Wagner Tristan und Isolde
Back in April (Opera reissues) Alan Blyth was welcoming the first ‘official’ CD issue of this legendary Tristan, known previously on the Arkadia label but marketed by Urania as the ‘first release from the original master’ using the ‘USD24 restoration system’, about which the booklet tells us nothing. Orfeo is more forthcoming, saying that the original Bavarian Radio tapes were used, and that all ‘sonic alterations’, including the ‘moderation’ of ‘shrill vocal passages’ and the removal of various ‘technical noises’, have been ‘clarified’ with the director of the Bayreuth Festival (Wolfgang Wagner) as well as with Bavarian Radio.
The most obvious difference between the two is Urania’s relatively high transfer level, and the enhanced sense of artificiality that goes with this. Urania may have been more interventionist all round than Orfeo: for example, a particularly heavy clunk during Tristan’s slow awakening early in Act 3 seems more prominent on Orfeo. But this is a tiny detail, and I found myself adjusting to each version, once the optimum volume level had been found. No amount of manipulation is going to turn this recording into state-of-the-art sound, and the value of the performance is such that matters of sound quality are almost incidental. Both sets require a change of disc for the last few minutes of Act 1, but the Urania division seems marginally preferable.
In his Gramophone Collection on Tristan (10/95) AB placed this Karajan at No 4 in his top five, with Böhm (1966), Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch (1950) ahead of it. That high position is earned primarily by Karajan’s spell-binding conducting, evident early on as the Act 1 Prelude, at a slowish tempo, builds inexorably to an engulfing climax. Some episodes, like Brangäne’s Act 1 narrations and the early stages of the Act 2 duet, are driven forward so brusquely that they risk sounding perfunctory. Nevertheless – and taking into account what we know of Karajan’s impatience with his Tristan and the hothouse Bayreuth atmosphere at the time – there is never any sense of conductor and singers at odds. Mödl is not the most seductive of Isoldes, but her scornful vehemence in Act 1, her volatile passion in Act 2 and her commanding projection of the ‘Liebestod’, confidently riding the waves of Karajan’s orchestra, are supremely compelling. Ramón Vinay has all the confidence and stamina necessary to sing the part uncut, and although the early stages of Act 3 are rather prosaic, the ensuing delirium is almost frighteningly intense, with ample power in reserve for the climactic high As. The rest of the cast list speaks for itself, with Ira Malaniuk an admirably engaged Brangäne and Weber an eloquent Marke.
In the end, there is frustration at the degree to which the hugely important role of the orchestra is reduced to a relatively dim, and at times distorted, background, such is the prominence the microphones accord the voices. But while many recordings redress that imbalance effectively, few can match the overall impact of this one.