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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan - Lauritz Melchior (tenor)
Isolde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Brangäne - Kerstin Thorborg (contralto)
Kurvenal – Julius Huehn (bass)
King Marke - Alexander Kipnis (bass) *
Melot – George Cehanovsky (baritone)
Sailor’s Voice – Anthony Marlowe (tenor)
Steersman – Douglas Beattie (bass)
Shepherd - Karl Laufkötter (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded 23 March 1940, Kipnis * dubbed in from a 1941 performance
GUILD GHCD 2266/68 [3 CDs: 79.13 + 71.38 + 66.32 = 217.23]

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Guild continues its Immortal Performances series from the Met with this non-subscription benefit Tristan from 13th March 1940. This has done the rounds before, notably on Music and Arts, but as so often in this series Guild has acquired different source material – in this case a different set of the transcription. I’ve not heard the rival set but Guild notes that it contained line leakage, whereas Guild’s, in the main, does not. I’m not sure if the very rough start to the Prelude in Guild’s copy and subsequent intermittent but very audible scratches are exactly mirrored in Music and Arts’ transfer. In musical terms the principal difference is that once again Guild has exercised its droit de seigneur and excised the singing of Emmanuel List and substituted the performance of Alexander Kipnis, which he gave from the Met, the following year, in February 1941. This fulfils the Guild rubric of the Opera House of Our Dreams, prominently printed under the cast list on the CD cover, if not necessarily the Opera House of Our Reality. The prospective purchaser, as ever, should note the substitution.

The exalted level of the cast’s performance has been well enough examined over the years. Flagstad is on sumptuous form, her voice resplendent, full across the range, triumphantly ringing and taking her intervals with fearless technical adroitness. In the performance from which Kipnis’s Marke is extracted (from the following year) she was in tired voice and sometimes struggled with the intervals and sounded unaccustomedly frayed. Here all is triumphantly well. Melchior gives us his unmatched impersonation, bleached, blackened, and crazed, a performance of telling wholeness supported by incandescent vocal reserves. He doesn’t stint the love music either, and sustains a true legato with stupendous breath control. Thorborg is one of the most consistently underrated of artists and even though her status has been acknowledged it seems to me that such a Brangäne comes seldom in a generation. She characterises with absolute devotion; there’s not a moment when one can separate consummate professionalism from declamatory theatrical impersonation. Huehn’s baritone has now achieved an ease of production that was, if anything, even freer and more fresh the following year – but here it’s fine enough as it is – managing to be both warm and equalised across the scale. Kipnis is indeed (from 1941) in excellent and admonitory form, the golden voice subsumed to the dictates of the drama in his Monologue and sending out tidal waves of moral gravity. Anthony Marlowe has a bit of a bleat in his voice in his small role but it’s of very little account – he sings musically. Presiding über alles is Erich Leinsdorf, fiery, fast, lithe, dramatic, sometimes unreflective, youthful, and ardent. He gives full rein to the impetuous ardency and drama of the score – with the Met Orchestra on fine form – but does tend to elide the more philosophical depths.

The vocal excellence of the cast survives in the acetates with great clarity and immediacy. The ancillary scratches and ticks are another matter. Act I suffers the worst in this respect with constant scratches and buzzing in Thorborg’s Weh! Ach Weh! and what sound to me like pitch drops in Huehn’s Herrn Tristan. Act II is much better, though there’s a little shatter in the Orchestral Introduction and some scuffing in Melchior’s O König. Act III also suffers some scratches and maybe some distortion in the Prelude. Still, persevere and there will be great rewards. The booklet is full with Act synopses and essays on the cast and the cast history.

Jonathan Woolf

NOTE: Readers may also like to note that this set also includes original broadcast commentary and extensive ovations as well as some very rare pictorials in the booklet text.

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