Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Author: 
Alan Blyth

Wagner Tristan und Isolde

  • Tristan und Isolde
  • Tristan und Isolde

I don't think these CD transfers much alter my opinion of the performances except, if possible, to enhance my liking for the live 1966 Bayreuth issue. The pleasure, almost privilege, of being present at what was undoubtedly a memorable, electrifying night in the theatre, with everyone giving of more than their appreciable best, is in all ways preferable to the somewhat manufactured feel of the studio version conducted by Karajan, however many delights this may give, at times, in terms of sheer sound. In any case, I find Bohm's interpretation dynamic and incandescent more idiomatic than Karajan's; ironically enough Karajan's own live performance, from 1952 Bayreuth, came much closer to Bohm's later rendering there. Both conductors were obviously inspired by working in that opera house to provide that extra fire and spontaneity.
DG's cast is also superior to EMl's. Nilsson brings more fire to Act 1, greater involvement to Act 2, and is inspired in the Liebestod. Dernesch is encouraged by Karajan to sing many beautiful legato phrases and is often tender in her phrasing but much of the time she seems pallid and neutrai beside Nilsson caught live. There is nothing at all neutral about Vickers's overwhelming Tristan; his searing performance will be a good enough reason for many to obtain the Karajan version. Nobody not even Suthaus for Furtwangler (also EMI), is quite so terrifying in Tristan's Third Act madness. But, on repetition, the slight exaggeration can pall. Windgassen, with smaller resources and hardly less involvement, is in the long run more moving in these long soliloquies, and his plangent reply to Isolde after Marke's Monologue is something to treasure in its phrasing and eloquence. Ludwig is in better voice and more naturally placed in the Bayreuth set. There is little to choose between the two splendid Kurwenals, but the young Talvela's Marke is one of the two or three greatest accounts of his music on record, moving in the extreme and liable to make you think his music is the most inspired in the whole work. Schreier's Sailor, common to both versions, is a model of how the role should be inflected.
There is undoubtedly more breadth and detail in the recording of the orchestra on the EMI, but little is lost on the DG, which sounds even more exciting on CD, and again I prefer the frisson of being there in the theatre rather than in an aseptic studio where, in any case, Karajan or someone under his command is aggravatingly at the controls altering the perspectives, most markedly so in the love duet, an effect only more evident in the digital process. The superiority of the DG is finally clinched by the fact that it appears on three CDs (one less than other versions) with an act per disc, and it has an English translation with the German text. The EMI booklet has only the original German. All the other CD sets have a great deal to commend them, in particular Bernstein's on Philips (though this is spread over five discs) and the classic Furtwangler, but choice, if it has to be a single set, is for Bohm.'

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