Tristan und Isolde

Herbert von Karajan
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Berliner Philharmoniker
25 March 1972
Großes Festspielhaus Salzburg
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJon Vickers
IsoldeHelga Dernesch
BrangäneChrista Ludwig
KurwenalWalter Berry
König MarkeKarl Ridderbusch
MelotBernd Weikl
Ein junger SeemannPeter Schreier
Ein HirtGerhard Unger

The Karajan ‘Tristan’

Tristan and IsoIde, the raison d’être of this year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, Karajan’s very private festival and the great luxury of his life, was as exciting and complex as Karajan himself. Having heard some very great Tristan interpretations in the past 50 years — from Richard Strauss who conducted this work without his usual reticence, Schalk, Toscanini, Furtwangler, Walter and the ones that came later — I feel that I have never heard the music of the first two acts played with such transparency, beauty and spiritual fulfilment before. Admittedly, such feelings belong to the moment they are registered; but this performance left a deep impression in one’s soul and heart. Karajan has passed the earlier stage when he occasionally sacrificed spiritual content to the beauty of his ‘ideal’ sound. He made no compromise with himself this time: this was what he felt about this extraordinary score, and he was able and lucky to make his feelings alive and audible with the help of his magnificent orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. Karajan told me he had been able (owing to the recording) to have 90 hours of rehearsal time with this extraordinary instrument that responds to his wishes like a priceless Stradivarius. Having built and perfected the instrument, he has been able to extend the limits of what it can do. The orchestra is the real star of this performance; Karajan, of course, remains the superstar. The string tone is sweet and filled with intensity; gone are the days when it was said in Vienna that the Berliners were all right but they would never have the sensuous Streicherklang of the Viennese. The precision is there, the ability to reach fantastic climaxes; and the soft, brilliant woodwinds, the pliable and fine brass section perform miracles of musical expression. Suddenly, once in a while, one heard detail that one has never heard before, in spite of the bizarre acoustics of the big Salzburg Festival Theatre, where much of the enjoyment depends on where you sit. One could hardly think of a colder, less intimate place in which to perform this most intimate music ever written. Karajan, we have long learned, is a shy, withdrawn man, even though he gives the impression of a super-jet-setter; consequently, the erotic passion of his reading is always controlled, and there is a chaste, distilled emotion even in moments of wild eroticism. Music, like everything else, is a reflection of its time, and Karajan’s, the modern man’s feelings, do not approach the ecstasy of earlier readings by more ecstatic conductors. Some will claim that a certain dimension is lost in such a Tristan, but on the other hand much is revealed that often remains hidden under the clouds of ecstasy. Karajan’s secret as conductor is his ability to relax briefly between long stretches of tension. Otherwise he could not keep this up for some five hours. Only toward the end, in Tristan’s dying outcry Isolde r, did Karajan seem to abandon himself to complete fulfilment — characteristically at a moment when love had become death. It would be a miracle if his greatness as musical interpreter were matched by his greatness as producer; and such miracles do not occur on the operatic stage. Conducting and producing remain diametrically opposed art forms; no one has yet been able to combine both, and he is no exception. Much that happens on stage remains strange or against the spirit of the music which he understands so well. Karajan wants to look at enormous size and scope from where he stands and conducts, but he is unable to fill such a giant stage with dramatic action. Gunther Schneider-Siemssen has painted his half-symbolic universe in mystical colours from gold to grey, and the costumes by Georges Wakhevitch fit well into this universe. No props are permitted to interfere with space; even the large sails are only a vertical extension of the horizontal dimensions. But unlike Wieland Wagner, who had the courage and conviction to go all the way in his abstract symbolism, Karajan injects naturalistic elements that retard and stop the action. Brangaene disappears into a sort of cellar or stateroom to get her poisons and anti-poisons. (Years ago, in his Viennese Tristan production, Karajan had a trap door through which poor Kurwenal disappeared). All this might be tolerated, though not understood; but what can one say when the climax of the first act, Tristan and Isolde approaching under the power of their suddenly realized passion, takes place at the rear of the stage in blue dimness, practically invisible? This is not only against Wagner’s intentions, but against his very music. Again, at the end of the great love duet in the second act, Tristan does not keep close to Isolde, but walks up and down, explaining things, gesticulating. Anything not to have to show passion; because Karajan instinctively does not want to show passion even when it is dramatically necessary. Karajan created a further handicap by the choice of his principals. 1-lelga Dernesch is a handsome woman, with a beautiful lyric-dramatic soprano, much taste and fine musicality; but she does not have the volume and power needed for this taxing part. (Lotte Lehmann, once a very great lyric-dramatic soprano who always wanted to sing Isolde — who does not? — was dissuaded from trying it by Bruno Walter, and wisely listened to him). Miss Dernesch was busy coping with the vocal problems and had no time for the meditation and introspection which the part needs — even Birgit Nilsson needed several years until she was Isolde. Miss Dernesch was fine in the lyrical moments, though even then her enunciation was not very clear. Jon Vickers has a beautiful, sensuous tenor voice but he was not in the best vocal condition and — during this performance — his voice and Miss Demesch’s did not blend. Many people in the audience who had already heard the recording of the work, must have had second thoughts about the difference between a recorded and a live opera performance: proof that modern recordings should never be used to settle an argument, being doubtful evidence. Christa Ludwig was an ideal Brangaene. Her stage presence is superb and her voice came over gloriously during `Habet acht!’. She did not have to worry about the bad acoustics. The same applies to Karl Ridderbusch, who sang a very fine King Mark, human and moving, without any false pathos; his usually long monologue seemed very short this time. Walter Berry was a forceful, always reliable Kurwenal. In the smaller parts, Peter Schreier, Bernd Weikl and Gerhard Unger were outstanding. The Vienna State Opera chorus displayed admirable discipline.

The customary ovations of Karajan’s faithful ones, who make their annual pilgrimage to the Easter Festival, were at the end interspersed with some booing from ‘high up in the rear’. In Vienna, which has laboured for years under a strong hate-love-Karajan-complex, some newspapers reported gleefully on the incident, as though the performance had been a failure. It was, in fact, a very great experience.

Joseph Wechsberg | May 1972

User Rating
Media Type/Label
CA, TOL, OD, Fogliame, PO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 523 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast from the Salzburger Osternfestspiele
A production by Herbert von Karajan