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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Ramon Vinay (tenor) - Tristan; Martha Mödl (soprano) - Isolde; Ira Malaniuk (mezzo-sop) - Brangaene; Hans Hotter (bass-baritone) - Kurwenal; Ludwig Weber (bass) - Marke; Hermann Uhde (bass-baritone) - Melot; Gerhard Stolze (tenor) - Shepherd; Gerhard Unger (tenor) – Steersman; Werner Faulhaber (baritone) – Seaman
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. live 23 July 1952, Bayreuth
Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO185 [3 CDs: 228:33]

For years I sought the best remastering of this great, classic recording and finally settled on the DS Classics, associated with Urania and using as its sound source tapes from the Martha Mödl collection, which was certainly an improvement on anything I had had before, but this new XR Remastering in Ambient Stereo by Andrew Rose at Pristine is simply spectacular in terms of improvement. Remember we are listening to a live performance seventy years old and the depth and clarity of sound this new issue are miraculous. Unfortunately, that also reveals the coughing and accidents like the blip at 10:35, at the end of the overture – false entry? Dropped violin? – all the more distinctly ….

Mödl did not have the greatest Isolde voice – it could curdle and waver, and even turn hoarse – but she was the complete stage animal with searing top notes, a trenchant lower register and a wonderfully individual quality to her tone including a very engaging catch in the break. You hear the crazed hysteria in Isolde’s voice the moment she opens her voice; the characterisation is complete -she is womanly fear and scorn incarnate and she is matched with a superlative cast of co-singers.

I naturally included this recording in my survey of the opera in 2018 and I quote my assessment in full as I have little reason to change it. I call it an “incandescent performance which catches the two great principal singers in top form. There is something peculiarly immediate and vibrant about Mödl's assumption of the role of Isolde which puts the magisterial but bland Flagstad in the shade and even outdoes Nilsson in the famous live Bohm performance. She has a Callas-like manner of getting to the heart of the role by an especially intelligent inflection of the text and affecting use of her lower register combined with some thrilling (if slightly "scooped") top notes. Vinay's baritonal tenor is both heroic and tender; the exchange between the lovers just after their discovery in flagrante by the king is particularly moving. Ludwig Weber is past his best and a bit wobbly, but knows how to wring the heart and Hotter, typically woofy and heavy on the vibrato, nonetheless creates a vivid character in his Kurwenal. Despite the limited sound, you can hear how Karajan caresses the music without dragging it out or distorting the pacing of the work; he really is good here, free of the later affectations and mannerisms. Uhde turns in another typically incisive vignette as the vicious, obsessive Melot. Malaniuk is just average as Brangaene but sings strongly and expressively where it counts in her offstage warnings during the great love duet. This recording takes its place alongside my other favourite recordings.”

The only revision I might make is to be kinder to the Brangaene of Ira Malaniuk, who now strikes me on relistening as more distinguished. My only mild cavil is that Mödl and Malaniuk sometimes sound very similar. Meanwhile, the recording's many virtues struck me afresh, no doubt enhanced by the revived sound, and things like Mödl’s delivery of key phrases such as “Er sah mir in die Augen” (he looked into my eyes) and “Er schwur mir tausend Eide” (he swore me a thousand oaths) are spine-chillingly moving, piercing the emotional heart of the text. Karajan’s energised direction enlivens every bar; take that succession of ominous, crashing chords announcing Tristan’s first approach on board or his shaping of that famous of passages narrating the effect of the love potion and reprising the overture.

It's a pity that the change-over between CDs 1 and 2 must necessarily come in the surging climax of Act 1, just after the drinking of the potion and as the bemused and befuddled lovers arrive in Cornwall, but needs must if it is to fit on 3 CDs. Nor will any amount of expert remastering bring the offstage voices hailing King Mark at the end of that Act any closer, so their impact is somewhat diminished and we must be satisfied with what we have.

Andrew Rose does not, on this occasion, tell us anything about his original source for this remastering but the result is remarkable. Anyone who loves this account as I do will want to hear it so comprehensively revitalised.

Ralph Moore


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