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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Furtwängler) (1952)
By Christopher Morley
"...Since first appearing on six LP discs on the HMV label this indispensable account has gone through many reissues, but this Naxos presentation is particularly treasurable. Producer and audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has done a thoroughly sensible and indeed musicianly job, preserving some of the flaws of the original recording in order to convey a full spectrum of frequencies, especially in the upper range.
The result is a gift of a set which might perhaps have those who already own one of its previous manifestations jettisoning that version for this so-musical production. *****"
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde is a music-drama in three acts to a
libretto by the composer after Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, first
performed in the Court Theatre in Munich, Bavaria on 10th June 1865. Considered
by most Wagnerians to be the most radical of the composer’s works in the
originality of its treatment of chromatic harmony, it also had a profound
influence beyond the realms of pure music. Tristan und Isolde has been
described as a wonderful achievement. It is a huge flood of expression,
exposing the hidden chambers of the heart. What cannot be denied nearly 140
years after its composition is the extraordinary hypnotic power and intense
human emotion it evokes, from that remarkable opening chord of the Prelude to
the over-powering resolution of the final chord at the end of the Liebestod.
Wagner was most certainly one of
the most dominant figures in the second half of nineteenth-century
cultural development. Furthermore, he was recognised as a fine writer, was his
own librettist and the first modern interpretative conductor.
Following the departure of his wife Minna for Germany in the
summer of 1854, Wagner, who was living in Zürich at the time, became
increasingly attracted to the 26-year-old Mathilde Wesendonck. This growing
attraction made the composer conceive the idea of a music drama, based on the
tale of Tristan and Iseult. It was not until August 1857 that Wagner began work
on the poem of Tristan and Isolde, based on the Arthurian legend. Music for the
first act was completed in short score by the last day of 1857, with the
orchestration being finally finished the following April. Composition was
resumed in Venice in October 1858 and the whole second act finished by March
1859. Wagner then moved to Lausanne to complete the third act by August of that
same year. The première of the music drama was scheduled for Karlsruhe in
November 1861 but Wagner withdrew from the proposed production. The composer
then had great hopes of an ideal presentation in Vienna, also in November, but
then abandoned such plans. It was not until June 1865 that the work reached the
The present 1952 studio-made recording of Tristan und Isolde
was Wilhelm Furtwängler’s first complete opera recording. It was also EMI’s
first large-scale complete operatic recording to be recorded in London entirely
using magnetic tape. Additionally, it was to be the only complete recording of
a Wagner opera to be recorded in the studio by the producer Walter Legge. (He
had, incidentally, been in charge of the live recording of Die Meistersinger
von Nürnberg made during the 1951 Bayreuth Festival.) Furthermore, it was the
first complete large-scale operatic recording to be undertaken by the
Philharmonia Orchestra. It would also be the first Wagner opera to be
engineered by Douglas Larter, who had been involved with the technical aspects
of recording for HMV, and later EMI, for almost thirty years.
At the time of recording in June 1952 Kirsten Flagstad was
without doubt the foremost Wagnerian soprano of the day. She was then aged 57,
and had sung her final Isolde on stage a year earlier in London. She was,
understandably, somewhat reluctant to undertake such a demanding rôle under the
spotlight of the microphone. Flagstad was nervous about the reliability of her
top notes at her age, especially when she might have to repeat certain passages
time and again. It was then suggested to her that she might like to have some
‘cover’ for her top Cs in Act Two. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was happy to assist
and Flagstad eventually agreed. Thus in the Love Duet there were three singers
in the studio: Suthaus and Flagstad with Schwarzkopf to sing the notes in
question. They were quite definitely not edited in at some later stage. (The
Melot in this recording, Edgar Evans, was present at the time and quite clearly
remembers the event fifty years on as if it were yesterday.) Also members of
the orchestra have also testified to this fact over the years. Nevertheless,
when some unwitting member of EMI inadvertently leaked this news to a Daily
Mail reporter, Flagstad was greatly distressed by the disclosure, so much so
that she refused to renew her contract beyond the end of 1953.
Another major obstacle surrounding the recording concerned
who was to produce or supervise the project. Flagstad was adamant that she wanted
Walter Legge, who had produced all her post-war recordings in Britain.
Furtwängler, however, had had a bitter on-going grievance against Legge over
the latter’s secretive choice of Karajan as conductor of two Mozart operas in
Vienna in 1950 (Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte), after Furtwängler had
conducted both operas at the Salzburg Festival that year. Then in April 1952
Legge made some unfortunate comments about the older musician that reached
Furtwängler’s ears. The conductor wrote to Brenchley Mittell, the General
Manager of EMI’s International Artistes Department, demanding that in future
Legge was not to supervise any further sessions with him. The upshot of all
this unpleasantness was that Lawrance Collingwood (HMV’s senior producer) was despatched
to see Furtwängler immediately in an attempt to placate the conductor.
(Collingwood would produce all of Furtwängler’s recordings after Tristan until
the latter’s death in November 1954.) Eventually an apology was forthcoming
from Legge and, for the moment, the dust settled, and Legge was assigned to
Tristan. The recording progressed successfully and finished before time, so
much so that the conductor remarked to the producer at the final playback: “My
name will be remembered for this, but yours should be also”.
The advantages of magnetic tape over the previous wax system
were soon appreciated by Furtwängler, who, until then, had had to be
constrained by having to stop and restart every four and half minutes. The new
technology allowed for far longer stretches of music to be recorded at a time.
This greatly assisted the conductor’s famed ability to think and work in long
paragraphs. Although editing was still at a fairly early stage, it was now
possible to edit out serious errors and to splice in corrected versions.
Nevertheless, both producer and engineer were still very wary of such attempts
at editing and such things were kept to a minimum. Quite unlike what it would
become half a century later.
The final choice of the other singers would also prove in
part troublesome. The original choice for Brangäne was Martha Mödl. Originally
a mezzo, she had now moved into the soprano repertoire and had been booked to
sing Isolde at the 1952 Bayreuth Festival under Karajan. (Legge, incidentally,
wanted to record those performances as well.) Eventually she declined the mezzo
rôle, so the choice now moved to Margarete Klose. Unfortunately she had other
commitments from which she could not obtain release. Finally, Blanche Thebom
(American-born of Swedish parents) was selected at the suggestion of Flagstad.
Three tenors were short-listed for Tristan, Bernd Aldenhoff, Günther Treptow
and Ludwig Suthaus, but as Furtwängler knew the last of these from having
worked with him on a number of occasions, he was the final choice.
Fischer-Dieskau and Schock, both then contracted to EMI, were pencilled in from
the start. The rôle of King Mark was a toss up between the German Ludwig Weber
(who the previous year had recorded Mark’s Monologue for Legge) or the
Bulgarian Boris Christoff (whose German was little better than his French). In
the end. however, it was the German Josef Greindl who was selected. The choice
of Edgar Evans as Melot was a late decision. As he told me, when I was writing
this note: “I was at Covent Garden rehearsing Alfredo in La traviata, when I
received a phone call asking me to go over to the Kingsway Hall where Walter
Legge wanted to audition me for Melot. I knew the part, having sung it opposite
Flagstad at Covent Garden since 1948. I had a piano rehearsal in front of Legge
and Furtwängler, and was offered the part on the spot. I was asked to remain
for the rest of the day as I would be needed for the afternoon session. During
the course of the afternoon, however, matters became highly strained, when the
conductor became increasingly unhappy with the whole proceedings and walked out
in a tantrum. I was asked to return the following morning when, happily, all
went well”. The chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was a fairly
new body with many excellent voices in it, and the Philharmonia Orchestra was
under contract to EMI for a large number of sessions annually. (It also
happened to be ‘owned’ by Legge.)
The release of the recording in early 1953 was greeted with
unstinting praise from the critics and from Wagnerians, who were thrilled to
have a complete recording of the opera. The heroes of the recording proved to
be, first and foremost, Flagstad and Furtwängler, but Suthaus was felt to have
surpassed himself, while the young Fischer-Dieskau (still only in his late
twenties) as Kurwenal set the seal on his growing international career.
Opinions of Thebom and Greindl were more guarded but Schock and Evans were
praised for their contributions. The Philharmonia covered themselves in glory,
proving that they were indeed a world-class orchestra. Legge’s contribution
should not be overlooked but Douglas Larter’s engineering contribution was
never sufficiently recognised at the time. Overall, it is small wonder,
therefore, that this recording remains a landmark in recording history.
The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) made her
début at the age of eighteen while still a student in Oslo. For the following
decades she sang exclusively in Scandinavia. It was only in 1934 that she was
engaged for the Bayreuth Festival, but it was with her sensational unscheduled
first American appearance as Brünnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York
that her international career took off. She appeared most successfully in
London in 1936-37 as Isolde and Senta, as well as Brünnhilde. In 1941 she
returned to occupied Norway to rejoin her husband who was a Nazi sympathizer.
Although she was freed from any taint of collaboration, her post-war return to
the United States did not take place until 1949, when she sang in San
Francisco. She returned triumphantly to Covent Garden, however, between 1948
and 1951 to present her Wagnerian interpretations. Although she sang in opera
in New York (1950-52) and Salzburg (1950), her final stage appearance was as
Purcell’s Dido in London in 1953. Retiring in 1954 she became the Director of
the Royal Norwegian Opera between 1958 and 1960. Before recording for Decca
between 1956 and 1958, Flagstad had made a number of earlier discs for HMV and
Odeon. It was, however, the recordings for EMI and RCA, covering the years 1935
to 1953, that established her internationally. If not the most dramatic of
stage performers her place in the gallery of great Wagnerians is exemplified by
her sheer vocal beauty and quality of tone.
The German tenor Ludwig Suthaus (1906-1971) was born in
Cologne, later studying at the city’s Musikhochschule before making his début
as Walther von Stolzing in 1928 in Aachen, where he would remain until 1931. He
sang regularly in Stuttgart between 1932 and 1941, when he moved to Berlin
where he was based until 1965. His international career blossomed in postwar
Europe with appearances in Wagnerian rôles in Vienna (1948), Paris (1949),
Buenos Aires (1949), London and San Francisco (both 1953) and Milan (1954). His
other rôles included Samson, Rienzi, Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos), Sadko,
Otello, Florestan and Hermann (The Queen of Spades). Although his voice was
somewhat baritonal in quality, Suthaus was admired in the Wagnerian Heldentenor
repertoire. In 1954 he sang Siegmund in Furtwängler’s recording of Die Walküre.
The mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom was born in New York of
Swedish parents in 1918. Studying with both Margarete Matzenauer and Edyth
Walker, it was as a concert singer that she made her début in 1941. Her first
appearance with the Metropolitan Opera on tour was as Brangäne in Tristan in
November 1944, with her New York house début as Fricka in Die Walküre the
following month. She remained a member of the company until the 1966-67 season,
giving 236 performances of 26 rôles. Thebom sang at Glyndebourne in 1950 and
made a much talked-about appearance in the first English professional
production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens at Covent Garden in 1957. Her other rôles
had included Marina (Boris Godunov), Herodias (Salome), Orlovsky and Amneris.
She was also much admired as a concert performer throughout the United States.
After retiring in 1967 she became General Manager of the short-lived Atlanta
Opera Company before teaching at the University of Arkansas.
The German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was born in
Berlin in 1925. After war service he studied with the tenor Georg Walter and
made his operatic début as Posa in Don Carlos in 1948. His career soon
blossomed internationally with stage appearances in Vienna (1949) and Salzburg
(1952). His London début was in Delius’s Eine Messe des Lebens conducted by
Beecham in 1951, a year which marked his first recordings in that city. He sang
the rôles of Herald (Lohengrin), Wolfram, Köthner and Amfortas at the Bayreuth Festival
during the years 1954-56. His Covent Garden début took place in 1967 as
Mandryka in Arabella. His much awaited but delayed portrayal of Hans Sachs took
place in Berlin when he was fifty. His operatic repertoire embraced all the
principal Italian rôles in addition to the main German ones. It is, however, in
Lieder and song that he is probably best remembered. His work in these fields
resulted in his becoming the most recorded classical singer of all time. In
later years he took up a conducting career, in addition to writing on Schubert,
Schumann and the area of Lied in general.
The German bass Josef Greindl was born in Munich in 1912 and
studied singing with the bass Paul Bender and the soprano Anna Bahr-Mildenberg.
His début took place with a semi-professional performance of Weber’s Der
Freischütz in 1935, followed by a professional one the following year in
Krefeld as Hunding. He sang in Düsseldorf between 1938 and 1942 before moving
to Berlin. Engaged first at the city’s Staatsoper, Greindl moved to the
Städtische Oper in 1949. His first appearance at the Bayreuth Festival was in
1943 and he returned regularly during the seasons 1951 to 1970, singing all the
principal bass rôles in addition to Hans Sachs, the rôle with which he made his
London début in 1963. He also sang in New York and Milan. Greindl was a fine
Mozartian and a much-admired Boris Godunov in addition to also appearing in
Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in the first German performances in 1959. After
retiring he taught singing in Saarbrücken. He died in 1993.
The German tenor Rudolf Schock (1915-1986) was born in
Duisberg and studied singing in Cologne and Hanover. His stage début was at
Brunswick in 1937 but his singing career was interrupted by five years of
military service. In 1946 he was engaged by the Staatsoper in Berlin and
Hamburg, remaining with the latter until 1956. His Salzburg Festival début was
in 1948, followed by two seasons at Covent Garden (1949-50) where his rôles
included Rodolfo (La Bohème), Alfredo (La traviata), Tamino, Pinkerton and The
Olympians (Bliss). In 1951 he joined the Vienna State Opera and the following
year sang at the Edinburgh Festival. His Bayreuth début was as Walther von
Stolzing in 1959, a rôle he had earlier recorded with Rudolf Kempe. His later career
was most successful in operetta, television and film. He recorded prolifically
over a period of almost thirty years, including Lohengrin, Erik in Der
fliegende Holländer, and Max in Der Freischütz, in addition to operettas by
Johann Strauss and Lehár, Lieder and popular song. He was generally considered
the successor to Richard Tauber.
The Welsh tenor Edgar Evans was born in Cardiganshire in
1912 and studied singing in London and Milan. He was a member of the chorus of
Sadler’s Wells Opera from 1937 until 1940, the year he joined the Police War
Reserve in London, followed by a spell with ENSA. In 1946 he became a founder
member of the new permanent company at the Royal Opera House Company at Covent
Garden with whom he was a Principal Tenor for 29 years. His rôles included many
of the main French, German and Italian ones, but he is especially remembered
for his gripping portrayal of Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
Retiring from Covent Garden in 1975, he spent what he describes as “ten very happy
years” teaching at the Royal College in London. His only other commercial
recording is the rôle of the Mayor in Britten’s own recording of Albert
Controversial he may have been but Wilhelm Furtwängler
(1886-1954) was the foremost German conductor of his time. Born in Berlin, he
studied composition with Rheinberger and Max von Schillings, having written his
first work at the age of seven. In 1906 he made his conducting début in Munich
and later that year became a répétiteur at the Stadttheater, Breslau. Following
appointments in Zürich (1906-07), Munich (1908-10), and Strasbourg (1910-11),
he became Music Director at Lübeck Opera in 1911. This was followed by five
years in Mannheim from 1915. His first Viennese engagement took place in 1919. After
the death of Nikisch in 1922 Furtwängler succeeded him at the Berlin
Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. He made his first visit to
London in 1924 and to the United States the following year. His international
reputation grew with further American and European engagements. His appointment
as Toscanini’s successor in New York in 1936, however, was blocked for
political reasons. Controversially Furtwängler had chosen to remain in Germany
during the Nazi period but resigned all his German appointments in 1934. After
being ‘de-Nazified’ in 1946, he resumed his European career in 1947 with great
success. In addition to his annual appearances at the Salzburg Festival, he
also conducted the opening concert at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival in 1951.
He died of pneumonia in November 1954, aged 68. This recording of Tristan,
regarded as his finest achievement in the recording studio, very possibly
represents his interpretative creativity at its finest within such limitations.
Half a century on and this document remains a superb achievement and a
testament of a great performance from all involved.
The present transfer was made primarily from two sets of
German LP pressings, with an additional two sets of American pressings used for
patching in a couple sections.
There are occasional, brief dropouts and distortion due to volume level
overload inherent in the original tape masters. Radical methods have not been used to reduce hiss in the
interest of preserving high frequencies.
At sea, on the
deck of Tristan’s ship.
 An extended prelude introduces a number of significant
motifs which will be heard again during the drama.  Isolde is on board
Tristan’s ship travelling from Ireland to Cornwall, where she is to marry King
Marke, Tristan’s uncle. A sailor sings a plaintive song about a forsaken lover.
Hearing this, Isolde bursts into a rebellious tirade against the weakness of
her own people who have been overcome by their enemies. Tristan’s companion
Kurwenal is seen standing at the stern of the ship.  After the sailor’s song
has been heard again, Brangäne calls for Tristan to attend her mistress, which
he declines to do. A second request is also rejected, this time by Kurwenal who
scornfully relates how Tristan murdered Morold, the man to whom Isolde was
previously betrothed.  Isolde is incensed by Kurwenal’s response.  She
tells Brangäne how she recognised Tristan when he came to her in disguise and
sought help after the murder. She wanted to kill him then, but, restrained by
his mysterious gaze, finally spared his life.  Now she wishes she had been
more courageous, curses him and determines to avenge Morold’s death with
poison.  As the ship reaches land, Kurwenal urges the women to prepare
themselves. Isolde demands to speak to Tristan under the pretext of pardoning
his crime.  He finally joins her. She tells him that she recognised his
murder disguise but that now she truly will take revenge.
 Refusing his offer of a sword with which to kill him,
Isolde calls Brangäne whom she has instructed to prepare a draught of poison;
as Tristan drinks, Isolde snatches the cup from him and empties it herself. 
Unknown to either of them, Brangäne has prepared a love potion instead of a
poison: before long it takes potent effect and Tristan and Isolde declare their
passionate love while Brangäne watches, appalled at the result of her deceit.
Kurwenal’s return brings them both suddenly back to reality and as they begin
to understand what the potion has done, the crowd acclaims King Marke and his
domain of Cornwall.
A summer night in King Marke’s castle in Cornwall.
 After a short prelude King Marke’s garden is revealed.
The King, himself has just left on a hunting expedition and the horns are heard
in the distance.  Isolde listens to the sounds of the night, oblivious to
Brangäne’s concern that the hunt is still within hearing; the maid warns her
mistress that she should beware of Melot, a treacherous friend of Tristan, who
has organized the King’s night-time expedition as a ploy to catch the lovers
unawares. Isolde dismisses Brangäne’s warning and orders her to extinguish the
lighted torch, which will be the signal for Tristan to join her in the garden.
Brangäne refuses and rues the outcome of her earlier deception in substituting
potion for poison. Isolde, aware of nothing but the power of love, herself
extinguishes the torch, awaits Tristan’s arrival and sends Brangäne to keep
watch for the return of the hunt.  Tristan hastens in and the lovers greet
each other, joining in their delight in the night,  although Isolde reminds
her lover that he has been a creature of the day, distorting their love. 
She sits, while Tristan kneels by her side as they call together on the night
of love.  Their ardent expressions of love are interrupted only by
Brangäne’s admonition as she keeps vigil in a nearby tower.
 Emotions intensify, Brangäne is again heard briefly, as
the duet continues, rising unrestrainedly towards an ecstatic climax, as they
glory in the night.  A horrified scream is heard from the maid as the King,
Kurwenal, Melot and their friends rush in to surprise the lovers.  The King
questions Tristan, reproaching him for this betrayal of trust.  Tristan
replies obliquely that he no longer feels himself to be a creature of this
world and invites Isolde to join him in the sunless land of his birth. She
agrees, Tristan kisses her, but Melot, incensed by the frustration of his own
love for her, attacks Tristan who falls wounded into the arms of Kurwenal.
Tristan’s castle at Kareol in Brittany.
 An elegiac prelude introduces the act, and a view of
Tristan who is lying unconscious under a lime tree in the courtyard of his
castle, tended by Kurwenal. A shepherd is heard playing a sad tune on his pipe.
 He soon appears, asking Kurwenal about Tristan; he is abruptly told to
return to his watch and, should he see Isolde’s ship approaching the coastline,
to play instead a cheerful melody. No vessel is yet in sight, so the sad tune
continues. Soon Tristan wakes and asks Kurwenal where he is  and how he came
there. On being told that Isolde has been summoned to join him, he deliriously
imagines that she is nearby.
 Tristan praises Kurwenal’s loyalty and thinks he sees
Isolde’s ship approaching, but the shepherd’s sad air is heard again.  There
is no ship to be seen. Tristan recalls its theme from his sorrowful childhood
when he was orphaned, and in his wild confusion he begins to blame himself for
the fateful love potion that is causing such misery.  He faints and Kurwenal
finds that his master is still breathing.  Weaving in and out of
consciousness, Tristan again supposes he can see the ship approaching and at
last a lively tune is heard from the shepherd. Kurwenal watches as, in the
distance, Isolde steps ashore and he hastens to meet her.  In agitated
anticipation of her arrival at the castle, Tristan rips the bandages from his
wound and struggles to greet her as she hurries to him. With her name on his
lips, he dies in her arms.  Unable, to revive him, Isolde falls insensible
to the ground.  The shepherd tells Kurwenal that he can see a second ship
approaching and the helmsman confirms that King Marke and others are aboard.
Brangäne arrives and when Melot appears Kurwenal kills him. He also attacks the
King’s retainers but, sustaining a fatal wound, dies beside his master,
Tristan. The King grieves over the deaths; he has travelled to Kareol in order
to surrender Isolde (whom he also believes to be dead) to Tristan, but now they
lie lifeless at his feet. As Isolde wakes, Brangäne tells her that she has
revealed the truth about the love potion to the King, who forgives his intended
bride.  It is to no avail and in her mystical farewell, Isolde, disregarding
all else, wishes only to join Tristan in death. Her hope is fulfilled as she
sinks slowly on to her lover’s body.
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WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Furtwängler) (1952...