Tristan und Isolde

William Smith
Philadelphia Grand Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra
25 January 1967
Academy of Music Philadelphia
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanErnst Gruber
IsoldeHanne-Lore Kuhse
BrangäneBlanche Thebom
KurwenalRamón Vinay
König MarkeIrwin Densen
MelotWalter Knelar
Ein junger SeemannHerbert Kraus
Ein HirtHerbert Kraus
SteuermannHerbert Kraus

This set has one thing going for it that is enormously impressive: the Isolde of German soprano Hanne-Lore Kuhse. Hardly a household name, Kuhse was making her American debut the night this was taped, and she is a splendid Isolde–fiery, vengeful, in shock, loving, grieving–and her bright, grand tone is stirring and attractive. Why wasn’t she more famous? Two names provide the answer: Varnay and Nilsson, both just seven years older than she and both powerhouses who cornered the market. But Kuhse should be heard, and this is a grand opportunity.

Tenor Ernst Gruber (1918-79) apparently was a famous Tristan (he sang the role more than 80 times) and he is fine here. He has no difficulties with the role’s forcefulness, he sings tenderly in the second-act Love Duet (albeit at one point and for bars and bars on end, very flat), and has all the right emotive devices for the third act. Blanche Thebom’s Brangaene is superb in Act 1, yet she sings flat in her offstage warning in the second act. Ramon Vinay, back to his original baritonal self by 1967 when this was taped, sings Kurwenal well, but a bit facelessly. Irwin Densen’s Marke is ordinary, and we are more than normally grateful that part of his second-act monolog is cut.

The orchestra is second-rate, with a brass section that obviously has other things on its mind; the chorus in Act 1 is almost inaudible; the sound is not terrible but the balances are off, and conductor William Smith does very little either wrong or memorably, although he does have a good sense of the score’s longing. There are pretty massive cuts in each act. You’ll know if you need this.

Artistic Quality: 6
Sound Quality: 5

Robert Levine

Opera Today

Elsewhere on Opera Today readers can find a recent review of a live recording of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the Ponto label, a company that has joined the ranks of Opera D’oro and Gala in offering, at budget price, live recordings of various provenance. At their best, as with that Nozze, these recordings offer in acceptable sound (sometimes better) performances of such quality they rival their more expensive competitors. At less than the best, however, even the budget price becomes exorbitant.

This Tristan und Isolde, recorded on January 25, 1967, unfortunately belongs to the latter category. Unless one has a strong personal reason for wanting a keepsake of this company or the artists involved, the recording is unlikely to please most listeners. The primary reason is the sound. While not unlistenable, the recording is clearly an “in-house” affair, and probably from an audience member, as some of the coughing is more up-front than the singing. Worse, during the climax, some audience members are whispering as Isolde enters the Leibestod. One would love for a Jon Vickers to have been present to yell out, “Stop your damn whispering!”

Of course, true opera fans will put up with poor sound for the sake of an exciting performance. While not an unmitigated disaster, this one does not qualify. Any Tristan und Isolde needs at least one of the two leads to be strong. Here we have the Tristan of Ernst Gruber, whose tenor has a most unpleasant timbre and who sounds more mature than his King Marke (Irwin Densen). Hanne-Lore Kuhse’s Isolde lacks freshness as well, especially in Isolde’s most impassioned outbursts. In some of the softer singing, however, her voice relaxes and some of the tragic glamour of the character appears.

The one cast member of some distinction may attract some interest. Ramon Vinay had left the tenor ranks by 1967, and here he is a most effective Kurwenal. The Brangäne of Blanche Thebom makes no deep impression, especially as she is all but inaudible in her warnings in act two.

Although the murky sound makes orchestral details hard to evaluate, William Smith’s conducting as recorded captures some of the score’s excitement. The score is, unsurprisingly, cut, with each of the last two acts barely making the 60-minute mark.

The booklet features a short history on opera companies in Philadelphia and some biographies of the singers by Andrew Palmer. Supposedly a studio recording of the opera with these two leads had been planned but was cancelled upon the death of the conductor Franz Konwitschny. Perhaps that studio effort would have revealed more of the favorable attributes of the two leads.

Despite some effective passages, overall this set has too many unsatisfactory qualities to be of general interest. If any listeners have more specific interests in these singers or this house, Ponto will have provided them with an affordable addition to their collections.

Chris Mullins

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
292 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 418 MByte (flac)
In-house recording
A production by Riccardo Moresco
There are cuts in this performance: in Act 1, Scene 2, from “die Morold schlug, die Wunde” (Isolde) to “machtlos liess ich’s fallen” (Isolde); in Scene 5, from “Muh’t Euch die?” (Tristan) to “wer muss nun Tristan schlagen?” (Isolde), and from “Geleitest du mich” (Isolde) to zu sühnen alle Schuld” (Isolde); in Act 2, Scene 2, from “Dem Tage! Dem Tage!” (Tristan) to “dass nachtsichtig mein Auge wahres zu sehen tauge” (Tristan), and from “Tag und Tod” (Isolde) to “Tristan der Tod gegeben?” (Isolde); in Scene 3 from “Wozu die Dienste ohne Zahl” to “Da liess er’s denn so sein” (King Marke); and in Act 3, Scene 1, from “Isolde noch im Reich der Sonne!” to “die selbst Nachts von ihr mich scheuchte?” (Tristan), from “Muss ich dich so versteh’n” to “Zu welchem Los?” (Tristan), from “Der Trank! Der Trank!” to “je ich genossen!” (Tristan), and in Scene 3 from “Warum Isolde, warum mir das?” to “Der Wahn häufte die Not!” (King Marke). [Jonathan Brown]