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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (Act I)
Arturo Toscanini at Bayreuth (Vol. 1): Tristan und Isolde, Act I

Lauritz Melchior (Tristan)
Nanny Larsén-Todsen (Isolde)
Anny Helm (Brangäne)
Rudolf Bockelmann (Kurwenal)
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
Recorded live at Bayreuth, 1930
ART Historical Performances (001.1930), 2 CDs, Full Price, 91 minutes running time.

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Arturo Toscanini’s Tristan und Isolde from the 1930 Bayreuth Festival – the conductor’s debut, and the first non-German conductor to work at the festival - may well be the only performance of the opera that Wagnerites hear as an interpretation in their mind rather than through the medium of real sound. Its reputation is legendary, bestriding Tristan’s at Bayreuth from Elmendorff and Furtwängler, and is cast with the strongest possible Wagnerian singers of the time. Interpretatively, this is one of the slowest Act I’s on record – at just over 90 minutes in length only Bernstein, more than half a century later, in Munich, exceeded it.

Toscanini conducted a great deal of Wagner throughout his long career, although complete operas from him were rare (he only returned to Bayreuth once more, to conduct Tannhäuser, in 1931, and withdrew from the 1933 festival because of Hitler’s accession in Germany). A surprisingly large amount of this material remains unpublished – his 1937 BBC Wagner concert, in variable sound, contains performances of the Faust Overture, ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, Siegfried Idyll, Lohengrin Preludes to Act I and Act III, ‘Forest Murmurs’, Tannhäuser - Overture and Venusberg Music - and ‘Ride of Valkyries’. His 1952 La Scala Wagner concert contains unpublished performances of Siegfried Idyll, ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’, Lohengrin Preludes to Act I and Act III, Meistersinger Act I Prelude, ‘Good Friday Music’, ‘Forest Murmurs’ and ‘Ride of Valkyries’ and his Lucerne concert from 1938 has Siegfried Idyll and Meistersinger Preludes to Act I and Act III. Of his NBC Symphony concerts, ones from March 1938, February and October 1939, January 1946 and April 1947 all remain unpublished. All of these concerts offer extraordinarily fertile interpretations, and show a conductor who constantly evolved and shifted his insights into Wagner’s music. Tempi are invariably shaped differently between concerts, sometimes markedly so.

The discovery of this Act I from Tristan, which has been reproduced faithfully, if in rather opaque sound, is something of a revelation. Whilst Toscanini often programmed music from the Ring, Lohengrin and Meistersinger, he returned to Tristan relatively infrequently after his Bayreuth performance, so this is not just an exceptional find, but one of paramount historical interest. The length, in part, can be attributed to the fact that Toscanini allows this music to breath with unusual fidelity to the score. We get a wonderful full bar’s rest after the opening chord, for example. It was not always the case with this conductor that this was reproduced so faithfully in his conducting of Tristan in later years.

What emerges, however, is a performance not just of breadth but of Romantic lyricism, an unusual concept for a Bayreuth audience more used to hearing Elmendorff’s stereotypically restrained Germanic ascent through the score’s terrain. Bayreuth audiences may have considered Toscanini’s Nordic Italian roots to be quasi Germanic, but the impression this recording of Act I gives is of a musician who endows the score with an overt Italian warmth; it comes closest to de Sabata’s post-War Tristan in terms of its sonorities, but without the fiery La Scala drive which sometimes overwhelms de Sabata’s account. True, the orchestra’s contribution is robust, even rather matter of fact, but compared to Elmendorff their string legato sings with a rapture German conductors did not capture at the time. There is an underlying clarity and precision which stamps itself on the performance; rhythms are razor-sharp, even tellingly defined, and Toscanini is able to control the act’s romantic passion without drying out the opera’s inherent eroticism. Perhaps most impressively, and this is where the performance outshines Elmendorff, is in his shaping of the act’s progression from Prelude to conclusion. Toscanini’s devotion to Wagner and his intimate knowledge of the score, allows him to take the act in a single, unbroken musical line.

His singers are at one with their conductor’s conception. Lauritz Melchior in perfect vocal control, is never less than deeply involved. "Was ist? Isolde" comes from a deep preoccupation with his Isolde, but almost from the beginning one detects this as being the most noble and restrained of Tristans, helped in no small measure by Toscanini’s gripping control over the orchestra. There is the slightest hint of panic in his voice – which is what he should be expressing – at "Wo sind wir?", and Toscanini encourages Melchior, through the deeply expressive string tone, to a closing scene with his Isolde of considerable devotion. Nanny Larsén-Todsen is a magnificently well-defined Isolde, the voice moving between dark-toned beauty and barely suppressed starkness in her exchanges with Anny Helm’s liquidly sung Brangäne. Her curse is rivetingly done. Only the Kurwenal of Rudolf Bockelmann slightly disappoints, in part because of a lack of flexibility his slightly high baritone voice sometimes betrays. One wishes here – and it is the only possible criticism of this astounding performance – that Toscanini’s Kurwenal had been Friedrich Schorr, a singer both more solid of phrasing and more rich in thought. Bockelmann lacks the insolence in his exchanges with Brangäne, but there is no doubting his loyalty to Melchior’s Tristan.

Anything by Toscanini is worth listening to, but his Wagner could be very special. This performance is exactly that, a record of a unique musical occasion preserved in more than serviceable sound. If Act’s II and III ever emerge from the archives, this could just be the finest Tristan of the Twentieth Century.

Marc Bridle

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