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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Isolde – Gertrud Grob-Prandl (sop)
Tristan – Max Lorenz (ten)
Brangane – Elsa Cavelti (sop)
Kurwenal – Siegurd Bjorling (bar)
King Marke – Sven Nilsson (bass)
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus, Victor de Sabata
Recorded live at La Scala, Milan, 13th December 1951
ARCHIPEL RECORDS ARPCD 0027-3 [3 CDs: 73.11, 56.34, 65.01] £ 14.99

Distributed in the UK by One for You, 7 The Crescent, Littleport, CB6 1HS. Tel/Fax: 01353 863983 order from ofy@ofy-uk.co.uk


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.


Marc Bridle


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