> WAGNER Tristan and Isolde Reiner 8110068-70 [TD]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde), Lauritz Melchior (Tristan), Sabine Kalter (Brangane), Herbert Janssen (Kurwenal), Emmanuel List (King Marke), Frank Sale (Melot), Roy Devereux (Sailor), Octave Dua (Shepherd), Leslie Horseman (Steersman).
Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Recorded at Covent Garden during performances on 18th May and 2nd June 1936.
Archivist and restoration producer Ward Marston
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110068-70 [3 CDs 209.29] Superbudget


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Looking at the dates on this recording I found myself wondering whether gossip about Edward and Mrs. Simpson might have been on the lips of some of those gathering at Covent Garden prior to the taking of their seats. Although the royal love affair didnít become known to the general public until the Autumn of 1936 certain stratospheres of London society had known about it since the Spring and one can imagine the "tittle-tattle" on the stairs higher up in the building near the more expensive seats. This opera is another tale of royal personages finding it impossible to carry on against the dictates of the heart so were any parallels also drawn, I wonder? Not that there are any similarities between an abdication speech on the wireless and a love-death on a beach in Brittany, of course, but itís fun to speculate when faced with this kind of recorded legacy. This surely brings out not only the music and the performance but also the history of the time in which it was made. Thereís another great double act in this set: Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in the title roles. This musical coupling from a past era has evoked so many superlatives that just mentioning it is enough to reduce some opera lovers of a certain age to jelly, even those who never saw them onstage. However since it was a partnership that lasted only six years that makes this recording especially valuable even though there are three other surviving recordings of them in this opera; most notably another Covent Garden performance conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham from the 1937 Coronation Season. Letís hope for a decent transfer of that very soon. Then Flagstad also recorded her Isolde in the studio for EMI with Furtwängler in the early 1950s (reviewed here by Marc Bridle) but on that occasion her Tristan was Ludwig Suthaus who, for me, falls somewhat short of greatness and is certainly no match for Melchior. So letís welcome recordings like this one that fix music and its performance to a particular time and help us listen through any deficiencies in sound and vagaries of contemporary practice.

Whilst the presence of Flagstad and Melchior may be most peopleís principal reason for owning this set the young Fritz Reinerís contribution should be placed alongside them in achievement. Conducting Beechamís London Philharmonic, then the Covent Garden pit orchestra, his command of every detail of this incredible score is extraordinary. Not one bar seems to have escaped his attention and by the end I was left staggered by his concentration and that of the orchestra who he must have imbued with his own exacting standards in rehearsal and previous performances. He understands the sound world of the piece perfectly; the heavy, late romantic emotional congestion that Wagner burned into each bar especially. Yet he somehow manages to also convey an unforgettable intimacy to the drama that then allows the two principals to paint their contribution across its canvas in the broadest brushstrokes. Itís a remarkable juxtaposition of styles that pays great dividends. You may remember how Karajanís Wagner recordings in the 'seventies were described as being in a "chamber music" style and that this was then thought novel. There are passages in this recording where you feel Reiner was thirty years ahead of his time in that the same impression of the work as chamber piece is conveyed. Some passages in Act II especially reminded me of the early romantic decadence of Schoenberg, so insidious is the spell Reiner and his players (including Leon Goossens and Bernard Walton in the woodwinds) bring and therefore how prophetic in musical terms he seems to make this opera feel. Subtly different from Furtwänglerís more "global" approach, Reinerís is comparable in achievement and any serious Wagnerite will need both recordings on their shelves on the contribution of the conductors alone even though Furtwänglerís studio recording has much the better mono sound. No wonder the presence of this orchestra in the pit persuaded Furtwängler to come to London for the Coronation Season the next year to conduct The Ring at the invitation of his friend Beecham.

Turning at last to Flagstad and Melchior itís hard to single out any part of their contribution for praise, so consistently satisfying are they in every part of this long opera. Both are the complete interpreters of their roles. I wonder whether any singers have really approached their achievement in the years after, even taking into account changes in singing and dramatic styles. Nilsson and Windgassen, perhaps. To take one large instance alone, the Love Duet in Act II is remarkable for both singersí care for the words. What is it about this generation of singers that they realised that the words were just as important as the music? And why isnít their example followed today to the same extent? This aspect, added to the sensuousness and sheer sexuality of the central encounter onstage, delivers a stunning experience that shines out even through the limited sonics. Individually they are just as impressive. Melchiorís account of Act III devastatingly conveys the fear and horror of a man driven mad by sickness of mind and body and Flagstadís response to Act I sees her regal and shining like a Princess should be. Then, as the story unfolds, the dictates of her heart start to gouge wheals in her portrayal that are, in their way, just as moving as Melchiorís portrayal of Tristanís terrible fate and her Liebestod at the end of Act III is as overwhelming, as usual. One can only marvel at the stamina of these two artists, as powerful and expressive at the end of the long evening as they were at the start. Those present in the house that night must have heard the experience of a lifetime. The rest of the cast is only variable. Herbert Janssen is certainly staunch in support of Tristan and Sabine Kalter as Brangane suitably detached and ghostly in her crucial watch during the Love Duet. But the others are more than forgettable and the chorus is really mediocre. Never mind. The principals are what carry this.

There is a traditional cut made in the Love Duet, I should tell you, and I could excuse this by pointing out that it was traditional only at the time of this performance. Yet Bernard Haitink made the same one in his Covent Garden performances as recently as 2001.

This was one of the first attempts to record a complete Wagner opera and it must have been quite a challenge to run two turntables in tandem during one performance, overlapping at the end of each side so as not to leave gaps whilst the drama was enacted onstage. In the end it took fifty-two 78rpm sides to capture the performance and it is from test pressings that Ward Marston has produced this issue in the indispensable Naxos Historical series which is producing so many treasures. This is a second transfer of this recording and is different from the one on VAI Audio (VAIA 1003). I havenít had the chance to compare the two but I cannot imagine the previous version could be any better and certainly would not compete in price. It cannot compete with modern versions in terms of sound quality, of course. But anyone interested in the musical and historical importance of this set will take that in their stride and have it as alternative to Nilsson and Windgassen with Bohm on DG (4497722), my choice for stereo, with Furtwängler on mono EMI (CMS5 67621 2) as overall top recommendation.

You may be wondering at the presence of two dates on the recording. For some reason the Act I Prelude from the May performance was unusable so the engineers returned in June to record only that. So, apart from the Act I Prelude, what you have here is one night at the opera with no patching and so much the better for that. One bonus of this anomaly is that on the night the Prelude was recorded Flagstadís "warm-up" exercises in the wings were just picked up by the microphones. An endearing touch to a remarkable document of recorded history and a performance of rare and compelling power that, in spite of historic sound, is one of the greatest recordings of this opera ever made.

A night at the opera not to be missed.

Tony Duggan

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