Tristan und Isolde

Rudolf Kempe
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
19 March 1955
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanSet Svanholm
IsoldeAstrid Varnay
BrangäneBlanche Thebom
KurwenalJosef Metternich
König MarkeJerome Hines
MelotJames McCracken
Ein junger SeemannAlbert Da Costa
Ein HirtPaul Franke
SteuermannCalvin Marsh
The Guardian

“This is a very, very dangerous opera to conduct,” Antonio Pappano writes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. “It works on you like a drug – you have to give your heart and soul and everything.” His words function as a kind of credo for his new EMI recording of the work and provide, by and large, an accurate summary of what you will hear if you choose to listen to it. The music’s narcotic quality is very much to the fore. This is a heady, high-Romantic Tristan, fierce in its cumulative sweep and lyricism, less overtly erotic or neurotic than some. Like any major interpreter of the work, Pappano understands the crucial difference between tempo and pace, frequently holding you in what feels like suspended animation while the music presses onwards. Far superior to his current Ring-in-progress at Covent Garden, it’s a fine piece of conducting that marks him out as a Wagnerian of considerable stature.

The set’s ultimate raison d’être, however, is not Pappano but the Tristan of Placido Domingo. It’s a role he has never sung on stage – nor, perhaps, would he be wise ever to attempt it. There is no lack of drama in his performance, though he’s often at his most impressive where you least expect it. He’s wonderful at conveying Tristan’s emotional bewilderment in act one, and rises to genuinely tragic heights in act three, where his depiction of Tristan’s madness is harrowing and uncompromising in its directness. The second-act love duet, however, isn’t on the same level of inspiration: it’s effortlessly done and beautifully phrased, but short on the requisite qualities of ecstasy and rapt introspection.

The rest of it is more problematic. Nina Stemme’s Isolde sounds consistently gorgeous, but is no match for Domingo in subtlety, which leads to moments of dramatic unevenness. René Pape is a tremendous, agonised Marke, though Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne is unacceptably bland, and Olaf Bär, the most patrician of German baritones, self-consciously overdoes the bluffness as Kurwenal. The set is well worth hearing, but the inequalities elsewhere prevent it from ranking among the greatest Tristans on disc.

A very different account of the work, meanwhile, has surfaced on the Walhall label, in the form of a radio broadcast from the New York Met in 1955, conducted by Rudolf Kempe – an important issue, given that the great man never made a studio recording of the work. It’s high-voltage stuff: decadent rather than romantic. Kempe sustains a mood of near-psychotic mania throughout, while the lovers – Astrid Varnay and Set Svanholm – snarl and snaffle at each other like animals on heat. He also makes a number of cuts in the score – possibly to help Svanholm, who by 1955 was way past his best. Varnay is simply riveting, though the boxy, treble-heavy sound emphasises the shrillness in the upper registers of her voice.

Like Pappano’s recording, this is both compelling and flawed.

Tim Ashley

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Walhall Eternity, Line, OOA, TOL, HO
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Technical Specifications
302 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 379 MiB (flac)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Joseph Urban (1920)