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Wagner tristan PACO185

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]

This is one of the most famous performances to have come out of the post-war revival of the Bayreuth Festival. I haven’t listened to it in years, and hearing it in this Pristine Audio transfer reminded me forcibly of why it is so celebrated.

The main draw is the conductor. This was the second of only two years when Herbert von Karajan was invited to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival. It’s not entirely clear why he was never invited back, but we’re all the poorer for that because he creates something fearfully great in this performance. He demonstrates that he is a supreme master at shaping Wagner’s great paragraphs in a way that he maximises the drama and heightens that all-important sense of tension and release. The Act 1 prelude starts in the way the whole opera goes on. The climax, eight minutes in, feels so all-engulfing that it’s difficult to see how a full performance of the drama can possibly follow such an introduction. That continues throughout the whole work, right to the final cadence, whose radiant final chords are elongated long beyond what you have any reason to expect. Yet it never sounds forced or strained nor, importantly, long-winded: all of Karajan’s tempi and changes of emphasis are used to serve the drama, and it does so triumphantly. He structures each act around its physical climax – the drinking of the love potion, the entry of Marke, Isolde’s arrival at Kareol – but within that certain episodes get their own special helping of energy and lavishness that is completely involving. It also goes to show how good Karajan was live: at a simple comparison of like-for-like, this is a far more involving interpretation than his studio recording in Berlin with Vickers and Dernesch.

My colleague Ralph Moore has written (twice) about what makes this performance great. I won’t add much to his observations about the singers, except to say that I wasn’t so switched on by either of the ladies but was even more captivated by the men. Vinay’s Tristan, in particular, is astounding. He uses the dark colour of his voice to such magnificent effect, making him pretty much unique in the role’s recorded history; but he unites that with such power, stamina and artistry that I’m tempted to crown him the role’s finest exponent on disc. I also enjoyed Hans Hotter even more than Ralph. This was his first performance at Bayreuth, a theatre that he would go on to make his own. His voice sounds younger and more vigorous than many a Kurwenal, and he acts marvellously with every syllable. Ludwig Weber isn’t beyond a bit of melodrama or shouting at the climax of Marke’s monologue, but his voice carries unarguable authority and, so importantly with this character, pity.

And what about the sound? The most recent version I had on my shelf was a release of rather murky provenance from Hamburg’s Membran International. That was clear enough, but Pristine’s transfer is much finer. As Ralph comments, everything, down to the uncorrectable live mistakes and mistimes, is clearer and more audible, knocking out of the park any transfer I’d previously come across.

It took a while for me to tune into Andrew Rose’s use of what Pristine calls “ambient stereo”, more about which you’ll find here on their website. Perhaps that’s the reason why I enjoyed Act 1 a little less than the others. At times I detected a touch of a shadow, a flicker on the sound that can manifest itself almost like a whisper of an echo. I noticed it most in Kurwenal’s first entry in Act 1, but after that either things improved or I got used to it. Either way, it doesn’t detract from the overall achievement, and this is clearly the finest sound that this recording has yet benefited from.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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