Tristan und Isolde

Reginald Goodall
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
November 1980, January 1981
Brangwyn Hall Swansea
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJohn Mitchinson
IsoldeLinda Esther Gray
BrangäneAnne Wilkens
KurwenalPhilip Joll
König MarkeGwynne Howell
MelotNicholas Folwell
Ein junger SeemannJohn Harris
Ein HirtArthur Davies
SteuermannGeoffrey Moses
The New York Times


The first thing that should be said about London Records’ superb new recording of Wagner’s ”Tristan und Isolde” (LDR 75001, five disks) is that it is not in English. It’s not in Welsh, either, even though the recording is by the Welsh National Opera under the baton of Reginald Goodall. Mr. Goodall is the reclusive British Wagnerian who is best known for his English-language ”Ring of the Nibelung” with the English National Opera, which was recorded complete. Mr. Goodall also led performances of ”Tristan” in English this past summer with the English National with some of the same singers who appear on the London set. But the recording is in German.

This might seem like chutzpah or, as they say in Wales, cheek. Who are John Mitchinson and Linda Esther Gray to pit themselves against Jon Vickers and Wolfgang Windgassen, and Helga Dernesch and Birgit Nilsson, just to name their recent stereo competition? What is the provincial Welsh National Chorus and Orchestra doing up against the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and the Bayreuth Festival? Indeed, what is Mr. Goodall, for all the cozy plaudits accorded him by Britain’s insularly communal music press, doing in competition with Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm and Georg Solti?

The answer is, quite well, thank you. Mr. Goodall gets his instrumental and choral forces playing with impressive assurance, andtheir work is illuminated by London’s spacious digital sound. And thesingers do ve ry well themselves. Miss Gray is the best. Sometimes shescoops up to a high notes. But this is a full, womanly Isol de. It is difficult to gauge the size of a voice from a recording. B ut both she and her Tristan sound big-voiced, and they phrase and project with the assurance of real Wagnerians.

Mr. Mitchinson is a baritonal, somewhat thickly articulated Tristan on the order of a Ludwig Suthaus or a Ramon Vinay, rather than a brighter, clearer tenor like Windgassen’s. He labors a bit at the peak of the third-act delirium, as many Tristans do; on records, only Windgassen and Bohm catch the really fevered hysteria latent in the score here. But Mr. Mitchinson makes a good match of Miss Gray, and he is, throughout, a noble, serious artist.

If there is a palpable weakness in this set, it is in the Brangane and Kurwenal, Anne Wilkins and Philip Joll. Both simply lack the richness of voice – or, in the case of Kurwenal, the brute confidence of projection – one commonly encounters on the international level. But the King Marke, Gwynne Howell -the best-known singer in the cast – is fully competitive with other basses in the part, and the smaller roles are all well done. And, it might be added, everyone pronounces German with idiomatic accuracy.

Ultimately, however, the success of this recording belongs to Mr. Goodall. He must have had an enormous amount to do with the phrasing of each individual singer, as well as with the shaping of the orchestral score: his long years as a coach surely pay off here. Everyone, from the soloists to the last violinist and chorus member, sounds steeped in a Wagner tradition that they simply cannot have actually grown up with.

The overall interpretation is Mr. Goodall’s most successful on records to date. He is frequently called a latter-day reincarnation of the solemn, magisterial Wagner conducting associated with Wilhelm Furtwangler and Hans Knappertsbusch. Knappertsbusch was the closer parallel, actually: Mr. Goodall sounded noble, even magisterial, but in his ”Ring” he sometimes fell far short of youthful passion when the music demanded it. Scenes like the final duet in ”Siegfried” simply lacked the drive and excitement brought to them by Mr. Solti and the others.

But the most animated parts of this score -Isolde’s fury in the first act and Tristan’s hallucinations in the third – are done with full drama and intensity. Actually, the third act is more dreamlike than usual, which is wonderfully effective at the outset but which loses some of that Bohm-Windgassen frenzy at the climaxes. But the first act has all the weight and drive one might want.

In the rest, Mr. Goodall is deeply impressive with no qualifications required. From the first bars of the first-act prelude, one can hear that this will be a major statement of the score. In the end, it suggests that the Furtwangler comparisons Mr. Goodall’s admirers have long been making are at last justified. This set reminds one of nothing less than a digital remake of the old Flagstad-Suthaus-Furtwangler performance still domestically available in mono on Angel. The vocal weights of the principal singers are similar, and Mr. Goodall has learned better than ever before how to combine solemnity with passion, and Germanic gravity with a rubato responsive to the drama’s flow.

Last, this recording is an attestation to the growing excellence not just of the Welsh National Opera, but of British opera in general. The singers may not be world figures. But some of them may be soon, and all of them make up an ensemble of the sort that used to be common in Germany, but which has been eroded steadily there by the international demands of modern opera. Being insular has its advantages. Good German singers are always being lured away to sing German opera in the capitals of the world. Good British singers are in less demand, and thus ensembles like the Welsh become possible – and can be brought to the world through recordings like this.

Rumor has it that Mr. Goodall and the Welsh will be coming to America in 1983 -brought by the same British Amoco that supports so many Welsh productions and that rather crudely emblazoned its logo on the cover of this new ”Tristan.” One hears that one little bagatelle in the Welsh American-tour repertory will be ”Parsifal,” with Mr. Goodall conducting. Now, that should be something.

JOHN ROCKWELL | January 24, 1982

For all its deficiencies, it always annoyed me that Decca held back from issuing Goodall’s account of Tristan on CD, instead giving precedence to Solti’s gaudy mid-Sixties account. This 1981 recording was taped in the studio following acclaimed performances in the theatre and benefits both from the detailed preparation for that production and from the long takes demanded in the studio by Goodall. The deficiencies are more matters of execution than interpretation. The WNO orchestra, for all its beautifully moulded wind playing, is no Vienna Philharmonic (it suffers from a particularly weak viola section). Nor are most of the singers comparable with the greatest singers of the roles. Nevertheless, Gray is a powerful, rich-toned Isolde (her career tragically came to an abrupt and premature end soon after this recording) and Mitchinson is as capable a Tristan as any (he can bark at times and sound strained), while Howell’s sympathetic King Marke is arguably the best on disc. But it is Goodall’s conducting that raises the performance above the level of the mere ‘provincial’. He takes a staggering forty minutes longer than Karl Böhm at Bayreuth (Philips; my personal favourite among Tristans on CD), but Goodall has such a command of articulation and pacing that the performance rarely sounds slow as such; indeed, the long takes bring an inexorability to the gradual build-ups of tension that is just as exciting and involving as Böhm’s more obviously white-heat approach.

Matthew Rye

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Decca, London
Technical Specifications
549 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.0 GByte (flac)
The first digital Tristan recording.