Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde - Act II (1865)
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) - Isolde
Eyvind Laholm (tenor) - Tristan
Enid Szántho (contralto) - Brangane
John Gurney (bass) - King Marke
Daniel Harris (baritone) - Kurwenal, Melot
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/John Barbirolli
rec. 16 April 1939, live, Carnegie Hall, April 1939
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVE WHRA 6044 [73:48]
It seems as if this was the first American performance of Act II of Tristan to be performed without cuts. It was the prevailing practice at the Metropolitan to cut Acts II and III whilst the first act generally emerged unscathed. Whether the decision was John Barbirolli’s, then the resident conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, no one seems quite sure, though it seems to me likely to have been so. The performance was given in Carnegie Hall on 16 April 1939 and this copy was taken down off-air by an enthusiast. It was the third and last in a trio of performances of Act II, so by now orchestra and singers would have been familiar with Barbirolli’s flowing but lyrical direction of an opera that he had first directed in Glasgow in 1932 with Florence Austral and Walter Widdop as his principals.
In Carnegie Hall he had Kirsten Flagstad and Eyvind Laholm (born Jon Edwin Johnson, in Wisconsin of Swedish descent). Flagstad was, with Frida Leider, the reigning Wagnerian soprano of her generation and opportunities to hear her at her freshest and most communicative are always valuable. Laholm was a fine singer, too, though clearly not in Lauritz Melchior’s class, as examples of Melchior and Flagstad’s Wagner performances at Covent Garden a few years earlier than this Carnegie Hall one attest. Nor was he as impressive as Set Svanholm in the role. However Laholm’s discography is surprisingly small, not least because he was not retained by the Met for the 1940/41 season because of the presence of Melchior. His actual studio discography is impossibly small, just a couple of arias from Fidelio and Un ballo in maschera from 1936, though this has been supplemented by off-air operatic performances such as this one.
The supporting cast provides solid support. Enid Szántho is the Brangane, and she was a stalwart at Bayreuth and the Vienna Opera. Like Laholm, she didn’t have an especially penetrating voice, though it is effective enough. John Gurney’s King Marke is small-scaled and musicianly, though it would be unjust to contrast him with, say, Emanuel List’s powerful portrayal for Fritz Reiner at Covent Garden in 1936.
Barbirolli’s lyrically direct reading never sounds rushed and it makes one regret, once more, that he didn’t record more operatic sets when the opportunities arose. The orchestra plays splendidly for him. The recording is pretty reasonable for the time and circumstances, though you will expect some degradation, and Ward Marston and Aaron Z. Snyder have done a good restorative job. There’s a good booklet too. I see that this same performance has been released on Archipel as well, though I’ve not had access to it for comparative purposes. For vocal collectors this will be a useful addition, most especially for Flagstad (and if you want examples of Laholm). Barbirolli admirers will definitely want it, which may explain why this WHRA release is co-produced by the John Barbirolli Society.
Lyrically direct … makes one regret that Barbirolli didn’t record more operatic sets.
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