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Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1859) [255.48]
Kirsten Flagstad, soprano; Ludwig Suthaus, tenor; Blanche Thebom, mezzo-soprano;
Josef Greindl, bass; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Rudolf Schock, tenor;
Edgar Evans, tenor; Rhoderick Davies, baritone.
Chorus of the Royal Opera House Coven Garden/Douglas Robinson
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 10 through 23 June 1952
Digitally remastered 2001 by Simon Gibson at Abbey Road Studios. Mono. ADD
Notes in English. Photo of the conductor. Track list and Synopsis. No texts.
"Libretto and English/French translations are available on EMI Classics website"
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 85873 2 6 [67.03 + 68.14 + 64.26 + 56.05]
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Comparison Recordings:
Beecham, Flagstad, Melchior, Covent Garden (1937) (3) CD Melodram MEL 37029
Barenboim, Meier, Kollo, Bayreuth Festival 1983 Philips VHS 070 509-3
Furtwängler, Flagstad, Suthaus, Philharmonia Orchestra RCA 5 LP LM 6700
Furtwängler, Flagstad, Suthaus, Philh. Orch. [restored from LPs] Regis RRC4004

This opera has been the stuff of legend from the moment of its conception and the notoriety has never let up. When he wrote it Wagner was trying to steal Wesendonck’s wife, then Wagner gave the task of writing out the piano reduction to Von Bülow while Wagner was busy stealing Von Bülow’s wife, who was the daughter of Liszt, from whom the press claimed Wagner had stolen all the music. Putting on the opera caused a scandal in Munich. The original Tristan died months after the premiere. Gabriel Fauré wrote a scathing musical joke on the music. Skipping forward nearly a hundred years this recording involved accusations, threats of acid blinding, slanders, feuds, stink bombs hurtled into theatre lobbies, written apologies, the famous secret over just who really sang the high notes which led notable persons to perjure themselves, etc. When the work was all done, Furtwängler said to producer Walter Legge, "My name will be remembered for this [recording], but yours should be."

Furtwängler was Flagstad’s favourite conductor of all; two years previously, together, they had at Strauss’s request given the world premiere of his Four Last Songs in London.

One of the things I find so amazing about Wagner’s genius is that all his major music dramas are just 4.25 hours long, not 3.8, mind you, nor 5.2. His conception of the dramatic arc was perfect at the start. He did not struggle through many drafts, revisions and corrections. He just wrote out the music directly onto the orchestral score. And one of the most amazing things about this recording is that, now that the truth is out that Schwartzkopf really did sing the high notes (actually just two high Cs in the second act that Flagstad had stopped singing in concerts some years before), you can’t possibly tell by listening.

To praise this recording would be redundant; just open your thesaurus and read the list of superlatives. Of course there have been and will be other great Tristans, but this one will always retain its place. And now it has passed out of copyright into the public domain and belongs to the world. But the master tape still belongs to EMI. And digital remastering, even from a master tape, is an art involving many aesthetic as well as technical decisions and which produces a copyrightable product. Mr. Gibson has been able to remove virtually all the tape noise with virtually no increase in distortion. Bass notes are clean and deep. Background is dead quiet, yet consonants are unclipped and string sound is completely natural with no audible ringing.* Unfortunately, all of the side breaks are in the middles of scenes; it was very inconsiderate of Wagner to write 87 minute acts which are beyond the capacity of a single CD side. For the future, this can be corrected on a DVD-Audio issue if anyone wants to take the trouble.

To compare the EMI edition with the Regis edition, the latter has slight pitch unsteadiness some of which could easily come from the cutting lathe as well as the playback turntable. There is also groove pre-echo, a slight turgidity which could have occurred in the cutter electronics or the playback cartridge as well as in the digitisation itself, some slight residual vinyl roar, rolled off highs and lows, the remains of some clicks and pops — as I am fond of saying, the stumps of mighty trees cut down — and is running about 1.6% faster than the master tape. If it were all we had, we wouldn’t be all that badly off, especially since some of these problems could be mitigated with additional work. But since we have the master tape so beautifully restored, and for sale at a price lower than the original LPs, we don’t have to put up with these problems.

The Beecham disks, cut to 210 minutes, one act per side, compiled from two evenings with different Kurwenals and Brangänes, preserve a younger Flagstad with a stronger, purer voice, and you need this one, too, of course. She comes through very well; others not so well, probably depending on who was standing near the microphone. The chorus is appropriately rowdy. The confrontation scene with Sven Nilsson as King Marke is deeply, quietly, heartbreaking. Melchior at full voice has at times a reedy, throbbing tone that must have been galvanising live in the hall, but on records it doesn’t compare all that well with later Tristans. The recording has occasional crackling and pitch waver and some messy edits. The orchestra sort of comes and goes and is never in very good balance. In your mind assemble the orchestral and ensemble sound from the Furtwängler recording and add the youthful robustness to Flagstad’s voice from the Beecham recording and you’ve got it all together.

The Melchiors were good friends of Flagstad and her husband, Henry Johansen. When Johansen was arrested immediately after WWII and charged with collaboration with the Nazis, Flagstad was suspected of complicity. For many months she was denied permission to sing or leave Norway, was subjected to interrogation, and was required to prove she had never received any money from her husband. She received threatening letters, was publicly excoriated, and was never allowed to speak to her husband even as he lay dying in the hospital. (She was, of course, eventually completely exonerated of the charges). During this period the Melchiors (and many others) were careful never to communicate with her. Flagstad was deeply hurt by this, although always admiring Melchior as an artist. Eventually after many years they were able to exchange letters.

But Flagstad in 1952 was a more mature artist than in 1937, so the Furtwängler is really the better performance overall, musically as well as sonically. Flagstad personally, as well as her close friends and colleagues, considered this to be her very finest recording. Regrettably the disputes which preceded it, surrounded it, and continued after it, led her to stop making recordings for EMI, despite fervent pleading from Legge. When her contract expired, she switched her allegiance to Decca and began recording again in 1955. But time had been lost, and she was never to make the dream Walküre recording that so many had hoped for, although she did make many fine recordings for Decca including Walküre excerpts.

Flagstad was not only a great artist but a modest, honourable, widely loved person. At her death in 1962 she was deeply mourned by many.

The Barenboim recording features the finest recording of the Prelude I’ve ever heard accompanied by an effective visual of rolling surf in the sunset. The singers are young and the production is overall very good. In this version Tristan dies alone, with Isolde’s arrival and liebestod treated as a dying man’s feverish fantasy. Musically she’s all there, of course.

One very nice thing about this EMI release is the relative lack of threats and dire warnings in the printed booklet. Instead we are thanked for buying this disk and supporting all of those involved in making it. "Please don’t lend discs to others to copy, give away illegal copies of the discs, or use internet services that promote illegal distribution ... Such actions threaten the livelihood of musicians and everyone else involved in producing music." Is it possible that the media corporations are actually trying to be nice to their customers for a change? Could this lead to the restoration of respect and affection between supplier and consumer? Could the media giants actually be ready to acknowledge that their business depends to a greater extent than any other on the good will of their customers? Could they finally realise that good will and fair play thrive better in an atmosphere of respect and open dialogue rather than dire threats and accusations?

*Additionally I would have restored dynamics and subharmonics, but many would consider this unwarranted fiddling.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review by Marc Bridle

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