Tristan und Isolde

Erich Leinsdorf
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
23 March 1940
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanLauritz Melchior
IsoldeKirsten Flagstad
BrangäneKerstin Thorborg
KurwenalJulius Huehn
König MarkeEmanuel List
MelotGeorge Cehanovsky
Ein junger SeemannAnthony Marlowe
Ein HirtKarl Laufkötter
SteuermannDouglas Beattie

Firstly, the ‘insertion’, which might be puzzling some readers. Richard Caniell, who as so often has contributed informed and eminently readable accompanying notes for this series, refers to the ‘toneless, wobbly, strained singing of Emanuel List as King Marke’ (booklet, p. 11). So, in a nod towards fantasy football, cue Kipnis in 1941 appearing from thin air. Actually, as the comments below indicate, it all works supremely well (although hearing the original List would seal the matter and maybe justify the interventionist approach, but that comparison was not available).

There appears to be some doubt in Guild’s mind about the actual date of the main body of this Tristan. The front of the box claims March 13th, 1940, as do the recording dates; the back of the box claims March 23rd. A slip of the finger, probably, as the on-line Leinsdorf discography confirms the 23rd, rightly listing the Music & Arts set as its only (then) incarnation (M&A CD647, which Caniell compares unfavourably to his own transfer in the ‘Recording Notes’ section of the booklet). The web-site also lists the February 8th casting (that complete performance is available on both Gebhardt and Melodram).

As the broadcast commentary confirms, this is a sold-out, non-subscription post-season performance given for the benefit of the Met’s ‘One Million Dollar Fund’. All artists donated their services.

Erich Leinsdorf’s Wagner can be of the steam-train variety, so it is a relief to report that what we generally get here instead is a flowing account of Wagner’s magnificent score that fits snugly onto three discs, complete with broadcast commentaries (a nice sense of occasion) and a brief ‘intermission program’ (sic) comprising Mrs August Belmont (‘a sincere and good friend of the Metropolitan Opera’) briefly opining away on the concept of beauty in music.

The Prelude sets not only the musical scene, but the acoustic one as well. The warmth of the Met strings comes across nicely (unfortunately there is some background flutter – it sounds a bit like a piece of paper caught in a fan, if you can imagine) and the climax threatens to distort, whilst avoiding that at the last moment. Linear clarity is clearly important to Leinsdorf, and indeed the Leitmotivic mesh of Tristan is vividly conveyed throughout the performance.

The surface noise alluded to above is unfortunately present all through the sailor’s rather wobbly song. It is almost worth it to hear the immediacy of the strings at their re-entry though, as we are shoved back into ‘real time’, and onto the deck of the ship in the company of Isolde (Kirsten Flagstad, no less). Flagstad is fairly regal from the start, Leinsdorf producing real electricity from the orchestra pit. Rarely have the orchestral surgings sounded so stormy, although he does almost get carried away (Flagstad to her credit seems to have no problems keeping up). Isolde’s relating of Tristan’s look (‘Er sah mir in die Augen’) is magnificent, and she seems at her very best at the shaded statement of ‘Mir erkoren …’. Neither is she above a bit of well-timed hysteria (‘Tod uns beiden’ is shrieked out, as befits the emotion of the live moment, against massive heaves from the orchestra). Leinsdorf is a positive power-house in the ‘Tantris’ section, the harmonies bristling with energy.

Her companion Brangäne is Kerstin Thorborg, who after a low-powered start acts as an acceptable foil for Isolde’s confused and powerful emotions. Thorborg’s interpretation does carry real involvement (one believes her angst at ‘Wehe, ach wehe! Dies zu dulden!’). A shame that for her Warning in Act 2 (CD2 Track 8) she is so recessed (there should be an element of this, certainly, but here the orchestra is very much uppermost and any feeling of magic is effectively lost).

Julius Huehn is Kurwenal, providing another under-powered start, but moving into the role (his ‘Hab acht, Tristan’ is very weak half-hearted). Perhaps it is his stage placement, as later in the act, at ‘Heil, Tristan, glücklicher Held!’, he is really almost out of earshot.

Act Two is the act that stands to lose the most from Leinsdorf’s approach – no-one wants a fast-forwarded Nacht der Liebe!. The first surprise comes in the rapidly-repeated wind chords, which here sound rather awkward, as if posing too great a technical challenge for the Met’s wind section (CD2, Track 3, 0’11ff). It effectively scuppers the elusive, shifting and restless atmosphere here, a situation rescued (but only just) by the emotionally effusive strings. A sense of theatrical drama is made clear by the superbly placed off-stage horns. Brangäne begins well, with a contralto-ish side to her voice that suits the prevailing mood well. Here she comes across as a strong personality, emphatically not second-best to Flagstad.

Character entrances seem to be a problem in this performance, for Tristan’s entry is barely audible. Leinsdorf’s super-fast tempo hardly helps, and both Melchior and Flagstad are forced to gasp and snatch at the ensuing exchanges (they should be breathless, certainly, but in another sense). Yet, in one of the great moments of this Tristan, Leinsdorf prepares the famous ‘O sink hernieder’ passage perfectly, the orchestra a model of gentle whisperings. Melchior and Flagstad maintain the mood. Alas Leinsdorf decides to push on at Tristan’s ‘So stürben wir’.

And so to the insertion. It is justified by the magnificence of Kipnis. His voice stands in high contrast to George Cehanovsky’s rather weak Melot. Right from the first line (‘Tatest du wirklich’) one is aware of the presence of a truly great artist. Kipnis’s voice is timbrally dark but, more importantly, his portrayal of grief and disappointment is heart-wrenching. ‘Dies, Trstan, mir’ is almost heightened speech, and all credit to Caniell’s technical excellence that Tristan’s re-entry (‘O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen’) is seamlessly managed. That said, if this reviewer is to return to any point on this set as an excerpt (and thereby commit Wagnerian sacrilege!), Marke’s track (CD2, Track 10) will be it. You just don’t hear Wagner singing like this, anywhere, any more.

It is around this point that Melchior really comes into his own, and with that realisation comes a real frisson as to what Act 3 will bring. Listen to his voicing of the question, ‘Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isold’, ihm folgen?’.

One of the most crushing Wagnerian experiences is Jon Vickers’ Act 3 Tristan on the Hardy Classic DVD HCD4009 (review). The conductor on that occasion, Karl Böhm, was similarly in tune with the Wagnerian flow of grief, sickness and hysteria.

Leinsdorf, rather than portraying the desolation inherent in the Act 3 Prelude, prefers to concentrate on the lyricism of the ongoing drama as a whole, rather than the solitary Tristan in particular. The cor anglais emerges seamlessly from the orchestra, effectively taking a (melodic) line for a walk (the same instrument’s answer to Tristan’s question, ‘Kurwenal, siehst du das Schiff?’ is a remarkable stroke of dramatic genius, and is achieves full potency here).

Interesting that Leinsdorf’s lyrical flow does not sound superficial; neither does it do the depth of the music justice. Rather it tends to sit somewhere in between the two, nearing one or the other at various times – be warned that such interpretative inconsistency can be rather unsettling.

Karl Laufkoetter is a light Shepherd. This is good precisely because it emphasises the depth accorded to Huehn’s (Kurwenal’s) heavy comments. Here, Huehn really does sound like a true friend, acting with immense dignity and caring.

Whether Melchior lives up to the promises his voice made towards the end of the Second Act is debatable. He begins to sound tired and strained (CD3, Track 5). But the main problem of this act is that Kurwenal gets drowned by the orchestra so frequently.

When Isolde finally arrives, she is remarkably touching (even if she does slide up to her final ‘Geliebter!’). Of course Flagstad’s ‘Verklärung’ (‘Mild und leise …’) is eagerly awaited, and how magically Leinsdorf begins it, a true ppp if ever there was one. What a pity, then, that the trombones spread their first chord, and tongue it too hard (for reasons of security of attack, presumably). The orchestral texture glows from within here. So why then is the climax so under-powered?. The three repeated brass chords sound routine and there is a final monstrosity – the applause begins before the final chord has even ended!.

There is little doubt that this set does demand to be heard, and the Kipnis insertion does seem to be a real success. Alas Leinsdorf’s performance begs so many questions that it could never approach a library recommendation.

Fascinating that this is the first Tristan to come my way since the brand new Thielemann DG 474 974-2. Whatever comments one can make on Leinsdorf and his crew, in terms of proximity to the core of Wagnerian inspiration it would appear they still eclipse modern interpretation.

Colin Clarke

A note from Guild recordings

Warmest thanks for your interesting review. I write only to point out something really significant as to Melchior’s extraordinary artistic capacity as an actor. You rightly describe his singing during a portion of Act III as “tired and strained”. However you will find these identical portions in which Melchior sounds hoarse, tired, strained and exhausted, in the broadcasts of 1933, 1935, 1936, two in 1937, two in1938, 1939, 1940 and so on and also in the Columbia 78s of Act III with Melchior in Teatro Colón. A High Fidelity magazine critic complained of Melchior’s vocal state in that recording. Yet in every Act III, Melchior always revived, his voice glorious, ringing and free on sighting the ship and particularly after Isolde’s call (Zu ihr! Zu ihr!) This astonishing recovery is as much a part of his characterization as how he sings the passages when it sounds as if there’s nothing left to him but vocal tatters and collapse, eloquently evoking a vocal portrait of the wounded Tristan’s distress, sickness and delirium.

One critic who recognized this as part of Melchior’s acting was Conrad Osborne in his very lengthy review of the 1941 Tristan (which the Met released) that appeared in High fidelity magazine. He wrote:

“In the third act Melchior adds an accomplishment of another sort: the complete realization of a character’s emotional and physical condition through the mental and musical text. Here his work may be compared with that of a Chaliapin or a Muzio, except that Melchior’s is achieved in a context infinitely more demanding. The opening pages of the delirium scene he renders in a dull, utterly exhausted tone that, for once, we recognize as the artist’s choice rather than that of the tenor’s vocal condition. He sinks back into this in subsequent moments of Tristan’s weakness, sometimes letting the vibrato and resonance turn dead in a fashion that would alarm us in any other singer. But at each of Tristan’s fevered rebounds, he is back with his most ringing, passionate full voice, reaching joyous climaxes at such points as Isolde kommt, Isolde naht! Quite terrible ones in places like Verflucht sei dieser Trank and still able to begin the final challenge O diese Sonne with fresh spinning tone and cap it with brilliant A-natural Zu ihr! Zu ihr!”

Of course, those who have not heard Melchior’s conception of Tristan ravaged and hallucinating, and then marvelously recovering his strength, in a succession of broadcasts, would rightly confuse his artistic choice with the actual, personal state of his voice. I read your viewpoint as evidence of how convincing Melchior has been in these very passages, reminding me that this effect goes as far back as broadcasts recorded his achievement.

On another subject, you say you may be committing a Wagnerian sacrilege when you find yourself repeatedly inclined to return to Marke’s Narrative (Kipnis) CD-2, Track 10 as the excerpt you presently most want to hear. Such was my own experience after I brought in Kipnis. Previously Marke’s lengthy narrative sung by List seems endless and dispiriting, given List’s toneless, dry, wobbly voice, but Kipnis! As you write, “You don’t hear Wagner singing like this, anywhere, any more.” How true!

It was only after weeks that I could return to other portions of the broadcast, but for some time Kipnis eclipsed everything. The great basso was not well served by the 1941 broadcast, from which this portion was taken, as Flagstad was not in good voice and the performance lacked the electricity and impact of 1940. Having his unforgettable Marke interwoven into the 1940 broadcast reveals Wagner was not mistaken to give us King Marke’s lengthy Narrative – not only as a much needed rest from the ecstasy of what preceded it, and also providing a necessary bridge to Tristan’s sad and resigned decision for death, but, as Kipnis illuminates, this passage is, itself, beautiful, noble and haunting.

Thanks for all,

Richard Caniell

Jonathan Brown

The listener to the Music and Arts set cannot complain of not being warned of the imperfections, surface noise and distortion in this recording. It is all pervasive. Into the opening of Act One, once I’ lailsiad has swept aside the ineffectual, taunting sailor, Anthony Marlowe, the Act really gets under way and the static in the radio transmission gives the effect of Tristan’s ship venturing through a lightning storm. Flagstad sings with unfailing strength, whether softly, as the set ds of vengeance take root when she repeats Tristan’s words “Me lenkt. er richer aen Kiel zu Kenig Marke c Land?”, or ferociously, as she delivers the full force of her vengeful curse. The marvel of her dark, brooding voice is that it is pregnant w,th future action. When she sings of her misery, unloved beside Tristan (“Ungeminnt den hehrsten Mann”), we are left in no doubt that her will will be done. She sings with poise and determination, in the face of which Melchior understandably wavers. Her purpose is achieved. After the love potion is drunk, there is a marked shift of mood in the orchestra, conducted only competently by Erich Leinsdorl lArtur Bodanzky died just before the 1939-1940 season), but it comes late. Kerstin Thorborg shows she is a Brangane to be reckoned with, though her forceful voice allows less than an ideal contrast to Flagstad’s own formidable instrument. Julius; Huehn is but a reliable Kurwenal.

The surface noise continues relentlessly into Act Two, where there are signs at least of a better contrast between the serious, cautious Brangare and the light-headed, hopeful Isolde before Tristan’s nocturnal arrival. When he does arrive, he can hardly be heard – he must be half off-stage. To his credit, [ reduces the number of cuts Bodanzky made to the work, and in Act Two there is only one cut to the love duet. Thorborg’s “Einsam wachend in der Nachi” comes as a refreshing breath of night air between the torrid outpourings of love. The aged Emanuel List is grief-stricken as King Marke. Lcmsdorigives them all good support, but the orchestra is infested always by interference and other extraneous noise.

Act Three suffers most from the inferior sound recording. In the Prelude, the cor anglais competes equally with hiss and crack. As far as can be heard, Melchior seems to mix some words up in his delirium, and gobble others t.p. Despite three substantial cuts to his role, he sounds devastatingly exhausted alter his fearful curse of the love potion (“Verflucht, wer dish gebraut!”). Yet f e rises again to heights of abandon (“freudiges Rosen”), and Leinsdorf brings all his forces to bear as Tristan makes his final lunge towards Isolde (“Zu ihr! Zu ihr!”) As King Marke arrives, there is a lot of fighting going on, but it must be off-stage or back-stage -it is difficult to hear what is happening. And lest we forget, the noise intrudes to the end: as Isolde sings her Liebestod, the irony almost steals the glory as she sings “Höre ich nur diese Weise, die so wunderwoll and !else…?” Yes, it is she alone who hears the glorious tone.

Jonathan Brown | Tristan und Isolde on Record

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Media Type/Label
UORC 182
M&A, Guild, OOA
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Technical Specifications
470 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 684 MiB (flac)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Joseph Urban (1920)
In the Guild recording Emanuel List’s king is cut out and replaced with Alexander Kipnis (taken from the broadcast February 8, 1941).
The labels on UORC 182 give the date of this performance as 8 February 1941, but they are incorrect. There are cuts to 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), from “Muss ich dich so versteh’n” to “Zu welchem Los?” (Tristan), and from “Die nie erstirbt” to “Der Trank! Der Trank! der furchtbare Trank!” (Tristan). [Jonathan Brown]