I wrote an introduction to this recording of Tristan und Isolde while it was on EMI here (cover picture below), back in our 72nd issue. Stately and measured, this recording of Tristan und Isolde has long since its recording in 1952 been regarded as the recording against which all other Tristans are measured. Kirsten Flagstad was beyond her prime and she isn’t the most dramatic of Isoldes – some find her rather matronly and certainly other singers, Frida Leider and Helen Traubel among them, added a dimension to the role that was beyond Flagstad at that time of her life, mainly in the first act, where her anger at Tristan and vulnerability is brought out to much better effect than by Flagstad.
But few have matched that sheer vocal effulgence and her security and familiarity with the role that she was so famous for, that one forgives any of these shortcomings. There are other recordings of Flagstad (left), including a famous one with Lauritz Melchior, where she is in fresher voice (she was 57 at the time of recording), but this was her last recorded version and is thus the best recorded. Her vocal shortcomings have over the years, I feel, been exaggerated. Her performance is together with Furtwangler’s conducting, the highlight of the performance and one of the greatest performances of the role.
Furtwängler’s conducting is a marvel from start to end, and even in the Prelude to Act I is impossibly moving – so natural as to defy any criticism. His conducting in the 1950s tended toward the monolithic, rather than the sheer visceral excitement of his famous wartime Beethoven symphony bootlegs and broadcasts, and this recording is no exception. What Furtwngler offers in this music is something far greater, that of a perfect (if slightly slow) pacing of the work, a unique understanding of how the different parts of the work and the instinctive control of his orchestra, here the Philharmonia Orchestra. The all-star orchestra made up of members of the leading London Orchestras at that time had only been formed by Walter Legge for a few years at the time of the recording but Furtwänglermakes them play the music like it was in their blood.
Ludwig Suthaus was not the only tenor considered for the role; Bernd Aldenhoff, and Gnther Treptow were also shortlisted. In the final analysis, Suthaus was probably not the best choice of tenor for the role – Set Svanholm, Flagstad’s countryman was in fine fettle at the time, in particularly good form in the 1950 Ring cycle conducted by Furtwangler and across Flagstad’s Brunnhilde, and he was very good in Tristan – but out of the three shortlisted, we are probably lucky that he was chosen. Treptow in particular had a pinched sound to his voice that was quite unattractive. Suthaus was chosen in the end because he had worked with Furtwangler previously. There have been better Tristans, but Suthaus, inspired by his conductor and soprano, surpassed himself.
Blanche Thebom was one of the most reliable mezzo-sopranos of the period, though we were deprived of Martha Modl and Margarete Klose in the process, both of whom would almost certainly have been superior Brangaenes. Her voice isn’t as rich and beautiful as I would like it to be, but she delivers a committed performance that reaches its greatest heights in the Second Act, where her warning floats above the lover’s love duet orgiastically. (below: Furtwangler)
Listeners who have the original release on EMI will be familiar with the shortcomings as well as the strengths of this recording. The sound quality has never been very bad and definitely superior to contemporaneous recordings on RCA and Decca. This excellent transfer by Mark Obert-Thorne features a slightly greater amount of surface sound in return for a more spacious acoustic and more detail with less distortion. The difference isn’t as great as his work with the I Pagliacci recording with Bjorling and de los Angeles, though, so those with access to a record store which allows you to compare CDs, do try before you buy. Otherwise, this first-rate transfer at super-budget price will give you much pleasure, and for listeners who don’t have a recording of Tristan, this is practically a must-buy. Informative notes about the music and the performance, no texts/libretto included.