Notes and Editorial Reviews
Some of the most thrilling and eloquent Wagner singing ever available on disc and perhaps ever heard
Take the first four tracks of the second CD, the start of the Second Act, and you'll hear some of the most thrilling and eloquent Wagner singing ever available on disc and perhaps ever heard tout court. Flagstad, here at the peak of her youthful form in 1937, creates the sense of anticipation and obsession with love predicated by the potion-intoxicated score and, when Melchior's unrivalled Tristan arrives, the two deliver the first section of the love duet with the security of line, fullness of tone, sensitivity of phrase so many others before and since have failed to do. In the context of a live performance there is an
extra frisson that, even Flagstad much later with Furtwangler, Melchior earlier with Leider, don't quite achieve.
These passages alone would be worth the price of this set. But more is to come. Any thoughts that Melchior may have been a casual Tristan on stage are banished by his intimations of mortality as he lies wounded and dying, attended by his faithful Kurwenal (the sensitive, word-illuminating Janssen). Here Melchior conveys all the man's torment in a stifled, properly weary tone. Then at ''Isolde kommt! Isolde lebt!'' he suddenly brings forth his whole, ringing voice, the Wagner tenor of the century and all time, so that the sense of false elation is exactly created. The delirium is wonderfully enacted; so is the reminiscence of a happier time at ''Wie schon bist du''. When Isolde arrives, Melchior's Tristan dies softly, resignedly in her arms. Nowhere else have I heard Flagstad, perhaps any Isolde, evince her grief so movingly ''um dieses einzige, ewig kurze letzte Weltengluck?'' showing all the agony of love lost forever, as does even more intensely ''Nur einmal, ach! nur einmal noch!''.
These moments of perfection, and so much that Flagstad does in Act 1, quite banish the doubts and alarms that have attended the birth of this set. No, it isn't all Beecham as we were originally promised but Beecham (Act 2 and 20 minutes of Act 3) and 1936 Reiner (the rest); all the originals were in a box marked 'Beecham Tristan' so the mistake in attributing it all to him is understandable. There is a difference discernible. For one, Reiner's Act 1 Prelude is much slower than Beecham's (if we can judge by 'unofficial' versions of the latter) and by and large Beecham is the more dynamic, elating conductor, Reiner the more considered, more cerebral, although the inevitable inadequacy of the orchestral sound by modern standards doesn't make it easy to decide on these differences. More noticeable is the change of Branganes: Kalter (Reiner) is the more classical singer, Klose the more involved, the livelier with her words—wonderful in her concern as she endeavours to stop up the floodgates of love, to no avail of course, at the start of Act 2. The sympathetic but sometimes dry Janssen is common to both. Sven Nilsson's Marke, though not ideally steady, extracts all the pity and pain from Marke's monologue where Beecham's decision not to linger is sensible.
Small parts are just adequately taken. Orchestral playing is secure, but here the 1952 Furtwangler set (EMI, 5/86) or the 1966 Bohm (DG, 7/88) are far superior. The sound is as good as we can hope for from such elderly recordings not made under ideal conditions; sometimes it suddenly brightens only to become less clear a few pages later. There are two bad edits in Act 3, in one of which Melchior is made to repeat a few notes. The German text is printed in full in the booklet (the recording makes some then customary cuts).
These minor cavils fade into insignificance before the singing of the two principals, both caught on excellent nights and fusing into something memorable then and for all time. Every true Wagnerian must hear them.
-- Alan Blyth, Gramophone [1/1992]
Works on This Recording
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Lauritz Melchior (Tenor),
Kirsten Flagstad (Soprano),
Margarete Klose (Soprano),
Herbert Janssen (Baritone),
Sven Nilsson (Bass)
Sir Thomas Beecham
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Written: 1857-1859; Germany
Date of Recording: 1937
Venue: Live Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Notes: Portions believed to have been conducted by Fritz Reiner, recorded the previous year at Covent Garden with the same cast of singers.
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