Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1859) [256.25]
Isolde - Kirsten Flagstad (soprano); Tristan - Ludwig Suthaus (tenor); Brangäne - Blanche Thebom (mezzo); König Marke - Josef Greindl (bass); Kurwenal - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Seeman/Hirt - Rudolf Schock (tenor); Melot - Edgar Evans (baritone); Steuermann - Rhoderick Davies (baritone).
Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Douglas Robinson
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. 10-21, 23 June 1952, Kingsway Hall, London, UK.
XR re-mastering 2011 by Andrew Rose
Full programme notes can be found online at
Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 067a-b [4 CDs: 78:18 + 57:21 + 64:29 + 56:16]

This landmark recording – the first by EMI using the new technology of recording tape – nearly didn’t happen. Furtwängler was smarting under what he saw as producer Walter Legge’s betrayal in giving the Die Zauberflöte recording contract to Karajan, while Legge was busy undermining Furtwängler as yesterday’s man in order to promote Karajan as the new face of EMI classical. It had been fifteen years since Furtwängler had first conducted Kirsten Flagstad and fallen in love with her voice. Alongside Frieda Leider, Flagstad was considered the reigning Isolde of the century, but she was now 57 years old and already showing the first signs of poor health. Time was running out to catch her famous interpretation for the first and last time in a studio recording. Her top notes above B-flat had always been insecure and she doubted whether she could reproduce a top C often enough to provide the two required in the Act II “telegramme duet” when the lovers ecstatically greet each other. It was proving difficult to find a suitable and available Brangäne; in the end Flagstad repaid a debt of gratitude to her Swedish friend Blanche Thebom who was thus cast to no-one other than Flagstad’s great satisfaction. Flagstad’s natural partner, Lauritz Melchior had left the Metropolitan in a huff, having been denied his Silver Anniversary celebration by new General Manager Rudolf Bing, and gone into semi-retirement exile in Hollywood – so who was to be Tristan?
However, all these difficulties were either overcome or circumvented in order to produce a recording which did honour to both the conductor and the producer. As Furtwängler said to Legge, “My name will be remembered for this, but yours should be.” In truth, the honours are evenly divided.
Despite these difficulties, there were, after all, many advantages which augured well for the success of the enterprise. The Philharmonia Orchestra, formed by Legge in 1945 was in superb shape and enjoyed an excellent symbiotic relationship with Furtwängler. The new tape technology allowed the conductor to mould the shape and sustain the momentum in great arcs instead of the four minute takes demanded by 78s in music with which he was intimately acquainted and of which he had vast experience. Flagstad was still in huge, rich voice if somewhat matronly of tone. Legge’s new wife, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was engaged to sing the two brief high Cs which were seamlessly spliced in such that no-one could tell – and only pedants care today. Thebom proved to be remarkably fine as Brangäne even if the voice lacks body in the “watchtower music”. Ludwig Suthaus gave the performance of his life as Tristan, his baritonal sound first suggesting virility and heroism, then in Act III collapsing into the agony of almost bestial incomprehension. A young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau portrays Kurwenal subtly as a noble, bewildered soul, loyal to the point of naivety. Rudolf Schock sings mellifluously as both the Seaman and the Shepherd, while veteran Bayreuth regular Josef Greindl delivered a cavernous, slightly nasal, but deeply moving, King Mark.
The chief glories of this recording for many continue to be both Flagstad’s magisterial, voluminous Isolde and the burnished glow of the orchestral playing under Furtwängler’s ecstatic direction. Listen to the rage and scorn of Flagstad’s voice as she sings the words “Zerschlag es dies trotzige Schiff” and “Er schwur mit tausend Eide”. From the soaring, yearning sweep of the overture to the ethereal “Liebestod”, the conductor’s grasp of pulse and flow of this wondrous music is an organic marvel. If you want to hear the conductor and orchestra making great art in perfect harmony, sample the “Sühnetrank” scene where Isolde proffers Tristan the supposedly poisoned goblet, or the delicate “Nachtmusik” as the hunt recedes into the forest prior to Tristan’s arrival for the lovers’ tryst. Big moments in this recording such as these have always been praised but another listen to them in the revealing, detailed sound provided by these newly re-mastered Pristine discs, reminded me how skilfully Furtwängler does other things so well, too; for example, how he crafts and sculpts the conversations between Isolde and Brangäne and Isolde and Tristan in Act I. The whole drama pants and breathes just as Tristan alternately raves and philosophises in his febrile delirium.
Remember, this recording is now sixty years old, yet it is here given new life in Pristine’s “Ambient Stereo”. The effect is not at all unnatural or artificial: Andrew Rose has removed pre-echo, enhanced top and bottom frequencies, corrected pitch fluctuations and added just enough ambience to an engineering job which was already superb in its day such that you would swear this was early, narrow stereo. There is still a hint of fizz in the strings yet by and large the sonic detail is both spacious and detailed and the original bloom on the sound remains intact. One can even hear Furtwängler gently hissing and exhaling in rhythm with the music as he labours to infuse his musicians with his vision of the score.
Hitherto, the reason for the legendary status of this recording has eluded me, but Andrew Rose’s revitalisation has finally allowed me to understand exactly how and why it is as good as its reputation would have it. If you have this recording in the EMI GROC series or even the Regis bargain issue, fairly clumsily transferred from LPs you need not rush to replace it, but this Pristine re-mastering is a revelation.

Ralph Moore

This Pristine re-mastering is a revelation.