This is a quite remarkable
performance of Acts II and III from
Wagner’s chromatic vortex and as such
deserves better remastering. The back
of the CD case promises that this is
‘issued from the best possible source’;
the ensuing typo in ‘recommanded (sic)
to collectors only’ does not inspire
confidence, however. Periodic distortion
(sometimes huge: try Act III, CD 2 track
7) can detract, but the most puzzling
aspect of the transfer occurs right
at the beginning of this set (i.e. at
the beginning of Act II). The music
seems to come, rather unsteadily, into
focus over the first few bars, with
some form of ‘cut through’. My heart
sank when I heard it, as I envisioned
two hours plus of this. It does get
better, however, it’s just that on first
listening one doesn’t know when the
next distortion-offensive will strike.
Unfortunate, too, that the blurry opening
to disc 1 stays in the memory. Act I,
alas, was not recorded. Whatever the
recording’s faults, though, there is
much here to fascinate.
This is a reading characterised
by sensitivity and tenderness on all
sides. The orchestra’s contribution,
thanks to Kempe, is almost chamber music-like,
with consistently lightened textures.
This rubs off on the singers also; there
is a remarkable range of nuance from
all the principals. This is not to imply
a lack of passion or of atmosphere (for
the latter, just listen to the hunting
horns in Act II, trying to ignore the
presence of intrusive strings, as if
from another world, at around 2’23).
Kempe sets up a feeling of forward momentum
that, while in keeping with the dramatic
situation, never under-sells the musical
Helena Braun’s Isolde
is a variable assumption. The same singer
was Isolde for Knappertsbusch in Bavaria
(another part remained the same, that
of Paul Kuen as Shepherd), from the
same venue, in July 1950 (Orfeo C355943D).
Braun seems to gain strength as the
Act progresses (initially, there is
some barking and some scooping present),
so be warned that patience is required.
Towards the end of Act II Scene 1, Braun
does manages to sound ecstatic, carried
along on the wave of Kempe’s dramatic
The recording is severely
tested again as the ill-fated pair of
lovers greet each other in Scene 2.
Curious that around here is one of Kempe’s
few lapses, as rhythms fail to gather
the cumulative force they can in other
hands generate. He does makes up for
it in his maintenance of momentum as
he moves towards the famous ‘O sink
hernieder’ section. It is here that
Kempe’s talent at highlighting Wagner’s
delicacy really pays off - the atmosphere
is positively perfumed.
A pity that Brangäne’s
Warning is not too distanced (where
was she standing, I wonder?) - yet that
is hardly the greatest problem here.
At track 4, 1’45 there is what sounds
like an edit performed with a blunt
butcher’s knife; at, 2’09, the sound
suddenly becomes hopelessly muffled.
A great shame this, as Ira Malaniuk’s
singing has much to offer in intensity
(Malaniuk was Magdalene for both Karajan
and Knappertsbusch at Bayreuth; also
Fricka in Keilberth’s 1952 Bayreuth
Ring). It is only at Isolde’s
‘Lausch, Geliebter’ (track 5) that it
becomes possible to become immersed
in Wagner’s goings-on. The harmonies
seem to revolve rather than have any
focused direction, Kempe’s orchestra
providing a tender web of sound.
Kurwenal is a clear
and confident Hans Hotter, no less.
Gottlob Frick as Marke is powerful of
voice, yet conveys his hurt in betrayal
as he asks, ‘Dies, Tristan, zu mir?’.
The presence of real pianissimi
ensure the emotional power of this section.
A gripping sense of line coupled with
the projection of profound sadness laced
with an undercurrent of anger is a heady
and affecting mix, one projected with
consummate mastery by Frick.
By the very end of
Act II, all seems to have clicked into
place. Isolde hits her peak of lyricism;
Albrecht Peter’s Melot is clear and
forceful. Kempe ensures the final chord
is as (rightly) dismissive as can be
after the sudden action that closes
Kempe’s mastery is
evident in every millisecond of the
Act III Prelude. Slower than frequently
heard, it is a picture of desolation
in sound. The high violins’ control
is incredible, and as one becomes immersed,
a sense of timelessness sets in. Kempe
again ensures delicacy - so much so
that here it is almost as if the music
could disintegrate at any moment, making
the cor anglais solo all the more poignant.
Paul Kuen makes for
a young-sounding Shepherd, providing
fullest contrast with Hotter’s unbearably
sad (and later authoritative) Kurwenal.
It is here that Seider really comes
into his own. He sounds like a remarkably
reined-in Heldentenor – one can just
hear the emotions waiting for their
moment to pour out. And so they do,
but Seider’s delirium is not unpitched
(others have been known to bark their
way through this).
A pity that distortion
again threatens enjoyment during track
7. Yet it is worth bearing it to hear
Hotter’s massive entry and beautiful
high register at ‘Mein Herre! Tristan!’.
No sooner is one bowled over, though,
and another mysterious quirk of transfer
intrudes (1’18 before the end of this
track - just what is that?).
Kempe’s pacing as the
ship is sighted is exemplary (as is
Tristan’s collapse from exhaustion);
yet the sound threatens to disappear
around track 10, 0’30ff, and distortion
once more rears its head.
Isolde’s entrance is
awe-inspiring, expertly prepared by
Kempe. Needless to say, Tristan’s death
is a moment of the highest sadness,
Frick’s ‘Tod den alles’ almost unbearable
(he is magnificent here). A shame then
that Braun’s tuning in the Verklärung
is not all one could wish for, and an
even greater pity that there is more
distortion at the climactic word, ‘Welt-Atems’
So the box was right
- ‘for collectors only’. There is much
to be gleaned from this set, that much
is true, and much to enjoy. Given that
it appears to be out at ‘ultra-super-budget
price’ (Crotchet and Amazon both charge
£8.99), it is certainly worth a spin.
A quite remarkable performance of Acts
II and III from Wagner’s chromatic vortex
and as such deserves better remastering.
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