Wagner Tristan und Isolde; Parsifal – Karajan

Author: 
Alan Blyth
Wagner Tristan and Isolde, BernsteinWagner Tristan and Isolde, Bernstein
Wagner Parsifal, KarajanWagner Parsifal, Karajan

Wagner Tristan und Isolde

  • Tristan und Isolde
  • Parsifal

Both these sets were much admired here in their LP form, and are very welcome on CD. The Karajan Parsifal seems to grow in statute as an interpretation on each re-hearing; on CD it appears to have acquired a new depth, in terms of sound, because of the greater range of the recording and the greater presence of both singers and orchestra. As in practically all cases, the new medium offers a more immediate experience.
Karajan's reading, a trifle stodgy in Act 1, grows in intensity and feeling with the work itself, reaching an almost terrifying force in the Prelude to Act 3 which is sustained to the end of the opera. Moll's Gurnemanz is a deeply expressive, softly-moulded performance of notable beauty. Vejzovic, carefully nurtured by Karajan, gives the performance of her life as Kundry. Hoffmann's tone isn't all times so steady as a Parsifal's should be, but he depicts the character's anguish and eventual serenity in his sincere, inward interpretation. Van Dam is a trifle too placid as Amfortas but his singing has admirable power and steadiness. Nimsgern is the epitome of malice as Klingsor. The choral singing hasn't quite the confidence of the superb orchestral playing. In his original review William Mann found this reading had beauty while Solti's on Decca (surely soon to appear on CD) had truth. For me, Karajan's has both qualifies of Keats's imagining in abundance. And what a blessing to have it all on four CDs.
Bernstein's more controversial Tristan spreads to five discs, possibly because of the slow tempos adopted. This interpretation hasn't been as much praised by others as it was by me, but I make no apologies for admiring it so highly. Hearing it in the clarity of CD, and in Erik Smith's natural recording (better focused than the Parsifal), I was once more carried away by the dedication and commitment on all sides. Where other finds exaggeration in Bernstein's direction, I hear only a total involvement in the work that is seconded in Behrens's vulnerable, ecstatic Isolde. Hofmann, though somewhat stretched by Bernstein in Act 3, is a moving Tristan. His is not the most firm or beautiful of heroic tenors, but first impressions of the somewhat gritty tone are always dispatched as a performance continues by the thought and feeling behind his singing. Minton and Weikl contribute convincingly, and Sotin makes a nobly sympathetic King Marke, among the best on record.
The very absence of surface interruptions allows us to hear home studio and/or concert-hall noises not audible on LP, but they are a small price to pay for what is a much larger and more exciting sound that was previously evident, and I note especially how well Erik Smith and his team have caught Behrens's voice and how ideally it is balanced with the orchestra in, for instance, the Narration and the Liebestod. Even more than before, I think this is the most rounded and consistent Tristan since Furtwangler's LP set on HMV.'

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