Tristan und Isolde

Fritz Reiner
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
18 May, 2 June 1936
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanLauritz Melchior
IsoldeKirsten Flagstad
BrangäneSabine Kalter
KurwenalHerbert Janssen
König MarkeEmanuel List
MelotFank Sale
Ein junger SeemannRoy Devereux
Ein HirtOctave Dua
SteuermannLeslie Horsman
Naxos booklet

This thrilling recording of Tristan und Isolde preserves one of the greatest partnerships in the whole history of opera, Kirsten FIagstad and Lauritz Melchior first sang together (at the Metropolitan, New York) in 1935, Flagstad’s arrival took the American public by storm; she had hitherto sung little outside Scandinavia and her name was known to few opera enthusiasts, To quote her accompanist and biographer, Edwin McArthur, “… from an obscure position in the provincial musical world, this woman, relatively late in life, suddenly blazed upon the international scene”,” Isolde was almost new to her as, apart from a handful of performances in Norway (and in Norwegian) a few years earlier, this visit to New York offered her first assumption of the role, Flagstad’s appearances at Covent Garden in 1936 were similarly greeted with enthusiasm and we are fortunate indeed that this recording was made “live” at the opera house that season, during which she sang tout performances of Tristan und Isolde.

In the summer of 1936 Lauritz Melchior was far better known than Flagstad in both Britain and the United States. At the time this recording was made, his Tristan was a thoroughly experienced and secure interpretation; he had been singing the role for over seven years and during his career he performed it more frequently than any other in his repertoire – over 200 times.

Yes, one of the greatest partnerships in the history of opera, but one that lasted only six years, In April 1941 Flagstad flew from the United States to rejoin her husband, the industrialist Henry Johansen, in occupied Norway and the greatest Tristan and Isolde of the century never sang together, never met, again.

Both Melchior and Flagstad performed in the opera (or Handlung/music drama to use Wagner’s own term) with other singers of international renown, but never apart did they generate the dramatic excitement and lyrical eloquence that this recording illustrates; and both were easily able to sustain their long roles through three acts without any audible evidence of tiring (though it must be mentioned that in this performance some then-customary cuts were made in the first part of the Act 2 love duet and in Tristan’s taxing scene in Act 3).

Flagstad is truly aristocratic. By sheer tonal splendour she portrays the Irish princess in all moods; the fury of the first act outburst, followed soon by the fervent declaration of love as the potion takes effect. Isolde’s greeting of Tristan in Act 2 is spontaneous and, not unexpectedly, tense with anticipation. The love duet exemplifies Flagstad’s reputation for beautiful, soft singing which then, without apparent effort, soars passionately before the untimely interruption of Marke and his courtiers; always secure, achievement never in doubt. At the close of the third act Flagstad, resigned, fulfilled and still enraptured by her love for Tristan, sings the most moving Liebestod on record.

Melchior’s interpretation is based on different assets. Immediately we hear his first responses in Act I we are aware that his early training as a baritone remains a beneficial influence. Just where some tenors are particularly vulnerable -at the lower end of their range – Melchior is strong and assured; and so on, up through to a ringing top, confident and secure all the way. (Incidentally, there is little evidence on this recording of some of Melchior’s noted mannerisms. He had a reputation for rhythmical slackness and carelessness over note values. But here, some oddly emphatic pronunciation apart, he behaves pretty well.) He is incomparably moving in his third act delirium – and makes a whole world of love out of the single word “Isolde” at Tristan’s death.

These two fine singers are handsomely supported by their colleagues on stage and in the pit. The London Philharmonic Orchestra play with commitment under Fritz Reiner (1888 -1963). His reputation for irritability with orchestras is fortunately not evident in this tautly led, well paced performance -no self-indulgence here. Janssen (1895 -1965) is a compassionate Kurwenal, a role he also sang with success at Bayreuth and, from 1939, at the Met, after voluntarily terminating a career at the Berlin Staatsoper. As King Marke, the Austrian-born Emanuel List (1890 -1967) employs his dark, resonant tones in a part he too sang regularly at the Met (from 1934). Like Janssen, he appeared in Berlin before the second world war and also in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Buenos Aires and throughout the USA. As Brangane we hear the Polish contralto Sabine Kalter (1890 -1957). After training in Vienna she sang mostly in Hamburg, moving to London before the war; at Covent Garden she sang principally Wagnerian roles, ending her career there in 1939. She sings with haunting beauty in the distant warning to the lovers in Act 2 and her exchanges with Isolde in Act I display an urgency that shows what can be made of this part.

As “live” recorded performances frequently do, this Tristan und Isolde has a theatrical frisson often absent from studio recordings. Even to an offstage voice briefly vocalising during the First Act Prelude (Flagstad warming up?), even to the sound of Kurwenal running up steps to see Isolde’s ship in Act 3, even to the occasional audience cough, we are taken back to Covent Garden on that summer night in 1936 to hear one of the great performances of the century.

Paul Campion

Looking at the dates on this recording I found myself wondering whether gossip about Edward and Mrs. Simpson might have been on the lips of some of those gathering at Covent Garden prior to the taking of their seats. Although the royal love affair didn’t become known to the general public until the Autumn of 1936 certain stratospheres of London society had known about it since the Spring and one can imagine the “tittle-tattle” on the stairs higher up in the building near the more expensive seats. This opera is another tale of royal personages finding it impossible to carry on against the dictates of the heart so were any parallels also drawn, I wonder? Not that there are any similarities between an abdication speech on the wireless and a love-death on a beach in Brittany, of course, but it’s fun to speculate when faced with this kind of recorded legacy. This surely brings out not only the music and the performance but also the history of the time in which it was made. There’s another great double act in this set: Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in the title roles. This musical coupling from a past era has evoked so many superlatives that just mentioning it is enough to reduce some opera lovers of a certain age to jelly, even those who never saw them onstage. However since it was a partnership that lasted only six years that makes this recording especially valuable even though there are three other surviving recordings of them in this opera; most notably another Covent Garden performance conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham from the 1937 Coronation Season. Let’s hope for a decent transfer of that very soon. Then Flagstad also recorded her Isolde in the studio for EMI with Furtwängler in the early 1950s (reviewed here by Marc Bridle) but on that occasion her Tristan was Ludwig Suthaus who, for me, falls somewhat short of greatness and is certainly no match for Melchior. So let’s welcome recordings like this one that fix music and its performance to a particular time and help us listen through any deficiencies in sound and vagaries of contemporary practice.

Whilst the presence of Flagstad and Melchior may be most people’s principal reason for owning this set the young Fritz Reiner’s contribution should be placed alongside them in achievement. Conducting Beecham’s London Philharmonic, then the Covent Garden pit orchestra, his command of every detail of this incredible score is extraordinary. Not one bar seems to have escaped his attention and by the end I was left staggered by his concentration and that of the orchestra who he must have imbued with his own exacting standards in rehearsal and previous performances. He understands the sound world of the piece perfectly; the heavy, late romantic emotional congestion that Wagner burned into each bar especially. Yet he somehow manages to also convey an unforgettable intimacy to the drama that then allows the two principals to paint their contribution across its canvas in the broadest brushstrokes. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition of styles that pays great dividends. You may remember how Karajan’s Wagner recordings in the ‘seventies were described as being in a “chamber music” style and that this was then thought novel. There are passages in this recording where you feel Reiner was thirty years ahead of his time in that the same impression of the work as chamber piece is conveyed. Some passages in Act II especially reminded me of the early romantic decadence of Schoenberg, so insidious is the spell Reiner and his players (including Leon Goossens and Bernard Walton in the woodwinds) bring and therefore how prophetic in musical terms he seems to make this opera feel. Subtly different from Furtwängler’s more “global” approach, Reiner’s is comparable in achievement and any serious Wagnerite will need both recordings on their shelves on the contribution of the conductors alone even though Furtwängler’s studio recording has much the better mono sound. No wonder the presence of this orchestra in the pit persuaded Furtwängler to come to London for the Coronation Season the next year to conduct The Ring at the invitation of his friend Beecham.

Turning at last to Flagstad and Melchior it’s hard to single out any part of their contribution for praise, so consistently satisfying are they in every part of this long opera. Both are the complete interpreters of their roles. I wonder whether any singers have really approached their achievement in the years after, even taking into account changes in singing and dramatic styles. Nilsson and Windgassen, perhaps. To take one large instance alone, the Love Duet in Act II is remarkable for both singers’ care for the words. What is it about this generation of singers that they realised that the words were just as important as the music? And why isn’t their example followed today to the same extent? This aspect, added to the sensuousness and sheer sexuality of the central encounter onstage, delivers a stunning experience that shines out even through the limited sonics. Individually they are just as impressive. Melchior’s account of Act III devastatingly conveys the fear and horror of a man driven mad by sickness of mind and body and Flagstad’s response to Act I sees her regal and shining like a Princess should be. Then, as the story unfolds, the dictates of her heart start to gouge wheals in her portrayal that are, in their way, just as moving as Melchior’s portrayal of Tristan’s terrible fate and her Liebestod at the end of Act III is as overwhelming, as usual. One can only marvel at the stamina of these two artists, as powerful and expressive at the end of the long evening as they were at the start. Those present in the house that night must have heard the experience of a lifetime. The rest of the cast is only variable. Herbert Janssen is certainly staunch in support of Tristan and Sabine Kalter as Brangane suitably detached and ghostly in her crucial watch during the Love Duet. But the others are more than forgettable and the chorus is really mediocre. Never mind. The principals are what carry this.

There is a traditional cut made in the Love Duet, I should tell you, and I could excuse this by pointing out that it was traditional only at the time of this performance. Yet Bernard Haitink made the same one in his Covent Garden performances as recently as 2001.

This was one of the first attempts to record a complete Wagner opera and it must have been quite a challenge to run two turntables in tandem during one performance, overlapping at the end of each side so as not to leave gaps whilst the drama was enacted onstage. In the end it took fifty-two 78rpm sides to capture the performance and it is from test pressings that Ward Marston has produced this issue in the indispensable Naxos Historical series which is producing so many treasures. This is a second transfer of this recording and is different from the one on VAI Audio (VAIA 1003). I haven’t had the chance to compare the two but I cannot imagine the previous version could be any better and certainly would not compete in price. It cannot compete with modern versions in terms of sound quality, of course. But anyone interested in the musical and historical importance of this set will take that in their stride and have it as alternative to Nilsson and Windgassen with Bohm on DG (4497722), my choice for stereo, with Furtwängler on mono EMI (CMS5 67621 2) as overall top recommendation.

You may be wondering at the presence of two dates on the recording. For some reason the Act I Prelude from the May performance was unusable so the engineers returned in June to record only that. So, apart from the Act I Prelude, what you have here is one night at the opera with no patching and so much the better for that. One bonus of this anomaly is that on the night the Prelude was recorded Flagstad’s “warm-up” exercises in the wings were just picked up by the microphones. An endearing touch to a remarkable document of recorded history and a performance of rare and compelling power that, in spite of historic sound, is one of the greatest recordings of this opera ever made.

A night at the opera not to be missed.

Tony Duggan

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Media Type/Label
EJS, Discoreale
VAI, Naxos, Opera d’Oro, OOA
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Technical Specifications
512 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 769 MiB (flac)
There is a lot of confusion about the recording date. The information given by Naxos seems to be correct. EMI recorded the performance of May 18. However the prelude to act 1 was defective so EMI recorded the prelude on June 2, 1936 again. Strangely, EMI never released the recording.
There are cuts in Acts 2 and 3 of this performance: in Act 2, Scene 2, from “Dem Tage! Dem Tage! (Tristan) to “dass nachtsichtig mein Auge wahres zu sehen tauge” (Tristan), and in Act 3, Scene 1, from “Isolde noch im Reich der Sonne!” to “die selbst Nachts von ihr mich scheuchte?” (Tristan). [Jonathan Brown]