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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde
(1865)
Ludwig Suthaus (tenor) Tristan; Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) Isolde; Blanche Thebom (mezzo) Brangäne; Josef Greindl (bass) King Mark; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) Kurwenal; Rudolf Schock (tenor) Sailor/Shepherd; Edgar Evans (tenor) Melot; Rhoderick Davies (baritone) Helmsman;
Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
From HMV ALP1030/35. Rec. 10-22 June 1952, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110321/4 [4CDs: 335’23]


In whichever incarnation you choose to tackle it, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1952 Tristan remains an astonishing achievement. For raw emotional power, the famous Karl Böhm 1966 Bayreuth account still retains this reviewer’s affections; but such is Furtwängler’s hypnotic account, that while listening others are effectively forgotten.

The cast has attracted much comment, firstly for Flagstad and her ‘aide’ (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who took some of the high notes, covering top ‘C’s in Act II) and secondly for the choice of Ludwig Suthaus, possibly not the greatest Tristan, but one who nevertheless shows he has more than the measure of the part. True, he is not Windgassen (unforgettable for Böhm) or even Vickers (for Böhm again, at Orange this time, on Hardy Classic DVD). Yet Suthaus does capture the feeling of an ill-fated hero inextricably caught by circumstances.

First, a word about surface noise and transfer, as the most famous opening in all music, bar possibly Beethoven Five, deserves the best. And that it does seem to get here. The unrushed initial unfolding occurs against the quietest of hiss (it’s almost reassuring!). The Prelude itself unfurls completely naturally, working in waves towards a climax that can only be described as huge. The calming-down therefrom, just as important structurally, again shows Furtwängler’s grasp of the ongoing process, ushering in the young sailor (Rudolf Schock, no less). It is worthwhile examining his shaping of this most atmospheric, most melancholic of scene-settings. Schock works carefully towards a lusty ‘Wehe, wehe du Wind’ (including a tender ‘Mein irisch Kind, wo weilest du?’). Such care characterises just about everything vocally that follows. Has the orchestral ‘interruption’ to his song ever sounded so vehement? Just listen to the way in which the strings dig in. Has Isolde ever sounded so affronted by the innocent Sailor? Similarly, the string tremolando that precedes Isolde’s ‘Brangäne, sag, wo sind wir?’ is much more than an accompaniment: it is pregnant with anticipation. Immediately the listener is in the presence of massive emotions. Typical of Furtwängler that the chord that comes before the word ‘sag’ is not together - one can almost imagine the twitch!

How wonderful to have an Isolde and a Brangäne matched in power, caught on the crest of Furtwängler’s wave. The dramatic sweep here is remarkable, as is the sheer standard of the Philharmonia’s playing, as Isolde calls on the ‘Kunst der Zauberin’. Imperious and regal, the orchestral storm tells the true story of Isolde’s emotions. Yet care is also evident at ‘Zerschlag es dies trotzige Schiff’(CD1, track 2, 3’52), Flagstad finding space between the syllables of ‘trotzige’. American mezzo Blanche Thebom - what can one say? - she is not Flagstad. Generally good, although not as accurate to pitch as Flagstad, she provides a fine foil for her Isolde. But it is a tribute to Furtwängler that the reappearance of the Sailor seems the only logical outcome, bringing a sense of closure to scene one while beginning the second. He is actually marked as the beginning of the second, but this is Wagner we’re talking about, after all. Here Furtwängler highlights the cello accompaniment, so disturbing in context. Isolde’s immediately following phrase, ‘Mir erkoren’, seems so intensely poignant because of this. Flagstad’s low register is astonishingly beautiful.

Surely it would have been a good idea to have a new track for the Kurwenal/Tristan exchange? A minor quibble - more important is the way Furtwängler makes the accented and decorated third beat on the strings sound impatient. Whether we should be impatient to hear Fischer-Dieskau as Kurwenal is another matter, though. To this reviewer’s ears, whatever his brownie points in diction and eloquence of phrasing, he just sounds like Fischer-Dieskau, providing a swaggering song (track 9, 9’22ff). Here, at the semblance of a set-piece, he is in his element. But overall in Act I, he does not seem to truly identify with his part.

It is almost impossible to summarize Act I with mere highlights. If one moment does sum it up, perhaps it is Isolde’s ‘Er sah mich in die Augen’, with her miraculous floating of ‘Augen’. But we come back to Furtwängler when we try to analyse why this highlighting is so impossible. It is his over-arching vision that provides the framework for the ongoing surface detail. It is this that provides the unstoppable momentum identified earlier.

Act II of Tristan is a great Hymn to Love. Sensuous like almost no other music written before or since, its perfumed eroticism sits well in the imagination afforded by the compact disc medium (just think about the size of most Wagnerian singers). Unshackled, therefore, it becomes easy to be drawn into this almighty love-fest. Right from the very first chord, it turns out, a highly-charged orchestral shout that speaks simultaneously of the intensity of events to follow and also of the sexual voltage in the air at this point. Off-stage horns are perfectly balanced to suggest the hunt; Furtwängler creates a veritable web of sound for Isolde’s ‘Horst du noch?’. Balance goes somewhat awry a little later, as Brangäne gets rather drowned. Yet how the orchestra glows (there is no other word for it) in the lead-up to Tristan’s entrance. Furtwängler has this in mind from the very outset of the act, it appears in retrospect. The full musical tension is conveyed; not to mention the ecstatic release at Tristan’s cry of ‘Isolde!’ - the release is in the orchestra as much, if not more than, in the voice. It is almost overwhelming. Suthaus does convey his excitement and Furtwängler just refuses to let up. The sound of the singers valiantly struggling against the orchestral tide (particularly Suthaus - although in fairness this is partially registral placement) is all part and parcel of the experience. Furtwängler paces the wind-down towards the fragrant ‘O sink hernieder’ (CD 2, track 7) to perfection, not least in the expectant hush of the meandering strings that precedes this wonderful section.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it is Suthaus that is in finer fettle at this point. Whilst Flagstad is undeniably good, it remains possible to detect that she is past her vocal peak in these sessions. And it is Thebom that produces the goods at her ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’ (Brangäne’s Warning, for those that like the accepted Wagnerian signpostery). Ghostly, disembodied, she justifies herself as Brangäne here more than anywhere.

Suthaus’s baritonal qualities blossom at ‘So stürben wir’, one more stage in Furtwängler’s realisation of Wagner’s seemingly endless prolongation of mood, a flow that can only be halted (before it explodes!) by sudden interruption. Musically, this happens at Kurwenal’s line ‘Rette dich, Tristan’ (the beginning of Scene 3: CD3, Track 2: there’s a little aural bump at this point).

The test of any King Mark comes with the great section beginning, ‘Tatest du’s wirklich’ and leading to the monologue at ‘Mir, dies? Dies, Tristan, mir?’. The great German bass Josef Greindl assumes the role here, yet he is perhaps not in his finest voice. More depth of expression is still possible, more projection of the utterly inconsolable. Tristan’s riposte (‘O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen’) fits the bill without tearing at the heart-strings. This is left to the Philharmonia’s cor anglais, unaccompanied, in the literal sense, and, in all senses as a representative of Tristan’s psychological state, utterly alone.

Death hangs heavy in the air right from the start of Act III; the sheer heaviness of the lower strings’ landing on the first chord shows the listener straightaway where we are, psychologically. Its presence can be clearly felt, the shepherd’s pipe taking on an entirely appropriate elegiac melancholy. If Fischer-Dieskau’s Kurwenal seems better by now, more Kareol than Kingsway, Suthaus too seems to have truly ‘arrived’ and entered into his part. Tristan does sound delirious and desperate. Indeed, Fischer-Dieskau provides reciprocal anguish, but it is Suthaus that glows. Here the strain of the very top register of his voice carries a point with it, often conveying near-hysteria. Underpinning all this is Furtängler’s inspired direction. Just one example: the trombones, so together and so laden with emotive weight, as Tristan curses the Liebestrank (CD 4, track 2, around eight minutes in).

Isolde’s entrance is well-managed, with an appropriate sense of distance as she approaches. Flagstad is heart-breaking as well as heart-broken at Tristan’s demise. The closing sections of the music-drama are, indeed, a fitting climax as well as the most touching of farewells. .Greindl, too, attains his best form at the eloquent, hushed and desolate ‘Tod den alles’. Brangäne asks the tenderest of questions (‘Hörst du uns nicht, Isolde?’) before Flagstad launches into the Verklärung.

Here it is a shame the recording crowds at ‘hoch sich hebt’. The Producer explains in the booklet that, ‘There are occasional, brief dropouts and distortion due to volume level overload inherent in the original tape masters’. Yet the climax is orchestrally resplendent, matched, amazingly, by Flagstad. For once, the balance works. Whilst one might have heard the final octave leap floated more beautifully (Jessye Norman is a past-mistress of this), there is no denying the sheer emotional charge of the end.

Throughout the performance there is a tangible sense of musical ‘stretching’ as Wagner’s harmonic prolongations accrue superhuman value. Obert-Thorn’s transfer reveals depth and detail in equal measure (just listen to the opening track of CD 4, for example, or the definition of the trombones prior to Tristan’s cursing of the Liebestrank in Act III).

This set is a miracle, of sorts. One can only accept that Thebom is not an ideal Brangäne; and, as Marc Bridle so rightly says in his review of this same performance (on EMI), how we miss Hans Hotter and what he would have brought!. Still, maybe it happened in a parallel reality.

Back to this one. Now permanently available for less than £20, if this magnificent account of the greatest music-drama of them all (save perhaps Parsifal) is not yet in your collection, now would be a good time to rectify the omission.

Colin Clarke

Reviews of other transfers of this recording also at super budget price:

Regis from LP ; EMI from Mastertape by Paul Shoemaker Marc Bridle

 



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