This famous recording of Tristan und Isolde
has long been unavailable having first appeared on LP in 1978 and then
on CD in 1989, both times on Italian labels, and both times hastily
deleted. This new release on Archipel returns it to the catalogue where
it takes its place as one of the most searing performances ever made
of this opera. Even given the quite appalling sound – which requires
considerable tolerance – it is easy to hear how de Sabata, that most
electrifying of conductors, whips his orchestra into a veritable whirlwind
of sound; only Böhm, at Orange, and Karajan at Bayreuth equal him.
His cast might not match in matters of detail that of other conductors
(the rather tame Leinsdorf with Melchior and Traubel (1943), for example),
but the intensity with which they sing their roles is as satisfying
as any on record.
De Sabata’s approach to this opera remained largely
unchanged over the years he conducted it: he was always blistering,
it seems, the most fiery of interpreters in an opera that benefits from
such an approach, although it is by no means the only one. A December
1930 set of excerpts (mostly from Act III, and sung in Italian) has
frightening passion as do more extensive excerpts from a fabled 1948
performance at La Scala (not yet released on CD) in which his Tristan
was Max Lorenz and his Isolde Kirsten Flagstad. This performance (which
includes the Act I prelude) again preserves only Act III excerpts but
includes an incandescent reading of the Liebestod. Listen to the fragments
from a 1947 La Scala performance (on Minerva MN-A54), although possibly
of questionable authenticity (at least in terms of the date), and there
is a similar structural integrity. Its value, however, is in giving
us extracts from Act I which is otherwise only represented on disc in
this release, the most complete performance of a de Sabata Tristan we
have (although it is extensively cut – see below).
His approach to the Prelude changed very little, too.
His 1938 Berlin Philharmonic version is volatile, as is a New York Philharmonic
performance from 1955 (on Arkadia), both sweeping incandescently to
a voluptuous climax (contrast this with his dull approach to the Parsifal
Act I prelude). Celibidache, who sneaked into rehearsals of de Sabata
rehearsing this Tristan at La Scala, was clearly influenced by this
approach: the single recording we have of him conducting the Prelude
matches de Sabata’s symmetrical line – albeit at a slower tempo. This
approach, however, which gives the climax from bars 72 – 85 an unwritten
accelerando, is something which Wagner interpreters all but take for
granted as being the norm. Böhm is a classic example and follows
de Sabata’s model extremely closely. It is an undeniably expressive
approach, and de Sabata’s performance of the entire opera is focused
to achieve a surging magnetism, but at the expense of the tension which
this opera sometimes requires. Wagner does not specify a single change
of tempo during the prolonged ascent to the climax, and only a slight
holding back thereafter. Turn to Bernstein on his intense and very long
performance with the magnificent Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and
you have the ideal, at least in terms of orchestral playing (the singing
can leave a lot to be desired). This is the closest on record you will
ever get to hearing the Prelude exactly as it is written to be played,
or as Karl Böhm said of hearing Bernstein rehearsing the Act I
Prelude, "You dare to play this music as Wagner wrote it".
De Sabata’s Isolde is Gertrude Grob-Prandl, an incandescent
Brunnhilde in a 1949 Vienna Ring Cycle conducted by Rudolf Moralt (and
still available on Gebhardt, and well worth hearing). If she lacks the
sheer physicality and emotional presence of Flagstad it is partly because
she adopts a much younger and fresher approach to the role. There is
petulance in her singing, and when she comes to the curse she is overly
dogmatic (not to say phlegmatic) in her delivery. She, like her Tristan,
Max Lorenz, have some problems in Act II which de Sabata takes at astonishing
speed. The wildness of the conducting is breathtaking, but his singers
are all but dissolved like dust into the resulting maelstrom. The passion
is headstrong, but at such a speed, and with such drastic cuts, the
act loses its architecture. In Act III Lorenz reaches staggering heights
of rage and madness (much as Vickers does on Karajan’s hideous studio
recording), but again it is de Sabata and his inspired orchestra which
give the greatest pleasure. The playing, if shaky, is stunning at conveying
the inner angst and passion which describes Tristan’s despair, and go
to the beginning of the act to hear an Act III Prelude which is amongst
the most tragic ever heard on record.
The cuts are extensive, more so than on any of the
leading recordings for a great Tristan (Böhm, from Orange,
for example, makes only the standard Act II, scene 2 cut). In Act I,
the most fluid and intemperate of the three under de Sabata’s baton,
there are two: in scene 5, from "Muh’t Euch die?" to "warum
ich dich da nicht schlug" and from "Geletest du mich"
to "..zu sühnen alle schuld". Act II suffers the most
(and Sven Nilsson as King Marke sings much less than he should). This
is by far the shortest Act II on disc (and would have been so without
these cuts given de Sabata's wild tempo). The cuts are in scene 2 from
"Dem Tage! Dem Tage!" to "dass nachtsichtig meain Auge..",
from "Tag und Tod mit glecihen" to "ewig ihr nur zu leben"
and in scene 3 from "Wozu die Dienste ohne Zahl!" to "Da
liess er’s denn so sein" and from "Nun, da durch solchen Besitz"
to "meiner Ehren Ende erreiche". In Act III scene 1 there
are cuts from "Isolde noch im Reich…" to "die selbst
Nachts von ihr mich scheuchte", from "Muss ich dich…"
to "Zu welchem Los" and finally from "Die nie erstribt"
to "Der Trank! Der Trank!..".
This is without doubt the most searing Tristan
on record, and for that reason it is indispensable (because so many
are not). When I first heard it as a young boy in the late 1970s it
overwhelmed me and I still feel a sense of shock when hearing it today
– particularly Act II which still has the power to devastate. Today,
there is much to compare with it – the Böhm from 1973, the Bayreuth
Karajan, the 1948 Erich Kleiber and a few other performances which I
will cover in my survey of Tristan on record, to be published in February.
It is the antithesis of the infamous (but undeniably great) Bernstein
performance, and readers who know only that recording (surely very few)
will be shocked by the differences. At bargain price, the de Sabata
should be in every collection –a desert island Tristan, but one only
for a desert island.