Notes and Editorial Reviews
Tristan und Isolde
Hans Knappertsbusch, cond; Helena Braun (
); Gunther Treptow (
); Margarete Klose (
); Paul Schöffler (
); Ferdinand Frantz (
); Bavarian St Op O
ANDROMEDA 9011, mono (3
CDs: 227:28) Live: Munich 7/23/1950
This is the only complete surviving performance of
Tristan und Isolde
conducted by Knappertsbusch. Those expecting his typically slow, protracted style are going to be shocked: This is generally conducted much faster than Furtwängler or Toscanini (the former in his complete recording, the latter in the Prelude and Liebestod only). Astonishingly, the sound quality is superb for a live recording of this vintage, not only the voices but also the instruments sounding sharply and clearly recorded (you can even hear the string vibrato and the stays on the wind instruments at times). This was my first opportunity to hear soprano Helena Braun, and both her voice and dramatic interpretation are a revelation. For one thing, hers is a much brighter voice than one is used to hearing from German sopranos, closer to such Italianate-sounding Isoldes as Frida Leider or Astrid Varnay than of the Flagstad-Mödl type. Every nuance, every gesture Braun displays here adds up to a real and true dramatic portrait of the proud, strong-willed Irish princess, and in this new remastering she rings out with thrilling impact. One interesting moment in the first act: On one of her high notes, Braun apparently had trouble hitting the note dead-on, so instead she sings it, softer and shorter than written, as part of the words (though her two high Cs later on in the act are nailed dead-on). Indeed, it is her word-painting and vocal coloration, almost like that of a great Lieder singer with a bigger voice, which immediately impresses one and continues to grab you as the opera progresses.
The legendary contralto Klose takes a few minutes to warm up; when you first hear her, the voice sounds unnaturally heavy and gray, but she does indeed improve. She, too, gives a fine dramatic portrayal, as does the always-superb Paul Schöffler as Kurwenal. The one problem that some listeners may have is with Gunther Treptow’s Tristan. He was a superb musician and a fine vocal actor (he also sang Siegmund under Furtwängler this same year at La Scala), and this shows here, but from a strictly vocal standpoint he was no competition for Set Svanholm, Ramon Vinay, or Wolfgang Windgassen, to name just three famous Tristans of that day. (Personally, I have always detested Ludwig Suthaus’s Tristan—he was a good tenor, and in fact an excellent Siegfried, but in this role his voice was too heavy and leaden-sounding, not lyrical enough.) Treptow’s timbre is the real problem, being slightly tight sounding and not at all lovely, but in a side-by-side competition I’ll take him over such leathery-voiced German barkers as Hans Hopf or Rudolf Schock any day (not to mention such revolting specimens of the modern Heldentenor breed as John Treleaven and Lance Ryan).
The love duet runs 37:38 and is far more complete than was common at the time. Here, interestingly, both Braun and Treptow sing in a delicate
much of the time; their delivery is more conversational than one is used to hearing, much like the way Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers did it at the Orange Festival in the 1970s. Frantz is rich-sounding and solid of voice as King Marke, but doesn’t bring much subtlety to the role (the best of all time being Alexander Kipnis and René Pape). Generally speaking, he sounds really, really angry, but not hurt or confused. I don’t think he sang this role very often, being much better known for his Wotan and Hans Sachs. Treptow, surprisingly to me at least, is almost overwhelmingly dramatic in act III, his voice ringing out splendidly (possibly good microphone placement?). This is surely one of his finest moments on record. Schöffler sings a sympathetic and subtle Kurwenal. By the time she reaches the Liebestod Braun has clearly run out of gas as far as vocal control goes—her tone is a bit unsteady and goes in and out of focus—but her interpretation is magnificent, particularly the opening, where she goes into the music with a marvelous rapt quality of tone and expression. She also rallies a bit vocally to produce a nicely floated high note at the end.
This performance has been available before, first on LPs (Movimento Musica and I Grandi Interpreti) and then on CDs (Laudis, Gala, Orfeo d’Or, and Arkadia). The odd thing with this incarnation is that some web sites I’ve investigated (such as AllMusic and Presto Classical) give its year of release as 2007, but ArkivMusic, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble give its date as March 2014. I’d think that the Orfeo d’Or issue, a label that normally takes its sources from original tapes, also has excellent sound, but that one is selling for $55 on ArkivMusic while this version is currently selling for $9 ($14 on Amazon and $20 at Presto Classical and Norbeck and Peters, but that’s still less than half the price of the Orfeo d’Or release). No libretto is included, but this is still an indispensable set.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Albrecht Peter (Tenor),
Helena Braun (Soprano),
Ferdinand Frantz (Bass),
Paul Schöffler (Baritone),
Margarete Klose (Mezzo Soprano),
Günther Treptow (Tenor),
Fritz Richard Bender (Baritone),
Paul Kuen (Tenor)
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra,
Bavarian State Opera Chorus
Written: 1857-1859; Germany
Date of Recording: 07/23/1950
Venue: Live Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Germany
Length: 231 Minutes 50 Secs.
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