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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Never before on record has the sensuousness of Wagner's great score been so ravishingly realised, nor has any previous Isolde so captured the femininity of the heroine: a girl embracing love, passionate and tender, as well as an epic figure. For many those considerations will be all important, and on any count as a performance this comes closer to matching the supreme achievement of Furtwangler in his classic HMV set with Flagstad than either of the other two rivals.
Like Karajan's recent opera sets for DGG, notably the Ring cycle, this recording was produced in connection with live performances at the Salzburg Easter Festival, but EMI unlike DGG tend to minimise the importance of that. Undoubtedly the success of this
recording, the feeling of a live experience with its emotional ebb and flow caught on record, owes much to that association with a stage production. But in Karajan's DGG set of GOtterdammerung for example—one of his very finest achievements of recent years I felt that the ultimate crises of emotion were coped with too easily, these points failing to emerge in full climaxes as do those in Solti's Decca set. But this time it is the thrust of emotional resolution superbly carried through, that sets the performance on a plane with Furtwangler. My detailed comparisons this time have once again reinforced my admiration for Solti's Decca set of Tristan, its glowing clarity and its sense of purpose, but remembering the experience of a number of Wagnerians I know who have returned ultimately to Furtwangler, I cannot help feeling that it lacks some basic quality. The answer lies above all, I think, in the handling of the great emotional climaxes, and whether they develop naturally out of what has gone before. Solti in the last resort falls short. Ironically, too, 13.5hm in his live Bayreuth recording is the one I find least convincing on this score, except perhaps in the Prelude and Liebestod. His Act 2, at substantially faster tempi than those adopted by any rival, is generally less involving.
Karajan, I must make clear, is characteristically subtle in his handling of a climax. That becomes very clear even in the Prelude, taken slower than ever I remember it, turned into a diaphanous web of sound in the love music. What in fact he does here— and consistently at the other key points— it to hold back until the last possible moment, until one almost despairs that he is going to find the resolution needed, and then with a final thrust of shattering power he gives a coup de grdce which leaves one reeling. It is the same at the high points in the Act 2 love duet, and above all at the climax of the Liebestod, one of the great resolutions of all opera.
All the Tristan sets have had first-rate casting (Uhl as Tristan on Decca is the only really controversial choice) and this one too can hardly be faulted. Curiously Christa Ludwig (Brangane as in the BOhm/DGG/ Bayreuth performance) is less firm than usual and betrays an unaccustomed vibrato. but the EMI acoustic is kinder to her and the characterisation is most vivid. It is fascinating to note at the point in the opening scene of Act 2, where Brangane tells Isolde of her suspicions of Melot, Dernesch very clearly modifies her own expressiveness allowing Ludwig to be the first to make the dramatic point. The Kurwenal of Walter Berry is exceptionally convincing too, with fine touches of humour and consistently well-focused singing. The King Mark of Karl Ridderbusch is less forceful than I expected, but after the glories of the love duet there is a strong case for a hushed and meditative account of the monologue. The subsidiary parts are also beautifully sung by Peter Schreier, Martin Vantin and Bernd Weikl.
Schreier's singing of the young sailor's solo, "Frisch weht der Wind", at the very start of the drama is exquisite, beautifully balanced off-stage, but there I come to the one point which may disconcert those who are searching for the ideal Tristan on record, the occasional oddities of balance. Many of Kurwenal's and Brangane's solos, for example, bring the voices unusually close, where Vickers as Tristan is almost always placed farther away, with more ambience round the voice than the other soloists have. In the love duet the voices of both Vickers and Dernesch disappear half off-stage for "0 sink hernieder", the grassy bank pushed back. I should like to think that all this is part of a sound-production of the detailed kind which John Culshaw so strikingly presented in the Solti/Decca set, but I think not. It sounds accidental. Maybe it is by Karajan's express wish that the chorus of sailors at the end of Act 1 remains off-stage. You could well argue that the rest of the drama involves individuals merely, and therefore the chorus should stay at one remove, but in this one glowing passage of Beethoven Choral-like diatonic certainty surely one wants the fullest reinforcement of the chorus. Happily Karajan is at his most intense, rivalling anyone in sheer excitement in this passage. And while I am on the subject of balance, why does Kurwenal have to retreat off-stage in Act 3, when King Mark and Melot are at the gate ? Whatever the logic, it sounds wrong.
Such points are of comparatively small importance, I feel, in relation to the musical and emotional achievement of this glowing set. I shall not forsake Flagstad and Furtwangler for good, but now when I want to hear Tristan, I am much more likely to turn to this ravishing Karajan performance. No longer when asked to recommend a set will I have urgently to insist on a return to mono for Furtwangler and Flagstad. The Solti set still has its place for the brilliance of recording and precision of production; the 13Ohm is more conveniently laid out on nine sides (with rehearsal sequences from Act 3 on Side 10), where this new Karajan version follows the Decca format with ends of act on mid-side (Sides 4 and 7). But Karajan must now stand for me as a clear first choice.
-- E.G., Gramophone [1/1973]
Works on This Recording
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Martin Vantin (Baritone),
Christa Ludwig (Mezzo Soprano),
Helga Dernesch (Soprano),
Jon Vickers (Tenor),
Walter Berry (Bass Baritone),
Karl Ridderbusch (Bass),
Bernd Weikl (Baritone),
Peter Schreier (Tenor)
Herbert von Karajan
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus
Written: 1857-1859; Germany
Date of Recording: 1972
Venue: Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin
Length: 246 Minutes 1 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
interesting performance let down by bad recording March 29, 2013
By David W. (Palm Springs, CA) See All My Reviews
"There is much that is terrific about this recording. Jon Vickers for one thing (although his breathy mannerisms intrude more than on some pirates). Another is von Karajan's exceptionally transparent reading of the score. The rest of the cast is top notch including Dernesch who sounds a bit too matronly but whose later voice problems are only apparent in exceptionally strenuous phrases. So, near top ratings as a performance. But the whole effort is let down by the recording itself. It has many failures (among them the soloists are too closely miked) but the killer is the blary sound of the recording itself. I have a pretty good sound system (tube amp/ hi end player) and this is the only recording from several thousand where this is apparent. So I can only conclude it is the recording itself. Caveat emptor."