How to describe this recording to those unfamiliar with it? Along with the Callas Tosca, this has been defined as a classic of the recording industry in the half century since its making by just about every commentator who has written about it. Even the divulging of its terrible secret (that Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sang a couple of high Cs for Flagstad) has never detracted from its value as one of the great Wagner performances ever preserved on disc.
Although capturing Flagstad’s exalted Isolde (no matter about those Cs) is one of the important achievements of this set, it is the conducting of Furtwängler that makes it irreplaceable. One might even find more intense theatricality in the two surviving acts of a live TristanRead more with this conductor from Berlin (1947), but one would search in vain for a more convincing architectural unity, a more persuasive knitting together of structure and impulse, than is to be heard here. Even Furtwängler himself did not achieve this unity, the sense of a single thread running from the Prelude’s opening note to the opera’s close, in the theatre (admittedly we have to draw that conclusion from a performance minus the first act, but draw it we can). Every single phrase is connected to what precedes it and what follows it. Although the phrasing is supple, and there are many subtle variations of tempo, everything is perfectly prepared. The music breathes, breathes in a way that is so natural that we are ultimately unaware of the act of performance, and aware only of Wagner’s great achievement. Every aspect of the conductor’s craft and art is present and is applied to this whole—color, balance, tempo, texture, chord-voicing, shaping, articulation—all of this and more are sewn together to make this miracle of a performance.
Flagstad is vocally beyond any Isolde who has ever recorded the role. Her solid column of rich-hued sound, secure all the way up to (but, obviously, not including) the very top, gives us a traversal of this role quite unlike any other. Nilsson also triumphed in this music, but with a bright beacon of sound; Flagstad’s tonal richness is a thing of unique beauty. It can be admitted that she doesn’t shade or color her voice very much—there have certainly been more insightful and deeply felt Isoldes—but never one sung as thrillingly. Suthaus may not have been the equivalent of Melchior or Vickers at their best, but he is more than the adequate placeholder that some commentators have called him. He sings with a dark timbre that never turns hard, convinces us in his long delirium in act III, and is, in fact, one of the unheralded assets of this set. The young Fischer-Dieskau is both insightful and vocally strong as Kurwenal, Greindl a bit gruffer than the best Markes one has encountered.
But starting to pick at details is already to miss the point. As you are listening to the performance, you are caught up completely in Wagner’s astonishing score, not ticking off pluses and minuses in the performance. Some of that credit, too, must go to producer Walter Legge; despite their rocky relationship, even the conductor recognized the role Legge played once he heard the playbacks. The recording, from the early days of LP and at a time when capturing complete Wagner operas was no easy task, is excellently balanced and rich sounding. Despite much feuding between conductor and producer, at the end of the sessions Furtwängler said to Legge: “My name will be remembered for this, but yours should be.” In truth, both should be—because what they have assured is that history will always understand the great achievement of the most important name here—Richard Wagner.
Tristan und Isoldeby Richard Wagner Performer:
Kirsten Flagstad (Soprano),
Josef Greindl (Bass),
Blanche Thebom (Mezzo Soprano),
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone),
Rudolf Schock (Tenor),
Rhydderch Davies (Baritone),
Edgar Evans (Tenor),
Ludwig Suthaus (Tenor)
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus,
Period: Romantic Written: 1857-1859; Germany Date of Recording: 06/1952 Venue: Kingsway Hall, London, England Length: 255 Minutes 48 Secs. Language: German