EMI's Great Recording of the Century series could never
be complete without this legendary performance, one of the most famous
of all records. This is its third incarnation on CD - and the first
at mid-price in the fifteen years the performance has been available
in the format. It is also the third remastering the set has been given.
I have never heard the 1997 remastered set but it was widely praised
over the original 1986 discs - and this 2001 remastering is certainly
warmer and more atmospheric than those original discs, the strings much
deeper toned than I have previously experienced. Compare only the Prelude
between the discs and the depth given to the cellos at 4'42 is noticeably
better in the 2001 set. Elsewhere, the Prelude is less congested than
it once was (try 7'13 to 7'31 to hear how the sonorities blossom quite
wonderfully. The climax at 7'58 is quite superbly handled without quite
the level of distortion we once heard). Listen to the Prelude to Act
III (track 14, disc 3) and that fabled Furtwängler sonority is
brought to the fore in utterly desolate cellos and basses, magnificently
captured in a heavier bass resonant remastering.
However, after almost fifty years is this still the unmatched Tristan it once was? Great recordings don't stop being great recordings but when this set was first reviewed it had little competition - and much has appeared since. Even when Robin Holloway reviewed performances of Tristan for Opera on Record there were only eight recordings available. Today there are almost 40 recordings that have been made available - over half of them live (or from pirated) performances. Holloway had at his disposal Karajan's 1952 Bayreuth recording (now available on Myto) and de Sabata's 1951 La Scala recording (now out of print) yet still rated the Furtwängler set the one recording by which all others were judged. It is true that the 1952 studio recording lacks the sheer physical energy of both de Sabata and Karajan yet what Furtwängler brought to this studio performance was a clarity of action that culminates in an Act III that is unrivalled on disc. It is easily his finest achievement in the recording studio.
There have been some attempts to remove this recording from the pantheon of the greats and bring it sharply to earth; indeed, some critics have pedalled reviews which criticise some elements of the performance which hitherto have been little commented on. One is the playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Although it was just seven years old when this recording was made its playing is largely beyond reproach, yet some have detected greater lapses in standards than is actually the case. There are minor slips in ensemble (but Furtwängler was never overly preoccupied with orchestral perfection) and it is true that the strings are not always as refined as the Vienna Philharmonic strings were for Furtwängler's studio recording of Die Walküre (although listen to the deeply tragic opening of the Act III Prelude and you might think otherwise). Yet, the string playing is sensuous throughout - particularly in the Act II Love Duet where the orchestral tapestry is lush and gloriously burnished. Where the playing is indisputably world class is in the wind phrasing - as sublime as any on disc (sample the opening of the first scene from Act III [from 0'51] to sample perfectly intoned English Horn playing with every diminuendo, molto crescendo and note value taken at perfect intervals). The Philharmonia of 1952 may not be Bayreuth of the 1960s but they are not the main drawback to this recording.
The weak links are in the casting. Least persuasive is the King Mark of Josef Greindl who is sour of tone - and in part he is a match for the rather blanched, washed-out singing of the Brangäne, Blanche Thebom. She gives little sense of characterisation and lacks the definition of tone to be memorable. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is noble as always - but I wish Legge had cast Hans Hotter instead, perhaps the greatest Kurwenal on disc who sings the role with an unrivalled sense of lyricism and radiance. The Tristan and Isolde are not perfect either - but they are one of the most well matched of all lovers. Kirsten Flagstad, by no means too old for the role when this was made in 1952 (although famously she could not hit the high Cs) is under some strain in Act II and there is a slight dryness to her voice - but the beauty of her singing, the darkness of her phrasing, is beyond doubt, the range of expression broader and more complete than in any recording that survives from her. She is noble where a singer like Nilsson sometimes seemed steely. Flagstad is the tenderest Isolde on record where Nilsson (particularly for Solti) seems as hard as nails. Ludwig Suthaus also has his problems but his is perhaps the most complete Tristan on record - with the range and beauty of Karajan's Ramon Vinay, and the understanding and fragility of a Windgassen. He is nowhere better than in Act III where the intensity of his singing is utterly beyond reproach - as fiery as Jon Vickers but without the latter's hysterical meanderings. Furtwängler himself is elemental, broader than he was in extant excerpts that have survived from a 1947 Berlin performance on Radio Years (RY 103.04) but every bit as dramatic. His triumph is in how he handles the Philharmonia which he turns into a highly responsive organ that swells with intensity and passion like few other Wagner orchestra's on disc. It may be slow, but it has a symphonic integrity few conductors have matched before or since.
Listening to this performance again, in this beautifully remastered version, it is difficult to argue with history. Despite wonderful performances from Böhm, Karajan, Knappertsbusch and both Kleibers the Furtwängler holds its own as one of the supreme achievements of the Gramophone. One anomaly that readers who have the original gramophone records might notice is that EMI have not reproduced the original covers for the artwork as they have in all other sets in this series. The covers they have used are the reissued ones from the box set.
UK readers should note that this set is currently being offered for bargain price by HMV.