The Wagner recording wars of the 1920s between HMV and Columbia led to some permanently important additions to the discography. Columbia succeeded in ousting their rivals from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1927 and technicians from the English branch travelled there to record first excerpts from Parsifal and then in 1928 most of Tristan. Whilst experimental in-concert performances had of course been made before, it was technically too difficult to record during performance in Bayreuth so the discs were made when the hall was empty of audience. It remains the most complete Wagner opera set to have been made in the 78 era.
The Tristan was Gunnar Graarud, born near Oslo in 1886, and a member of the Vienna State Opera between 1929 and 1937. His Isolde was Nanny Larsen-Todsen, two years older and a fellow Scandinavian, whose career was truly international in scope. She had made her debut in Stockholm in 1906 and went successively to La Scala, the Met in New York and Bayreuth, where she was starring at the time of this Tristan recording. She sang at Covent Garden in 1927 and 1930 and had a successful teaching career, living to the grand age of ninety-eight. Bockelmann needs little introduction; I hadn’t realised he’d been wounded several times during active service in World War I but the philology student, whose career was a splendidly successful one, never made quite the number of recordings commensurate with his exceptional talent. Ivar Andrésen appears twice as King Marke, firstly in the Bayreuth-Columbia set and again in the HMV set of extracts from Act III. As with Graarud, he was born in Oslo, another in the great cadre of Scandinavian singing stars of the Wagnerian discography. He was the reigning basso in Dresden, a magnificent Verdi and Wagner singer, a regular at Bayreuth, visitor to the Met and guest artist across Europe. He died, miserably young, at forty-four. And then there was Elmendorff who, like his Kurwenal, studied philology. He came up the German way, taking provincial appointments and learning from the inside, until his long stint from 1927-42 at Bayreuth where he was also recorded in Tannhäuser. During the war he was in Dresden and a number of radio recordings have emerged from this period. Adherents of the 78 may remember with admiration his recording of von Einem’s Concerto for Orchestra and then those later wartime vintage series of discs, such as Der Corregidor, Luisa Miller, Don Giovanni and Goetz’s Taming of the Shrew.
This was not a first choice cast. Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior were HMV artists and so were not contractually available. The First Act is substantially intact and Larsen-Todsen proves to be a singer of all round flair here, maybe preferable to her Tristan, even though Elmendorff’s tempi can be energisingly brisk and might have hurried Graarud a little. Act II is pretty much complete – there are two little cuts – and here he comes into his own, singing with considerable intensity, and conjoining with her in a love duet of real depth, surely one of the greatest on disc before the LP era. Elmendorff’s sure accomplishment, his command of rubati and the long line enable the cast to inflect freely and confidently. Andrésen’s black voiced Marke for example is an impressively introspective impersonation (but he was even more impressive the previous year for Albert Coates). Bockelmann’s voice was always more baritonal then one might have expected and it gave him a flexibility denied to his strictly bass contemporaries. It allowed him an upward extension that added greatly to the colour and mobility of his singing and it’s one of the talking points of this set. Act III was rather drastically cut and little sense can be made of it, even though the rationale – conserving the energy and voices of the singers on concert nights – has some kind of logic. The orchestra plays with commendable skill and virtuosity under Elmendorff.
The 1927 assemblage of Act III was made in London and conducted by the incendiary Anglo-Russian Albert Coates, Leo Blech (one side) and Lawrance Collingwood. The Tristan and Isolde were Walter Widdop and Göta Ljungberg. He was Britain’s leading inter-War heldentenor and a Handelian of epoch shattering greatness and she was yet another Scandinavian, a Swede from Sundsvall. A decade long period of international celebrity was inaugurated by a famous Covent Garden premiere in 1924 but her career later petered out. Widdop, whom sleeve note writer Tully Potter rashly – or bravely – calls Britain’s leading tenor of the period brings a noble gravity and simplicity to Hei nun! in his meeting with Kurwenal – sung by three singers, so complicated were the ramifications of the recording schedule – Howard Fry, Charles Victor and Edward Habich. Fry sings the earlier part (Fry was Widdop’s teacher), Victor the “middle” section and Habich, later a noted star at the Met, sings the Scene III part. I should also mention the oft overlooked but excellent Brangäne of Genia Guszalalewicz.
Because of the excellence of the original recordings – made in the Festspielhaus and in Queen’s Hall – the only real transfer imperatives were side joins and pitch fluctuation, both of which have been achieved with impeccable accuracy. There is a rival version on Malibran, which I’ve not heard but I can strongly recommend this budget price Naxos contender.
Malibran, Preiser, Naxos, Line, Grammofono 2000
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There are some minor cuts in the first and second act. The third act is heavily cut (about 50% of the music is missing).