Tristan und Isolde

Rudolf Kempe
Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper München
8 November 1953
Prinzregententheater München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanAugust Seider
IsoldeHelena Braun
BrangäneIra Malaniuk
KurwenalHans Hotter
König MarkeGottlob Frick
MelotAlbrecht Peter
Ein junger SeemannPaul Kuën
Ein HirtPaul Kuën

This is a quite remarkable performance of Acts II and III from Wagner’s chromatic vortex and as such deserves better remastering. The back of the CD case promises that this is ‘issued from the best possible source’; the ensuing typo in ‘recommanded (sic) to collectors only’ does not inspire confidence, however. Periodic distortion (sometimes huge: try Act III, CD 2 track 7) can detract, but the most puzzling aspect of the transfer occurs right at the beginning of this set (i.e. at the beginning of Act II). The music seems to come, rather unsteadily, into focus over the first few bars, with some form of ‘cut through’. My heart sank when I heard it, as I envisioned two hours plus of this. It does get better, however, it’s just that on first listening one doesn’t know when the next distortion-offensive will strike. Unfortunate, too, that the blurry opening to disc 1 stays in the memory. Act I, alas, was not recorded. Whatever the recording’s faults, though, there is much here to fascinate.

This is a reading characterised by sensitivity and tenderness on all sides. The orchestra’s contribution, thanks to Kempe, is almost chamber music-like, with consistently lightened textures. This rubs off on the singers also; there is a remarkable range of nuance from all the principals. This is not to imply a lack of passion or of atmosphere (for the latter, just listen to the hunting horns in Act II, trying to ignore the presence of intrusive strings, as if from another world, at around 2’23). Kempe sets up a feeling of forward momentum that, while in keeping with the dramatic situation, never under-sells the musical argument itself.

Helena Braun’s Isolde is a variable assumption. The same singer was Isolde for Knappertsbusch in Bavaria (another part remained the same, that of Paul Kuen as Shepherd), from the same venue, in July 1950 (Orfeo C355943D). Braun seems to gain strength as the Act progresses (initially, there is some barking and some scooping present), so be warned that patience is required. Towards the end of Act II Scene 1, Braun does manages to sound ecstatic, carried along on the wave of Kempe’s dramatic sweep.

The recording is severely tested again as the ill-fated pair of lovers greet each other in Scene 2. Curious that around here is one of Kempe’s few lapses, as rhythms fail to gather the cumulative force they can in other hands generate. He does makes up for it in his maintenance of momentum as he moves towards the famous ‘O sink hernieder’ section. It is here that Kempe’s talent at highlighting Wagner’s delicacy really pays off – the atmosphere is positively perfumed.

A pity that Brangäne’s Warning is not too distanced (where was she standing, I wonder?) – yet that is hardly the greatest problem here. At track 4, 1’45 there is what sounds like an edit performed with a blunt butcher’s knife; at, 2’09, the sound suddenly becomes hopelessly muffled. A great shame this, as Ira Malaniuk’s singing has much to offer in intensity (Malaniuk was Magdalene for both Karajan and Knappertsbusch at Bayreuth; also Fricka in Keilberth’s 1952 Bayreuth Ring). It is only at Isolde’s ‘Lausch, Geliebter’ (track 5) that it becomes possible to become immersed in Wagner’s goings-on. The harmonies seem to revolve rather than have any focused direction, Kempe’s orchestra providing a tender web of sound.

Kurwenal is a clear and confident Hans Hotter, no less. Gottlob Frick as Marke is powerful of voice, yet conveys his hurt in betrayal as he asks, ‘Dies, Tristan, zu mir?’. The presence of real pianissimi ensure the emotional power of this section. A gripping sense of line coupled with the projection of profound sadness laced with an undercurrent of anger is a heady and affecting mix, one projected with consummate mastery by Frick.

By the very end of Act II, all seems to have clicked into place. Isolde hits her peak of lyricism; Albrecht Peter’s Melot is clear and forceful. Kempe ensures the final chord is as (rightly) dismissive as can be after the sudden action that closes the act.

Kempe’s mastery is evident in every millisecond of the Act III Prelude. Slower than frequently heard, it is a picture of desolation in sound. The high violins’ control is incredible, and as one becomes immersed, a sense of timelessness sets in. Kempe again ensures delicacy – so much so that here it is almost as if the music could disintegrate at any moment, making the cor anglais solo all the more poignant.

Paul Kuen makes for a young-sounding Shepherd, providing fullest contrast with Hotter’s unbearably sad (and later authoritative) Kurwenal. It is here that Seider really comes into his own. He sounds like a remarkably reined-in Heldentenor – one can just hear the emotions waiting for their moment to pour out. And so they do, but Seider’s delirium is not unpitched (others have been known to bark their way through this).

A pity that distortion again threatens enjoyment during track 7. Yet it is worth bearing it to hear Hotter’s massive entry and beautiful high register at ‘Mein Herre! Tristan!’. No sooner is one bowled over, though, and another mysterious quirk of transfer intrudes (1’18 before the end of this track – just what is that?).

Kempe’s pacing as the ship is sighted is exemplary (as is Tristan’s collapse from exhaustion); yet the sound threatens to disappear around track 10, 0’30ff, and distortion once more rears its head.

Isolde’s entrance is awe-inspiring, expertly prepared by Kempe. Needless to say, Tristan’s death is a moment of the highest sadness, Frick’s ‘Tod den alles’ almost unbearable (he is magnificent here). A shame then that Braun’s tuning in the Verklärung is not all one could wish for, and an even greater pity that there is more distortion at the climactic word, ‘Welt-Atems’ (‘World’s breath’).

So the box was right – ‘for collectors only’. There is much to be gleaned from this set, that much is true, and much to enjoy. Given that it appears to be out at ‘ultra-super-budget price’ (Crotchet and Amazon both charge £8.99), it is certainly worth a spin.

Colin Clarke

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Media Type/Label
Archipel, OD
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Technical Specifications
209 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 201 MiB (flac)
Act 1 is missing.
There are cuts in the recording: in Act 2, King Mark’s words “Tatest du’s wirklich?…” to “mit feindlichstem Verrat” and his last two words “[wer macht der Welt] ihn kund?” are omitted; and in Act 3, Brangäne’s lines “Sie wacht! Sie lebt!” to “dir zu zuführenden Freund” and King Mark’s following lines “Warum, Isolde, warum mir das?” to “Der Wahn haufte die Not!” are also missing. [Jonathan Brown]