like this? Yes, there are some warmup problems for both principals -- in fact, for all the chief cast members, if it comes to that -- but once we're into Isolde's Act I Narrative and Curse, everyone, not just the two lovers but even the palllid Ira Malaniuk and the quavery Hans Hotter, "straighten up and fly right", with von Karajan providing a "spine" to the proceedings that is all too atypical of his later years and a joy on this occasion.

The dramatic rapport between the two principals surpasses that of any other partnership I've heard on disc, with the exception of one abridged reading of the Love Duet alone featuring the frenzied Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior (Albert Coates conducting, 1929). Outside of the Love Duet proper, if there's any exchange between the doomed lovers that gets occasionally trivialized, it's the moment at the end of Act II where Tristan invites Isolde to join him in oblivion, after they have been trapped by Melot and King Marke, and Isolde responds in kind ("O Koenig". . ."Als fuer ein fremdes Land"). Tristan's sombre invitation is sometimes excerpted as a separate "aria", but Isolde's musical variation on this melody in response makes it clear that this entire exchange is an ingenious throwback to the tradition of the bel canto duet where each principal sings almost the same melody, altering certain contours slightly in reiteration. In addition, the intensely intimate, even morbid, psychology of the lovers in this oblivion "duet" helps strip this musical portrait down to a raw unvarnished image showing the bleakness of two haunted characters.

I never concentrated that much on Act II's closing exchange until I first heard this recording. After being mesmerized with Vinay and Moedl here, however, I almost think it may be the most critical moment in the work. Moedl and Vinay are so exclusively responsive to each other at this point that they have spoiled me for any other pair--so far. Now when I hear or see this exchange done in a less mutually absorbed way, I almost feel that something is somehow missing from the whole work. The rapport between the two here is overwhelming, properly obsessive.
The searing effect of this moment from Vinay and Moedl is indicative of an entire performance where the full emotional odyssey of both protagonists is revealed more unflinchingly than in any other reading. An essential recording, in my view.

Happily, I have a sense that more and more listeners, certainly on the Internet, may now be coming around to the view that the Moedl/Vinay Tristan does indeed equal both the other sets that have most often been touted in the past -- the '52 Furtwaengler and the '66 Boehm.



A) Karajan/Vinay/Moedl

B) [chronological order] Bodanzky/Melchior/Flagstad; Beecham/Melchior/Flagstad; Leinsdorf/Melchior/Traubel; E.Kleiber/Svanholm/Flagstad; Furtwaengler/Suthaus/Flagstad

C) [chronological order] Karajan/Vickers/Dernesch; Boehm/Vickers/Nilsson

D) [chronological order] Reiner/Melchior/Flagstad; Knappertsbusch/Treptow/Braun; Barenboim/Jerusalem/W.Meier

E) [chronological order] Jochum/Vinay/Varnay; Pappano/Domingo/Stemme

F) Goodall/Mitchinson/Esther-Grey

G) [chronological order] C.Kleiber/Kollo/M.Price; Thieleman/Moser/Voigt

H) Boehm/Windgassen/Nilsson

I) De Sabata/Lorenz/Grob-Prandl

J) Solti/Uhl/Nilsson

K) Bernstein/Hofmann/Behrens


Breaking it down further:


A) Furtwaengler; Knappertsbusch

B) Barenboim; Goodall; C. Kleiber; E. Kleiber; Thieleman

C) Beecham; Bernstein; Bodanzky; Boehm; De Sabata; Jochum; (young) Karajan; Pappano

D) Leinsdorf; Reiner

E) ("mature") Karajan; Solti



A) Melchior; Vickers

B) Domingo; Svanholm; Treptow; Vinay

C) Jerusalem

D) Suthaus; Uhl; Windgassen

E) Hofmann; Kollo; Lorenz; Mitchinson; Moser



A) Grob-Prandl; Traubel

B) Dernesch; Esther-Grey; Flagstad; Moedl

C) W.Meier; Nilsson; M.Price; Voigt

D) Stemme; Varnay

E) Behrens; Braun


-- © 2005 Geoffrey Riggs


The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847





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