Tristan und Isolde

Herbert von Karajan
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
23 July 1952
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRamón Vinay
IsoldeMartha Mödl
BrangäneIra Malaniuk
KurwenalHans Hotter
König MarkeLudwig Weber
MelotHermann Uhde
Ein junger SeemannGerhard Unger
Ein HirtGerhard Stolze
SteuermannWerner Faulhaber
The Guardian

The Munich-based Orfeo label has made a name for itself with its discs of live recordings, mostly operatic, taken from more than half a century of Salzburg festivals. Now it has acquired the rights to a similar wealth of archive material from Bayreuth, and this first release, of a recording made in the Festspielhaus in 1952, is certainly the best possible start to its new venture.

This performance was the opening night of that year’s festival, only the second since the end of the second world war. A new production of Tristan und Isolde was unveiled, directed – as The Ring and the Parsifal had been a year earlier – by Wieland Wagner. Those were the stagings with which Wieland defined a new production style for his grandfather’s works at Bayreuth. They also helped him and his brother Wolfgang to rid the festival of many of its historic associations and erase the taint of the Third Reich. Where the previous year his productions of Parsifal and The Ring had been regarded with suspicion by both audiences and critics, Wieland’s stripped-down approach suited Tristan perfectly, and the show was widely acclaimed.

It helped that under Herbert von Karajan the performance was musically outstanding, and this recording certainly conveys the intensity and the sheer dramatic commitment of all involved. The Isolde was Martha Mödl, who always regarded these Bayreuth performances as her finest achievement, and the way in which she invests every phrase with dramatic presence is startling. The Tristan was Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay, whose vocal resources were amazingly resilient. His tone is heroic, the clarity of his delivery outstanding. With Ludwig Weber as King Mark and Hans Hotter as Kurwenal it is a cast of a quality that could only be imagined today.

Andrew Clements

Opera News

THIS LEGENDARY 1952 BAYREUTH PERFORMANCE has been available off and on, in various versions, since the dawn of pirate LPs. When I first encountered it on vinyl, the sound quality was nearly unlistenable—although it was clear that there was a great Tristan beneath the muffling and distortion. More recent CD transfers boast as their source the original Bavarian Radio tapes, and the sound quality has improved greatly—although it’s acknowledged that for some reason this broadcast does not match the near-studio quality of other live Bayreuth documents from the 1950s. This sounds like a rerelease of Walhall’s 2003 set, and, although a bit bass-heavy, it’s quite listenable.

A quality Tristan depends on three elements: the two title characters and the conductor. And in those regards, this recording is essential. Martha Mödl and Ramon Vinay are, individually and collectively, incomparable, and Herbert van Karajan offers a performance of both great sweep and detail, avoiding the preciousness that later crept into his work. Mödl is a miracle. Her voice possesses the inherent dramatic texture of Callas’s, as well as her ability to deliver incisive, indelible line-readings. At the same time, Mödl matches, for spontaneity and sheer “dementia,” Leonie Rysanek. As with Callas, Mödl’s instrument had its own unconventional beauty and could be recalcitrant. There were good days and bad; this was definitely a good one — the high Bs and Cs are thrilling, and pianos spin out ethereally. What’s more, she possesses an infinite palette, responsive to every one of her dramatic intentions. From the first note — and word! — this is a living, breathing Isolde. The Narration and Curse is delivered with almost unbearable intensity, Karajan underlining the tension, partnering Mödl phrase by phrase. One definitive delivery of a line follows another. The Liebestod is, likewise, a revelation, transcendent on two levels: Mödl clearly reaches another spiritual plane (while singing the aria with absolute perfection), transcending as well the feeling that this is the “big hit” we’ve been waiting for. It’s an integral part—and the logical culmination—of everything that has come before. An Isolde of one’s dreams.

Vinay is hardly less remarkable. His baritonal tenor, so rich and beautiful, is almost inexhaustible, tiring only a bit at the very end of Tristan’s near-impossible Act III scena. You couldn’t imagine a more sensitive partner for Isolde in the love duet, yet he’s never mannered or affected. Karajan is magnificent here as well, leading countless moments of orchestral beauty and sensuality. Vinay’s emotional journey through the Act III monologue is something astonishing; by this time the character is delirious, of course, all too often excusing a fair amount of barking from the tenor. But that’s not the case here; Vinay’s tone remains firm, his textual expression part of a virtuosic vocal performance — not a substitute for one.

The supporting cast is of a quality that was possible only at Bayreuth at that time. Hans Hotter transforms Kurwenal into a three-dimensional character. This is essentially a baritone role, and it’s a bit of a stretch, but he handles it deftly. Kurwenal’s anguish is portrayed with intensity and detail, raising the character’s prominence to a level rarely experienced. Ira Malaniuk offers rich tone and commitment as Brangaene — her Act II solo is particularly affecting — and Hermann Uhde embodies Melot’s evil. As King Marke, Ludwig Weber mines every bit of the heartbreak in his lengthy monologue, alternating powerful phrases with lieder-like intimacy.

At the heart of this performance is Karajan, who at that point had found the perfect balance of sublime orchestral effects—delivered stunningly by the Bayreuth orchestra—and dramatic thrust. No detail is missed, but neither is it lingered upon too long. The preludes to Acts I and III are ravishing. Because the Bayreuth pit is covered, the voices are prominent; the quality of the singing and intimacy of expression makes this a definite plus. Walhall manages to fit the opera onto three discs, but this involves a rather clumsy change of CDs toward the end of Act I. No matter; this is a Tristan to cherish. —

Ira Siff

Numerous incarnations of the 1952 Karajan/Bayreuth Tristan have danced in and out of circulation on CD. Sonically speaking, it’s on par with other archival Bayreuth tapes from the festival’s first seasons, superior to the 1951 Karajan Rheingold and Siegfried but not matching the impact and vivacity of the 1952 Knappertsbusch Meistersinger. Still, I easily can recommend Melodram’s transfer to listeners seeking this fascinating performance. I use the word “fascinating” primarily in relation to Karajan’s familiar 1972 studio recording of the same opera. Granted, the latter benefits from sumptuous studio engineering and the Berlin Philharmonic’s eerie refinement, together with Jon Vickers’ intense, absorbingly detailed portrayal of Tristan. But the younger Karajan obtains equally compelling and often more exciting results from the less technically adroit Bayreuth pickup orchestra. Listen to how carefully the conductor sculpts and sustains the Act 1 and 3 Preludes, or to the ardor and spontaneity with which Isolde’s Narrative and Curse and Act 1 Finale or the second-act Love Duet build.

The cast is mostly marvelous. As Isolde, Martha Mödl rises to her role’s impassioned heights, with only a few signs of strain and wobbling on top. Mezzo-soprano Ira Malaniuk liberates Brangäne from mere second banana status and brings more than a modicum of urgency to her interspersed Love Duet warnings. Likewise, Hans Hotter’s imposing vocal presence and care with words elevate Kürwenal from Tristan’s trusty sidekick to equal partner. Ramon Vinay is not the subtlest Tristan around (he never was), but his powerful tenor voice, with its strong, almost baritonal lower range, would be more than welcome on today’s opera stages. Nearing the end of his career, Ludwig Weber’s still-distinctive bass graces King Mark’s Act 2 musings and makes this scene sound less protracted than it often can be in the theater. If you tend to collect multiple Tristans, you won’t regret making room for this release alongside the reference Böhm Bayreuth DG edition, Furtwängler’s EMI studio recording, and the great live Flagstad/Melchior/Reiner Covent Garden performance on Naxos. No texts or translations.

Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 5

Jed Distler

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Media Type/Label
Melodram, Cetra, Discocorp
Hunt, Myto, Opera d’Oro, GM, Line, Urania, Walhall Eternity, Membran, Orfeo, United Classics, OOA, Fogliame
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Technical Specifications
390 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 627 MiB (flac)
Broadcast from the Bayreuth festival
A production by Wieland Wagner (premiere)