Wagner Opera excerpts
Television seldom under-publicizes itself, but that was certainly the case in connection with the Channel 4 film celebrating Karajan's 80th birthday, which followed him round various events and their rehearsal at last year's Salzburg Festival and for the first time gave an intimate, true portrait of him as artist and man, warts and all. I shall never forget the Maestro caught backstage after a Don Giovanni, the applause ringing in his and our ears and his weary, grey eyes twinkling when he commented: ''As Furtwangler would have said: 'it wasn't that good!'''. Another greatly revealing moment was the first rehearsal for the Liebestod included here. The soprano was summoned but wasn't required to sing a note. I don't think Jessye Norman would have tolerated that treatment from any other conductor, but from Karajan she took it with a quizzical smile and an offhand remark.
Whatever the quirks of the preparations the performances of the Tristan extracts are very special. Karajan, so far as I know, hasn't been in contact with this opera for some years now, here he conducts both the Prelude and the finale with the kind of warm, mature love and dedication brought to late affections and re-encounters. The Prelude may not be as incandescent as Furtwangler's (EMI), as burnished as Bohm's (DG), as simply searing as Knappertsbusch's on a recently issued Decca CD ( 414 625-2DH, 10/86) but it has a wonderful breadth and inevitabiliiy about it at a predictably slow pace, supreme perhaps in inner concentration. Norman's Liebestod (remarkably little changed since her Philips recording with Sir Colin Davis— 412 655-2PH 8/85) is trance-like, vibrant, literally so, as the vibrato is quite prominent and used to deeply expressive effect. The voice rides grandly over the might of the VPO but never loses its sheen or its nobility, and the final note is as finely floated as by Flagstad or Nilsson.
The Siegfried idyll is given a warm, richly contoured performance, elegiac in pace, not a reading to bring out the spring-like joyfulness found in other, leaner accounts in the catalogue, but by no means stiffjointed for all the slowness of the tempos and, almost needless to say, the playing is glorious. On the other hand, I did find the Tannhauser Overture a bit too staid: the Venusberg music definitely sounds as though its orgiastic descriptions were viewed very much through the glasses of a veteran, but the majesty of the celebratory strains is well conveyed.
The recording shows no signs of being a live one, though the label tells us it is that. Maybe coughs and other concert-hall noises were eliminated by later 'takes'. But the performances have the frisson of spontaneity about them and that is what matters.'