Tristan und Isolde

Franz Konwitschny
Chor des MDR Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
21 – 23 October 1950
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanLudwig Suthaus
IsoldeMargarete Bäumer
BrangäneErna Westenberger
KurwenalKarl Wolfram
König MarkeGottlob Frick
MelotTheodor Horand
Ein junger SeemannGert Lutze
Ein HirtAloys Kühnert
SteuermannReinhard Kibel

Vinyl mavens of the obsessive operatic kind may remember the Urania LP edition of this 1950 recording (whose cover is reproduced here), billed as the first complete studio “Tristan”. In fact, it incorporates the standard Act 2 cut in the love duet. Its original release served a lame-duck function until Furtwängler’s far superior (sonic, interpretive, vocal, instrumental) and truly complete EMI version came out in 1952. Both sets share Ludwig Suthaus in the title role (Tristan, not Isolde!), but the tenor sings more precisely and passionately for Furtwängler. Compare the Act 3 delirium sequence, or the ardent exchanges of love at the end of the first act and hear for yourself. The echo-y sound is hollow and cramped in the manner of F. Charles Adler’s turgid Mahler recordings, and the voices turn strident at loud dynamic volumes. Certainly the sonic drawbacks help mask the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra’s limitations (notably the dog-eared wind intonation on long, sustained notes and scrawny brass tone elsewhere), although Franz Konwitschny shapes the drama and supports his singers like the seasoned pro he was in the theater.

The original Urania booklet indicated that the recording sessions transpired without recourse to retakes or edits. Who really knows, at this late date? Margarete Bäumer’s agile and secure Isolde may not achieve the robust, statuesque Flagstad/Nilsson/Eaglen standard, but her presence and stamina are undeniable. Solid supporting characters are heard in Erna Westenberger’s Brangäne and Karl Wolfram’s strong Kurwenal. Probably the set’s greatest characterization is to be found in Gottlob Frick’s gripping account of King Marke’s Act 2 monologue, where his care with the text and diversity of mood create palpable tension in a scene that often dies on the theatrical vine. In sum, collectors who like to nose around postwar Wagner singing’s obscure but often rewarding byways will want to hear this Tristan. No texts or translations.

Artistic Quality: 6
Sound Quality: 5

Jed Distler

Jonathan Brown

The recording made for radio in Leipzig in 1950 is not a marked improvement over the recording made for radio in Hamburg the previous year. Franz is more at home with Wagner than Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt was, but it is still a pedestrian performance. Margarete Baumer is a good, small-scale Isolde, with a limited expressive range. When she exerts herself, she tends to wobble, as in Act One when she asks how she can bear the anguish of seeing Tristan every day (“wie konnt ich die Quel bestehen!”). Ludwig Sutihius is a tough, seasoned Tristan, and probably the best of the cast. However, tone does not flow easily from his voice. Nor is he a reflective Tristan troubled by any interior struggle. Erna Westenberger’s voice as Brangane does not contrast well with Baumer’s, though she does seem level-headed in the face of the latter’s shortcomings. Konwitschny

In Act Two Suthaus shows he is at heart an honourable -Iristan. He is not as forthcoming in the Liebesnacht as he might be given that Isolde is trembling beside him, yet in terms of bulk, he overshadows her. They never really ignite. The orchestra should be there with the lovers. Kurwenal certainly is. As they are exposed, he calls on Tristan to save himself (“Rette dich Tristan!”), not from a discreet distance but right up there at the microphone! Gottlob Frick is a magnificent King Marke, with clear, full-bodied tone. He deserves better orchestral support. The bottom almost drops out after he laments the hell he finds himself in (“warum mir diese Hölle?”). Once alone at the end of his monologue and free from the orchestra, he sings with such power and conviction of the frightful depths (“Den unerforschlich tief geheininissvollen Grund?”), we know he has been there.

Konwitschny is much better in Act Three. The Shepherd sings his famous “Öd und leer das Meer” with an intensity uncommon to the phrase, normally rendered as if a mere empty wasteland. The orchestra is excellent grinding into gear as Tristan awakens. Suthaus sings his visions with great control, suggesting he is a Tristan temperamentally reserved and unsuited to abandonment. He sings his tender invocation of Isolde (“Wie sie selig”) with moist sentimentality. The orchestra is good during periods of delirium, and should have been recorded more forward than it was: Suthaus’s voice always has a separate presence, and would have benefited had it been welded to the orchestra.

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Media Type/Label
Melodram, Urania
Archipel, Preiser, Walhall Eternity, OOA
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Technical Specifications
234 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 394 MiB (flac)
Broadcast production
There is a cut in this performance: in Act 2, Scene 2, from “Dem Tage! Dem Tage!” (Tristan) to “dass nachtsichtig mein Auge Wahres zu sehen tauge” (Tristan). [Jonathan Brown].