Wagner Tristan und Isolde - Highlights
A complete Tristan from Knappertsbusch with a near-ideal cast, together with much of Act 2 and a complete version of Act 3 and excerpts from Act 1 from Furtwangler, are rich treasures indeed for anyone fascinated, as I am, by the interpretation of this ever-unfathomable and unique work. The 1950 Munich set, previously available only on 'unofficial' LPs, has long been admired by those who know it, not least by Robin Holloway in his chapter on the work in Opera on Record (Hutchinson: 1979). Now that we can hear it in reasonably good sound, its merits shine out as a beacon in a naughty world. The Furtwangler/Vienna discs (Vol. 11 in the series) need much more faith on the part of the listener, given the very variable sound and the backward recording of the orchestra, but they are worth persevering with because, as always, this conductor is that much more vital in the theatre than he was in the studio.
To compare these great interpreters of Wagner is to choose between two absolute masters of the score, both aware, above all, of an underlining pulse, a masterly overview of this long work. If Furtwangler's is the more spiritual, the more metaphysical reading, Knappertsbusch's is the more spontaneously impulsive, the more concerned with narrative strength, but in each case there is a notable balance between grand utterance and care for inner parts and clarity of texture. Above all, in each you hear Wagner of a weight and power seldom encountered since.
Neither Braun nor Konetzni is vocally a Flagstad where vocal opulence and firmness are concerned, but each offers what the great Norwegian soprano did not always provide, a sense that Isolde is a woman of overwhelming, intense passions, capable first of anger and frustration, then love. Braun, above all, conveys this: her singing is throughout charged with inner emotion, nowhere more so than in the infinitely sad solo after Tristan has died. This is a creature vibrant with feeling from first to last and one 'speaking' the words with tremendous urgency.
Konetzni is almost as compelling, her Isolde grander in voice and scale, deeply eloquent in the love duet, where she is partnered by Lorenz at his very best. Musically he betrays faults of rhythm and in note values, yet what Isolde could resist such an outgoing, impulsive lover? That impulse is turned to terrifying agony in Act 3, the two visions more frightening than in almost any other version. Treptow is a more disciplined, inner, plangent Tristan, also a more accurate one, a few failures of memory apart. Starting impassively, he builds Tristan's character unerringly, gives an impassioned account of Act 2, then a distinguished, plaintive traversal of delirium and vision. Both he and Lorenz have the true Heldentenor timbre, now seemingly a thing of the past.
Klose and Schoeffler are common to both performances. Klose is in happier voice in 1943, but even in 1950 she still leaves most other Branganes standing. Schoeffler, as eloquent in 1950 as in 1943, is simply ideal as Kurwenal. Marke is virtually eliminated in the Vienna set; in Munich Frantz is adequate, no more. In sum, those who want a great performance tout court cannot afford to be without the Orfeo; those who already have Furtwangler's 1952 EMI version (5/86) may want to sample the Vienna excerpts before buying. However, they might well be so convinced by Lorenz's contribution that they will want to have the Vienna discs as a supplement.
Modl and Windgassen were the estimable successors to the four singers above. Modl's mezzo-tinged soprano offers a darker colouring, a steadier tone in the Act 1 solo than Braun could manage, but hasn't Braun's ease at the top. Her voice tends to be a bit one-dimensional, but her reading of the role has an individual timbre and manner all its own. Here, recorded at the peak of her form, she makes an imperious Isolde. Windgassen was her usual partner in Bayreuth and elsewhere—I recall a superb Act 2 from the pair at the Proms about the time of this recording. Here the big Act 2 duet is ruthlessly cut in the old, outmoded way (Furtwangler and Knappertsbusch perform it complete).
Windgassen hasn't quite the strength or vibrancy of either Lorenz or Treptow, but is always reliable and occasionally something more—by the time he made his complete recording of the work in 1966 (DG, 7/88), the interpretation had matured. Rother is a competent conductor, but tends to hurry the music, and in the studio the profundity and excitement of the live performances are missing. In compensation the recording is vastly superior. R1 '9505151'