Tristan und Isolde

Wilhelm Furtwängler
Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Philharmonia Orchestra London
10-21 and 23 Juni 1952
Kingsway Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanLudwig Suthaus
IsoldeKirsten Flagstad
BrangäneBlanche Thebom
KurwenalDietrich Fischer-Dieskau
König MarkeJosef Greindl
MelotEdgar Evans
Ein junger SeemannRudolf Schock
Ein HirtRudolf Schock
SteuermannRhoderick Davies

This opera has been the stuff of legend from the moment of its conception and the notoriety has never let up. When he wrote it Wagner was trying to steal Wesendonck’s wife, then Wagner gave the task of writing out the piano reduction to Von Bülow while Wagner was busy stealing Von Bülow’s wife, who was the daughter of Liszt, from whom the press claimed Wagner had stolen all the music. Putting on the opera caused a scandal in Munich. The original Tristan died months after the premiere. Gabriel Fauré wrote a scathing musical joke on the music. Skipping forward nearly a hundred years this recording involved accusations, threats of acid blinding, slanders, feuds, stink bombs hurtled into theatre lobbies, written apologies, the famous secret over just who really sang the high notes which led notable persons to perjure themselves, etc. When the work was all done, Furtwängler said to producer Walter Legge, “My name will be remembered for this [recording], but yours should be.”

Furtwängler was Flagstad’s favourite conductor of all; two years previously, together, they had at Strauss’s request given the world premiere of his Four Last Songs in London.

One of the things I find so amazing about Wagner’s genius is that all his major music dramas are just 4.25 hours long, not 3.8, mind you, nor 5.2. His conception of the dramatic arc was perfect at the start. He did not struggle through many drafts, revisions and corrections. He just wrote out the music directly onto the orchestral score. And one of the most amazing things about this recording is that, now that the truth is out that Schwartzkopf really did sing the high notes (actually just two high Cs in the second act that Flagstad had stopped singing in concerts some years before), you can’t possibly tell by listening.

To praise this recording would be redundant; just open your thesaurus and read the list of superlatives. Of course there have been and will be other great Tristans, but this one will always retain its place. And now it has passed out of copyright into the public domain and belongs to the world. But the master tape still belongs to EMI. And digital remastering, even from a master tape, is an art involving many aesthetic as well as technical decisions and which produces a copyrightable product. Mr. Gibson has been able to remove virtually all the tape noise with virtually no increase in distortion. Bass notes are clean and deep. Background is dead quiet, yet consonants are unclipped and string sound is completely natural with no audible ringing.* Unfortunately, all of the side breaks are in the middles of scenes; it was very inconsiderate of Wagner to write 87 minute acts which are beyond the capacity of a single CD side. For the future, this can be corrected on a DVD-Audio issue if anyone wants to take the trouble.

To compare the EMI edition with the Regis edition, the latter has slight pitch unsteadiness some of which could easily come from the cutting lathe as well as the playback turntable. There is also groove pre-echo, a slight turgidity which could have occurred in the cutter electronics or the playback cartridge as well as in the digitisation itself, some slight residual vinyl roar, rolled off highs and lows, the remains of some clicks and pops — as I am fond of saying, the stumps of mighty trees cut down — and is running about 1.6% faster than the master tape. If it were all we had, we wouldn’t be all that badly off, especially since some of these problems could be mitigated with additional work. But since we have the master tape so beautifully restored, and for sale at a price lower than the original LPs, we don’t have to put up with these problems.

The Beecham disks, cut to 210 minutes, one act per side, compiled from two evenings with different Kurwenals and Brangänes, preserve a younger Flagstad with a stronger, purer voice, and you need this one, too, of course. She comes through very well; others not so well, probably depending on who was standing near the microphone. The chorus is appropriately rowdy. The confrontation scene with Sven Nilsson as King Marke is deeply, quietly, heartbreaking. Melchior at full voice has at times a reedy, throbbing tone that must have been galvanising live in the hall, but on records it doesn’t compare all that well with later Tristans. The recording has occasional crackling and pitch waver and some messy edits. The orchestra sort of comes and goes and is never in very good balance. In your mind assemble the orchestral and ensemble sound from the Furtwängler recording and add the youthful robustness to Flagstad’s voice from the Beecham recording and you’ve got it all together.

The Melchiors were good friends of Flagstad and her husband, Henry Johansen. When Johansen was arrested immediately after WWII and charged with collaboration with the Nazis, Flagstad was suspected of complicity. For many months she was denied permission to sing or leave Norway, was subjected to interrogation, and was required to prove she had never received any money from her husband. She received threatening letters, was publicly excoriated, and was never allowed to speak to her husband even as he lay dying in the hospital. (She was, of course, eventually completely exonerated of the charges). During this period the Melchiors (and many others) were careful never to communicate with her. Flagstad was deeply hurt by this, although always admiring Melchior as an artist. Eventually after many years they were able to exchange letters.

But Flagstad in 1952 was a more mature artist than in 1937, so the Furtwängler is really the better performance overall, musically as well as sonically. Flagstad personally, as well as her close friends and colleagues, considered this to be her very finest recording. Regrettably the disputes which preceded it, surrounded it, and continued after it, led her to stop making recordings for EMI, despite fervent pleading from Legge. When her contract expired, she switched her allegiance to Decca and began recording again in 1955. But time had been lost, and she was never to make the dream Walküre recording that so many had hoped for, although she did make many fine recordings for Decca including Walküre excerpts.

Flagstad was not only a great artist but a modest, honourable, widely loved person. At her death in 1962 she was deeply mourned by many.The Barenboim recording features the finest recording of the Prelude I’ve ever heard accompanied by an effective visual of rolling surf in the sunset. The singers are young and the production is overall very good. In this version Tristan dies alone, with Isolde’s arrival and liebestod treated as a dying man’s feverish fantasy. Musically she’s all there, of course.

One very nice thing about this EMI release is the relative lack of threats and dire warnings in the printed booklet. Instead we are thanked for buying this disk and supporting all of those involved in making it. “Please don’t lend discs to others to copy, give away illegal copies of the discs, or use internet services that promote illegal distribution … Such actions threaten the livelihood of musicians and everyone else involved in producing music.” Is it possible that the media corporations are actually trying to be nice to their customers for a change? Could this lead to the restoration of respect and affection between supplier and consumer? Could the media giants actually be ready to acknowledge that their business depends to a greater extent than any other on the good will of their customers? Could they finally realise that good will and fair play thrive better in an atmosphere of respect and open dialogue rather than dire threats and accusations?

*Additionally I would have restored dynamics and subharmonics, but many would consider this unwarranted fiddling.

Paul Shoemaker (II)

EMI’s Great Recording of the Century series could never be complete without this legendary performance, one of the most famous of all records. This is its third incarnation on CD – and the first at mid-price in the fifteen years the performance has been available in the format. It is also the third remastering the set has been given. I have never heard the 1997 remastered set but it was widely praised over the original 1986 discs – and this 2001 remastering is certainly warmer and more atmospheric than those original discs, the strings much deeper toned than I have previously experienced. Compare only the Prelude between the discs and the depth given to the cellos at 4’42 is noticeably better in the 2001 set. Elsewhere, the Prelude is less congested than it once was (try 7’13 to 7’31 to hear how the sonorities blossom quite wonderfully. The climax at 7’58 is quite superbly handled without quite the level of distortion we once heard). Listen to the Prelude to Act III (track 14, disc 3) and that fabled Furtwängler sonority is brought to the fore in utterly desolate cellos and basses, magnificently captured in a heavier bass resonant remastering.

However, after almost fifty years is this still the unmatched Tristan it once was? Great recordings don’t stop being great recordings but when this set was first reviewed it had little competition – and much has appeared since. Even when Robin Holloway reviewed performances of Tristan for Opera on Record there were only eight recordings available. Today there are almost 40 recordings that have been made available – over half of them live (or from pirated) performances. Holloway had at his disposal Karajan’s 1952 Bayreuth recording (now available on Myto) and de Sabata’s 1951 La Scala recording (now out of print) yet still rated the Furtwängler set the one recording by which all others were judged. It is true that the 1952 studio recording lacks the sheer physical energy of both de Sabata and Karajan yet what Furtwängler brought to this studio performance was a clarity of action that culminates in an Act III that is unrivalled on disc. It is easily his finest achievement in the recording studio.

There have been some attempts to remove this recording from the pantheon of the greats and bring it sharply to earth; indeed, some critics have pedalled reviews which criticise some elements of the performance which hitherto have been little commented on. One is the playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Although it was just seven years old when this recording was made its playing is largely beyond reproach, yet some have detected greater lapses in standards than is actually the case. There are minor slips in ensemble (but Furtwängler was never overly preoccupied with orchestral perfection) and it is true that the strings are not always as refined as the Vienna Philharmonic strings were for Furtwängler’s studio recording of Die Walküre (although listen to the deeply tragic opening of the Act III Prelude and you might think otherwise). Yet, the string playing is sensuous throughout – particularly in the Act II Love Duet where the orchestral tapestry is lush and gloriously burnished. Where the playing is indisputably world class is in the wind phrasing – as sublime as any on disc (sample the opening of the first scene from Act III [from 0’51] to sample perfectly intoned English Horn playing with every diminuendo, molto crescendo and note value taken at perfect intervals). The Philharmonia of 1952 may not be Bayreuth of the 1960s but they are not the main drawback to this recording.

The weak links are in the casting. Least persuasive is the King Mark of Josef Greindl who is sour of tone – and in part he is a match for the rather blanched, washed-out singing of the Brangäne, Blanche Thebom. She gives little sense of characterisation and lacks the definition of tone to be memorable. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is noble as always – but I wish Legge had cast Hans Hotter instead, perhaps the greatest Kurwenal on disc who sings the role with an unrivalled sense of lyricism and radiance. The Tristan and Isolde are not perfect either – but they are one of the most well matched of all lovers. Kirsten Flagstad, by no means too old for the role when this was made in 1952 (although famously she could not hit the high Cs) is under some strain in Act II and there is a slight dryness to her voice – but the beauty of her singing, the darkness of her phrasing, is beyond doubt, the range of expression broader and more complete than in any recording that survives from her. She is noble where a singer like Nilsson sometimes seemed steely. Flagstad is the tenderest Isolde on record where Nilsson (particularly for Solti) seems as hard as nails. Ludwig Suthaus also has his problems but his is perhaps the most complete Tristan on record – with the range and beauty of Karajan’s Ramon Vinay, and the understanding and fragility of a Windgassen. He is nowhere better than in Act III where the intensity of his singing is utterly beyond reproach – as fiery as Jon Vickers but without the latter’s hysterical meanderings. Furtwängler himself is elemental, broader than he was in extant excerpts that have survived from a 1947 Berlin performance on Radio Years (RY 103.04) but every bit as dramatic. His triumph is in how he handles the Philharmonia which he turns into a highly responsive organ that swells with intensity and passion like few other Wagner orchestra’s on disc. It may be slow, but it has a symphonic integrity few conductors have matched before or since.

Listening to this performance again, in this beautifully remastered version, it is difficult to argue with history. Despite wonderful performances from Böhm, Karajan, Knappertsbusch and both Kleibers the Furtwängler holds its own as one of the supreme achievements of the Gramophone. One anomaly that readers who have the original gramophone records might notice is that EMI have not reproduced the original covers for the artwork as they have in all other sets in this series. The covers they have used are the reissued ones from the box set.

Marc Bridle


In Fanfare 28:1 I reviewed two reissues of this 1952 HMV recording, one on EMI, the other on Naxos. I noted that like the Callas Tosca, since it was first issued this has been defined as a classic of the recording industry by just about every commentator who has written about it. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest Wagner performances ever preserved on disc. I won’t take valuable Fanfare space by repeating what I said there, other than to note again the greatness of Furtwängler’s conducting here. Every single phrase is connected to what precedes it and what follows it. Although the phrasing is supple, and there are many subtle variations of tempo, everything is perfectly prepared. The music breathes, breathes in a way that is so natural that we are ultimately unaware of the act of performance, and aware only of Wagner’s great achievement. Every aspect of the conductor’s craft and art is present and is applied to this whole—color, balance, tempo, texture, chord-voicing, shaping, articulation—all of this and more are sewn together to make this miracle of a performance. Add Kirstin Flagstad’s exalted Isolde, Ludwig Suthaus’s richly sung (and often underrated) Tristan, and fine performances by Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Josef Greindl, and you have a recording that merits the almost universal praise it has garnered.

The real question for collectors is whether this Pristine transfer is significantly superior to the earlier ones. I had praise for both EMI’s and Naxos’s versions, giving a very slight edge to the Naxos transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. I was not expecting a meaningful difference in Andrew Rose’s effort for Pristine, but in fact it is enough of an improvement to warrant its purchase by any serious collector. In addition to listening to it all the way through, I did a number of spot A-B comparisons to the EMI and Naxos. It seems to me that Rose has managed to come up with a sound picture that is fuller at both the upper and lower extremes of frequency, without ever turning the sound harsh. It is the bass that is particularly impressive here—never boomy, but satisfyingly solid with an impact missing until now. The orchestral colors are richer, the voices bloom more, and the whole is more satisfying than it has ever been. I heard the ambient stereo version, but assume the monaural version that Pristine also issues is of equal quality. Pristine’s ambient stereo bears no relation to the pseudo-stereo that the record companies tried to peddle in the 1970s, but instead manages to create just a bit more of a sense of space around the sound. Of course Pristine’s version is also available as a FLAC download from its website.

There can be little doubt that this Furtwängler-led Tristan recording belongs in the Classical Hall of Fame, and Pristine Audio’s stunning restoration gives me good reason to put it there.

Henry Fogel | Issue 35:5 (May/June 2012)

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