Tristan und Isolde

Leonard Bernstein
Chor und Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
January, May and November 1981
Herkulessaal München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanPeter Hofmann
IsoldeHildegard Behrens
BrangäneYvonne Minton
KurwenalBernd Weikl
König MarkeHans Sotin
MelotHeribert Steinbach
Ein junger SeemannThomas Moser
Ein HirtHeinz Zednik
SteuermannRaimond Grumbach
The New York Times

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited of the fall opera releases is Leonard Bernstein’s account of Wagner’s ”Tristan und Isolde” (Philips 6769 091, five disks). Mr. Bernstein probably counts as our most overtly Romantic international- circuit conductor, the man with the most tangible links to the great Romantic conductors and composers of the past. He has proved his affinity for such repertory with his long-admired Mahler interpretations. But partly because of a lack of opportunity (the American concentration on symphonic rather than operatic repertory), and possibly from a lack of personal sympathy, Mr. Bernstein has not given us much of the great, complete Wagner operas.This ”Tristan” was recorded live in Munich, one act at a time, each separated by several weeks, with the forces of the Bavarian Radio and a cast headed by Peter Hofmann and Hildegard Behrens. It comes on the heels of two recent digital recordings of the opera, conducted by Carlos Kleiber and Reginald Goodall. And it faces further stiff competition from the best of the older recordings conducted by Wilhelm Furtw”angler, Karl B”ohm and Herbert von Karajan.Mr. Bernstein’s way with the orchestral score is, at its best, masterly – flowing, dramatic, sensuous yet never mannered. But in the end, his performance does not sound imbued with the lifelong experience of working with this score and thinking about it that other conductors bring. Moments of profound insight blend with blandness, competence and superficiality. And neither the orchestral playing nor the recorded sound is truly arresting.The cast, too, has its ups and downs, but on balance it certainly surpasses Mr. Kleiber’s and probably surpasses Mr. Goodall’s. Miss Behrens is really first-rate. Hers is not the most opulent voice imaginable – neither the column-like strength of a Flagstad nor the clarion authority of a Nilsson. But this is still a strong, womanly, passionately intelligent performance.Mr. Hofmann is good, too, far better than Rene Kollo for Mr. Kleiber. It’s just that his tenor, slightly hoarse and not really heroic, is hardly ideal for the part: better Jon Vickers’s power or Wolfgang Windgassen’s febrile intensity. The rest of the cast is excellent, with Bernd Weikl a particularly suitable Kurwenal, Yvonne Minton as Brang”ane and Hans Sotin as King Marke. All in all, among the competing digital versions, this writer would opt for the Goodall.

JOHN ROCKWELL | October 30, 1983

“A five-hour-long continuous sexual intercourse”, as director Ingmar Bergman once memorably described Tristan und Isolde. In this case the front of the box reprints the original LP cover with Tristan and Isolde symbolically entangled in an eternal kiss, hinting at something more. Leonard Bernstein’s treatment of the score seems to suggest that he has a similar view. Under his direction it is an even longer affair than usual. As far as I have been able to find, this must be the longest version on disc. At 266 minutes’ playing time it is more than 10 minutes slower than Furtwängler’s 1952 recording (now on Naxos), 20 minutes slower than Karajan and 30 minutes slower than Carlos Kleiber, Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann, who all clock in at 235 minutes, which seems to be something like a middle-of-the-road Tristan. At the other extreme we have the Böhm version, live from Bayreuth 1966, which runs through the emotions in 219 minutes, i.e. finishing more than ¾ of an hour faster than Bernstein. Oh yes, Segerstam on the recent Stockholm recording on Naxos, takes only 213, but then he makes a substantial cut in the second act, something that I failed to mention in my review, and with that cut reinstated he would be slightly slower than Böhm. Böhm’s recording has always been held in high esteem by critics and opera lovers, but so has Furtwängler’s, so speed differences in themselves are not crucial when it comes to getting to the core of a musical work.

Leaving direct comparisons out of account – a fascinating but time-consuming occupation – but still keeping these basic facts in mind, it is obvious from the first bars that this is going to be a deeply involved, very idiosyncratic reading. Having heard and seen him digging into a Mahler symphony with his one-hundred-per-cent identification and heart-on-the-sleeve emotions, one knows what to expect. In this of all works he grabs every opportunity to wring every drop of emotion from the music. This also means that never before or after did the waves of the Atlantic swell higher and wilder in the first act, mirroring the fact that never before or after did the blood in the two lovers’ veins boil more ferociously in the second. And the glorious Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra willingly respond to the maestro’s wishes, which also has a reverse side, implying that at the most ecstatic moments the soloists tend to be drowned, especially since recording balance slightly favours the orchestra. After all, this is Bernstein’s Tristan, not Behrens’ or Hofmann’s. And it is Hofmann who most often gets the worst of it; Behrens with her shining top notes more easily penetrates the orchestral fabric. But this almost larger-than-life approach is just one side of the coin; more often than not Bernstein is very restrained – although it is a restrained intensity – and then he goes very slooow indeeed. Central scenes – the extended love scenes with the two protagonists – are highlighted almost cinematically, in slow motion. O sink hernieder (CD3 track 1) is instructive. Here we are already halfway into the great second act love duet when, in Wagner’s own words, “Tristan draws Isolde gently down on to a flowery bank”. It starts inward, hushed, with Isolde’s voice blending beautifully with the woodwind and with Tristan at c. 2:20 singing more sensitively than ever before with a more rounded tone. Then there is a build-up from c. 2:30 to the climax at 2:51 – perfectly judged. Just as is the next eruption at c. 5:15, and then at 6:00, just before Brangäne’s distant Einsam wachend, we are again down to a near whisper. My note pad is literally littered with comments like this, but don’t let me tire you out, get the discs and find out for yourselves. You will be in for a voyage of exploration that will last for hours and hours. Sometimes everything becomes almost unbearably slow, but Bernstein always manages to keep the tension boiling. At the end of the voyage one has no feeling of having spent more time on board than on an every-day trip Ireland – Cornwall – Brittany.

When I reviewed Glen Cortese’s live Tristan from Sofia earlier this year ( see review) I mentioned his admirable handling of the many pages of the score where Wagner reduces the orchestra to very intimate dimensions and Bernstein at sometimes considerably slower speeds is just as apt at exposing the chamber music qualities of the scoring. The prelude to Act 3 (CD3 track 7) is another deeply considered reading, moving breathlessly from the ominous dark chords at the start, dominated by the double basses, to the ethereal high violins and then over to the Shepherd’s English horn solo, beautifully played by Marie-Lise Schüpbach.

Over all, such is the intensity of the enterprise that I wasn’t able to play the whole drama through at one sitting, but even with substantial intervals I had the feeling that Bernstein builds the music in one long span, from the inaudible start of the first act prelude until the music ebbs out at the end of Isolde’s Liebestod. And there we are, as it were, back at the beginning of this eternally fascinating masterpiece.

So even before mentioning the soloists I would urge readers who don’t already own this version to snap it up, now it is released at mid-price. Someone called the opera – no, the music drama – a symphony in three movements with obbligato voices, but the voices are important and there are few roles in all opera that are more taxing than the two protagonists’. Somewhere back in 1980, I presume – the booklet gives no dates or venues but a photo from 1980 shows Bernstein together with Behrens and Hofmann – Philips gathered some of the best Wagner voices of the day for this recording and generally they are excellent. The very first voice we hear, the young sailor, is a very lyrical Thomas Moser, who gradually adopted heavier roles and today is a noted Tristan himself, singing the part on Christian Thielemann’s live DG recording, released just a year ago. Singers of the calibre of Heribert Steinbach, Raimund Grumbach and Heinz Zednik do good jobs too.

Bernd Weikl is a notable Wagnerian: Beckmesser on Solti’s first Meistersinger and then advancing to Hans Sachs for the recommendable Sawallisch version. Here he is a characterful Kurwenal, singing gloriously and, in the last act especially, with deep involvement. Just listen to Bist du nun tot (CD4 track 3). He is on a par with the best exponents of this role on record, Fischer-Dieskau (for Furtwängler) and Eberhard Wächter (for Böhm).

Even more impressive is Hans Sotin as King Marke. “After deep shock, with a trembling voice” reads Wagner’s instruction for his entrance, and Sotin’s warm voice obeys this to perfection: Tatest du’s wirklich (CD3 track 5). Da kinderlos einst schwand sein Weib further on in his long monologue, is filled with deep sorrow and Sotin actually sings the whole scene with a Lieder-singer’s care for words and inflection. Nearer the end he is dramatically intense at Unseliger, dort nun mich verwunden and the last few lines, verging on self-pity, are still sung with dignity. His is not the blackest of bass voices but he, too, is certainly among the best – and I have not forgotten Talvela, Moll and Salminen.

Yvonne Minton, the only non-German member of the cast, was for some years one of the best mezzo-sopranos. Her Octavian in Solti’s Rosenkavalier was a dream. Here, more than ten years on, she has moved into heavier territory and the voice is just as beautiful and secure. But there is also a certain coolness and although the voice rings out with admirable power when needed, she doesn’t sound as involved as the others. Few other singers have sung the part so beautifully, though.

Coming to the two protagonists there have to be some reservations. Hildegard Behrens rather early in her illustrious career is well-nigh ideal as Isolde: deeply involved, sorrowful, uproarious, ecstatic and with a lyrical beauty that can leave you breathless. Try her in the big first act scene with Brangäne (CD1 track 6) Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen. There is such youthful warmth that even Nilsson, for all her steely security and power, is partly overshadowed: even her 1959 excerpt with Knappertsbusch. Further on she is jubilant at mit ihr gab er es preis and she is deeply moving in Mild und leise (CD4 track 8). The many facets of this part are wonderfully realized and the sense of vulnerability she conveys makes Isolde a woman of flesh and blood, not just an icon. There also seems to be a special rapport between her and Bernstein who, as it were, carries her through the music. Against all this it can’t be denied that she is not ideally steady and her vibrato occasionally spreads too much to be wholly agreeable. But make no mistake – the buzz-word here is occasionally. For most of the time she is the Isolde of one’s dreams. I have yet to hear Nina Stemme’s recording complete, but the snippets I have listened to indicate that she might be the real “dream-Isolde” and reviews have hinted in that direction too.

The reservations become more serious when we come to assess Peter Hofmann’s assumption of Tristan. This is of course a notoriously difficult role and, especially in the theatre, almost impossible to manage perfectly. The exception was Melchior, whose interpretation luckily is preserved on several live recordings, but Birgit Nilsson once at the MET consumed three Tristans in one performance, one for each act. Hofmann’s voice at this stage was already affected by a hardness of tone and an un-beautiful vibrato when under pressure, which Tristan often is, since Wagner wasn’t always very considerate to his singers and with Bernstein sometimes challenging the heavy metal bands for volume he has a hard time. Unlike some Tristans, though, he still sings his part, heroically and musically, without resorting to barking. And just as Behrens he is a sensitive singer, obeying the dynamic markings by the composer, obeying Bernstein’s wishes. And at crucial moments, like the already mentioned O sink hernieder he regains the beauty of tone he once stunned the operatic world with in more lyrical parts, just as he can be immensely moving a little later in the duet (CD3 track 3): So stürben wir. The third act, which is the real Everest for every tenor with Tristan aspirations, finds him heroic and impassioned, reaching tragic heights on CD4 track 2 at c. 5:20. In the last resort I have to admit that Hofmann won me over. Like Behrens he also creates a real character of Tristan and a warrior can’t be expected to have too beautiful a voice, can he?

Böhm, also at mid-price and on only 3 CDs, is still a highly recommendable alternative, with Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, Windgassen, Wächter and Talvela on top form, but Bernstein, giving us a ride in quite different waters, is also an unforgettable experience. The digital recording, supervised if I am not mistaken, by Eric Smith, is top-drawer, a few extraneous noises apart. The booklet has a tracklist and the libretto in three languages – but no notes.

Enthusiastically recommended!

Göran Forsling

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
574 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 1.1 GByte (flac)
Concert/semi-staged performance
Peter Hofmann’s first Tristan
Also available as telecast