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Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1859)
Isolde - Kirsten Flagstad, soprano;
Tristan - Ludwig Suthaus, tenor;
Brangäne - Blanche Thebom, mezzo-soprano;
King Mark - Josef Greindl, bass;
Kurwenal - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone;
Sailor - Rudolf Schock, tenor;
Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Douglas Robinson
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded Kingsway Hall, London, UK, June 1952
Wesendonck Lieder with Flagstad and Moore, recorded 1948
REGIS RRC 4004 [4CDs: 56’05+77’15+73.30+67.17]

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Comparative transfer EMI 5 85873 2 reviewed by Paul Shoemaker

One could begin this review with the following: a legendary recording falls out of copyright and Regis are the first non-EMI label to give buyers the opportunity to pick up, at budget price, a legitimate, re-mastered recording of this great performance. Unfortunately, it would be a false statement since what Regis have given us is little more than a poorly transferred copy of LPs. There is little or no attempt at re-mastering, distortions in pitch and sound and untamed balances that add rawness to a recording that EMI – even if not perfectly – at least restored in acceptable mono sound for compact disc.

One of the problems with this recording was always the balance between the voices and the orchestra, quite different from the way that other opera recordings of the time seem to have been recorded (especially on other labels). Kirsten Flagstad, for example, is placed – or so it seems - further back from the other singers and even though hers remained a ‘big’ voice in 1952 it – like those of the others – can sometimes seem swamped by an orchestra which Furtwängler, never one for intimacy in the recording studio, unleashed with considerable power. Perhaps Legge was aiming for something more akin to an opera house atmosphere, but it caused problems on the original ALPs and it caused problems on the very first re-mastering for CD back in 1986. Subsequent reissues have dealt with the balance as best they can in the circumstances. There are, lamentably, no notes whatsoever on the Regis issue to give any indication of what source material was used; Naxos, who will be releasing their own re-issue by Mark Obert-Thorn in May, turned to German and American pressings but my guess is that Regis – if not using the original ALP pressing (and a lack of a turntable prevented me checking against my own original set) – certainly used British records rather than continental ones for many of those balance and sound difficulties resurface here.

Regis’s discs have the misfortune to be released simultaneously with a budget price EMI reissue of their 2001 re-mastering. When I reviewed that set in November 2001 I wrote, "I have never heard the 1997 re-mastered set but it was widely praised over the original 1986 discs - and this 2001 re-mastering is certainly warmer and more atmospheric than those original discs, the strings much deeper toned than I have previously experienced. Compare only the Prelude between the discs and the depth given to the ’cellos at 4'42 is noticeably better in the 2001 set. Elsewhere, the Prelude is less congested than it once was (try 7'13 to 7'31 to hear how the sonorities blossom quite wonderfully. The climax at 7'58 is quite superbly handled without quite the level of distortion we once heard). Listen to the Prelude to Act III (track 14, disc 3) and that fabled Furtwängler sonority is brought to the fore in utterly desolate ’cellos and basses, magnificently captured in a heavier bass resonant re-mastering." Sampling the new EMI set that opinion is re-confirmed. It also makes one wonder why Regis have released their own discs for they are simply uncompetitive, and would be at any cheaper price.

The first clue lies in the recording itself: EMI have restored their new discs using ADD; Regis have restored theirs using AAD, perhaps unsurprising given that they would only have had an analogue source available rather than EMI’s digitally re-mastered tapes. But there have been exceptions to this analogue/digital conversion: Naxos did a remarkably clean job on their recent reissue of Tosca restoring the pitch universally throughout the recording, for example. But EMI, if not restoring their pitch correctly on all CD transfers of their 1950s opera recordings, did do so on their CD releases of all the Tristan und Isolde’s I have heard; even the briefest testing of the Regis discs will tell you that the pitch is not correct with the speed constantly swifter than is the case on the EMI discs (there is, in fact, an 11 second discrepancy in the Prelude to the opera alone). Some of this may, of course, be put down to different turntable speeds but Regis also have to deal with the marginally incorrect pitch inherent in their source material (see screenshots below). Also worrying is a complete lack of bloom to the re-mastering that gives the recorded sound not just a dryness, but a lack of spatial atmosphere which the EMI sound really doesn’t suffer from.

That pitch discrepancy is constant throughout the Regis transfer, but just one detailed illustration will suffice to show the problems with their re-mastering. At the Prelude’s first climax (bar 16) – reached at 1’40 on EMI but 1’36 on Regis – the noticeable difference between the two recordings is in the db level. On Regis it is –3db; on EMI it is a much more restrained –9db, the distortion levels clearly audible with the Regis proving the more untamed, and with the ‘roar’ that brings. In fact, on EMI the db level never rises above –3db; on Regis it often reaches 0db. Moreover, bass and treble levels in the Regis are not evenly distributed – they are in the EMI (and convert the sound from single channel mono to dual channel stereo – as I did in Peak 4 - and there is considerable variation in the Regis sound with the balances between the left and right channels noticeably more uneven). Admittedly, this matters more on headphones than it does through speakers – but it matters nevertheless.


Further problems with the Regis disc are too numerous to note but include: pre-echo at 1’21, an audible track click at 1’31 and bad distortion at 7’36 – 7’47 (all in the Prelude). Track 4 ("Hab acht, Tristan" [incorrectly punctuated in the booklet note]) is marred by poor voice distortion between 5’30 and 5’56 (especially amidst the chorus) and there is bad fade out/fade in between the end of track 4 and the beginning of track 5. There are hints, however, that the source material between Act I (generally much more prone to swooshings, distortion and clicks) and Act III (less intrusively re-mastered) is not consistent; for example, on CD 3 the vinyl improves in both quality and acoustic – indeed, the end of Act II captures both voice and orchestra without any widespread distortion. If, however, the fade out between Act II and the Prelude to Act III (on what is the end of record 4 on my original LPs) is slightly abbreviated the fade in to the Prelude itself is done without problems. Moreover, the tone which is so conspicuously lacking in the opening disc is, by disc 3, somewhat better projected. Disc 4 opens poorly – with very bad crackle at just 14 seconds into a track that is not ideally split at this point of Act III. The Liebestod, itself, suffers from uneven pitch (especially between 0’24 and 0’51 – and there is a nasty groove cut at 0’52 – 0’54). Rather than this being the magical moment it should be a certain roughness rather than blossom overshadows Flagstad’s achievement.

So, what of the performance itself? I last revisited it for Musicweb in 2001 and remain critical of the singing today, even if it does still hold-up as one of a handful of great Tristans. When Robin Holloway wrote his chapter on Tristan for Opera on Record there were eight recordings available; when I reviewed it in 2001 there were more than 40 available. Today, there are more than 60 – with yet more to come, including a live Vienna Tristan on DG in May conducted by Christian Thielemann and an EMI one with Placido Domingo and Antonio Pappano due next year. The bulk of ‘new’ recordings, however, have been live broadcasts (including at long last official – though disappointingly opaque sounding - Bayreuth tapes for Karajan’s superlative 1952 recording, still better heard on Myto). It is to the live Tristans one must turn for anything to equal – or surpass - the Furtwängler and I still find it impossible to discount recordings by Erich Kleiber in Buenos Aires (1948), Fritz Busch, also in Buenos Aires, (1943) and Horst Stein in Vienna (1976) - with Nilsson and Vickers in one of their rare pairings as the fated lovers – as top recommendations. Böhm’s wonderful 1973 Orange Festival Tristan (again with Nilsson and Vickers) has appeared ubiquitously on DVD, though I recommend getting hold of the Rodolphe CDs (if you can find them) for a ‘different’ experience of this performance. Almost unsurpassable are recordings by de Sabata at La Scala (1951) and Carlos Kleiber at Stuttgart in 1973 (with a fabulous cast that includes Windgassen, Ligendza, Niedlinger and Frick). No one recording is perfect, but these get nearer to it than many others do. Finally, if Tristan were just an orchestral score one recording stands head and shoulders above all others: it is Leonard Bernstein’s Bavarian recording on Philips. There is no better played Tristan – and no greater performance of the Prelude (as Böhm famously said, Bernstein dared to conduct this music as Wagner wrote it).

For many, however, Furtwängler remains a yardstick and if you don’t yet have it EMI’s budget priced re-mastering will be unmatchable value for money. The Regis – with no libretto, and only passable notes giving a plot synopsis and biographical information – offers no musical or commercial value beside it. I await with interest the review copy of the Naxos Tristan to see whether that offers an alternative to the Regis -and EMI’s.

Marc Bridle

see also review by Paul Shoemaker

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