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Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1859)
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 in Ambient Stereo
Reviewed as lossless download
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO067 [4 CDs: 256.25]

The 1952 recording of Wagner’s tone poem about unfulfilled longing has long been revered by many critics and members of the public as the finest recording of this opera and perhaps the finest recording of any Wagner opera to date. In 2011 Pristine Audio applied its XR re-mastering process to this classic recording with a renewed sonic presence that is a true revelation. For the purpose of this review I was able to compare it with the EMI re-master that was done in 2001 for its “Great Recordings of the Century” series (review). This series advertises “noise shaping using the Prism SNS system”. In a direct comparison of the two, the EMI sounds duller and lusterless while the Pristine has a life to the sound which is quite an improvement. The orchestra seems to benefit the most from the ambient re-master. The especially lovely solo for the shepherds’ pipe in Act Three is a good example of this. The sound has enough of a stereo feel about it without ever seeming contrived. Walter Legge’s high production standards on this recording really assist with this. This was one of the early recordings with which his name began to be associated with a standard of excellence. Another major reason for preferring this re-master is the significant difference in pitch at which the two sets are heard at. In his notes Andrew Rose comments on the pitch difficulties that early studio tape recorders experienced and which he has corrected. I don’t fully understand the science of what he refers to but on a side by side comparison the difference is clearly audible. The Act One prelude sounds distinctly sharp and almost grating on the EMI version. The Pristine sounds completely natural and warm. It is especially noticeable when the cellos take over the main theme in the Prelude. Hopefully EMI (Warner) engineers will begin to take note of these problems and correct them appropriately in future reissues.

The cast is also the stuff of many a legend. Topmost is the overwhelming portrayal of Isolde by Kirsten Flagstad. By 1952 she was beginning to sound more elemental than seductive. There is a quality of “Mother Earth” to her extremely generous tone. In his 1953 review for High Fidelity magazine James Hinton Jr. described her voice with the words “The columnar magnificence of her tone” It still seems to me to be a most apt description of the effect she has on the listener. In general her portrayal seems much more vivid in the second and third acts than in the first. The rage and humiliation of Isolde in Act One seems somewhat muted by her glorious sound. In her narrative when she describes the look in the wounded Tristan’s eyes at “Seines Elendes jammerte” she has a natural warmth and beauty to her tone that Birgit Nilsson always had to work hard for and never completely achieved. Her curse is a complete gale force of nature, even if her top “A’s” are not as free as they had once been. When she invites Tristan to drink the potion at “Nur laß uns Sühne trinken!” she inserts a fantastic feeling of slyness. Her Liebestod is essentially a duet with Furtwängler as they achieve the height of musical resolution of a too long unfed passion.

Suthaus turned out to be a really fine Tristan which at the time was criticized for being too overshadowed by his soprano. In truth there have never been many Tristans who could compete with Flagstad’s legendary sound. Jon Vicker’s elemental sound strikes me as the only one who might have been a true match to her but of course they sang in different eras. Still it would have been a battle of lions to see them together. In the event Suthaus gives a truly heartfelt portrayal of Tristan which makes for him an impressive entry in musical posterity. He registers all of the appropriate pain and ecstasy. He wins points with me for actually singing virtually every note of the score. I only noticed one instance in the third act where he veered away from the vocal line into a more declamatory mode. His tone is quite virile and beautiful. There are times that he sounds uncannily like Jonas Kaufmann.

Blanche Thebom never recorded anything else as fine as her patrician portrayal of the serving maid Brangäne. Her tone is quite secure and has a brightness about it that is almost soprano-like yet she makes a wonderful contrast to Flagstad’s Isolde. She brings a touching sincerity to Brangäne’s music that I find really moving. Brangäne has been well cast in nearly all of the competing recordings but I think that this performance stands ahead of all of the others. In only a few years after this Thebom’s tone would develop problems maintaining pitches on sustained notes that would remain for the rest of her career.

The young Fischer-Dieskau brings a lieder-like mastery to Kurwenal. There is no barking or stressed tone to contend with only a sensitive reading of Tristan’s loyal seneschal. He is at his best in his solicitude for the raving Tristan during the long scene at Kareol in Act Three.

Greindl gives the performance of his career as King Marke. He was a stalwart of Bayreuth during these years and generally a most serviceable singer. His bass lacks the true velvet of Martti Talvela, Kurt Moll, or René Pape in their recordings. His tone is here quite distinguished and clear and I find his portrayal to be both moving and involving during Marke’s long scene of reproach in Act Two. Wagner made it something of an endurance test for his audience at this point and King Marke can outstay his welcome quite easily but I don’t find that to be the case with Greindl on this recording.

Even the small roles of the Sailor and the Shepherd were cast from strength in the person of the young Rudolf Schock, who starred in many a fine operetta recording during the 50’s and 60’s. His Shepherd in particular is a wonderful vignette sung with firm and pliant tone.

The true success of this recording; however, lies in the legendary interpretation of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Filled with an intensity of expression he seems to invest every fiber of his being in this recording. Perhaps he sensed that his remaining time was short and that this would be his chance to give of himself to posterity. It is his wonderful rapport with the singers and the Philharmonia Orchestra that is the true crowning achievement of this recording.

Overall I have enjoyed coming back to this recording after not hearing it for nearly 10 years when I purchased the EMI CDs. I plan to be returning to it again soon and the marvellous Pristine re-master will be my version of choice.

Mike Parr

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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