The Wagner Cult on Record: Tristan und Isolde

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Richard Wagner in 1867

Richard Wagner in 1867

Mild und leise.

Plenty of otherwise gentle people lose their grip on civility when Wagner’s name is mentioned. I was standing in line at the post office explaining to a friend why I thought Wagner was greater than Bach. I felt that we were in a safely uncivilized location, but no. The woman in front of us turned around and said, “I totally disagree with everything you’re saying.” I had been foolish. The cult of Wagner, which swept half of Europe in his lifetime (the other half being divided between Brahms and various conservatives with rocks in their ears), went underground after World War II.

To recap the arguments that incensed the woman at the post office, I offered Tristan und Isolde as the most revolutionary score in Western music, arguing that Bach stood on the shoulders of predecessors who had already developed the idiom he mastered, while Wagner created Tristan ex nihilo. There’s also the argument from complexity. If an anteater is more evolved than a jellyfish, isn’t Wagner more evolved than Bach in terms of harmony? However deep Bach plunged his art into the emotional world of North German Christianity, Wagner threw off the cassock and the corset at the same time – in Tristan we satisfy the demands of Freud, Jung, Baudelaire, and The Golden Bough at one stroke.

It’s not nice to explode grenades in the parlor, so I’ll quit. My intention is to give an overview of Tristan on disc. Nobody has a spare Heldentenor hiding under the bed, or a dramatic soprano who can sound tender over a hundred-piece orchestra, and therefore the number of contenders for best recording are few. We can leave to the paleontologists a handful of bright fragments preceding the postwar era. Prominent among these are teasing excepts from Frieda Leider, a rara avis who was probably the closest to an ideal Isolde in history, at once powerful, expressive, sweet-voiced, and psychologically believable. Contemporary accounts have been left by speechless critics who heard her in the day. (The Preiser label, which seems to be the German source of choice for historical recordings, has several Leider CDs in prehistoric sound.)

The modern era was launched with the appearance of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, considered supreme in their roles and still exalted today – to the point that you earn spitting disdain if you suggest that Melchior could be stentorian and Flagstad matronly. Neither sang for the microphone, with nuance and restrained volume. They sang to the gallery and could carry as far as Texas, as evidenced by a pair of creaky, abridged, but beloved Tristans live from the Royal Opera House in 1936 under Fritz Reiner and the in 1937 under Thomas Beecham (better for conducting, worse for sound). Look for the cheapest used copy you can find in order to test if you have the necessary tolerance for crumbling AM-radio air checks.

Except for ancients and venerables, Tristan’s modern recorded history began in 1952, the year legendary producer Walter Legge brought Flagstad to London to set down her Isolde for posterity under Wilhelm Furtwängler. That was the first truly complete version on disc and for a legion of die-hards the only Tristan worth cherishing. The most recent versions, half a century later, have been a live account on DG under Christian Thielemann (2004) and a studio recording from London under Antonio Pappano (2005). The latter is especially poignant because it was privately underwritten by the Tristan, an aging but still convincing Placido Domingo, who realized the cruel realities of modern recording. If he didn’t pay, no company would take the risk of fronting the million dollars it takes to record Tristan in the studio under first-class conditions.

Since both of these sets received mixed reviews,I thought it would be interesting to consider the best available choices for this supreme Romantic opera. (We have come to that herky-jerky moment when a monument of Western civilization is brought down to the level of commerce. I apologize.) By some accounts, all Tristan recordings are so uneven that there is no clear winner, but you can consider which elements of the score are most important to you and make your selection accordingly.

If all that mattered were the conductor, the situation would be golden. Wilhelm Furtwängler heads the list in 1952 with his much-acclaimed mono set on EMI, but at almost exactly the same time Herbert von Karajan was conducting a live performance at Bayreuth, now issued in good broadcast mono by Orfeo, that gives Furtwängler a serious rival—I prefer it, in fact, for its dynamism and incisiveness. Twenty years later, this time in stereo, Karajan was magnificent with the Berlin Philharmonic in a studio set for EMI, despite some engineering quirks. Then there is Carlos Kleiber’s streamlined view on DG, which wipes off the blurry varnish of Wagner tradition (perhaps too vigorously?). These four sets give us a conductor-dominated perspective of a score whose orchestral part alone would rank as a pinnacle of Western music. The conductors encompass such diverse musical intelligence, insight, and virtuosity that I couldn’t imagine wanting more. Other notable Wagner conductors—Böhm, Solti, Knappertsbusch, and now (I suppose) Thielemann—have had their say in the modern era and have gained a clutch of enthusiastic fans, although I am not among them. Antonio Pappano, on the EMI set with Domingo, gives a fresh reading with many virtues, although he seems self-consciously breezy at times. Thielemann’s great flaw is inconsistency; he is apt to go slack and lose focus, yet there are many moments of skill and beauty.

I wouldn’t pick a favorite Tristan based upon the orchestra alone, but three glorious ensembles have recorded the work in top form: the Philharmonia for Furtwängler (captured in dry mono sound, however), the Berlin Philharmonic for Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic for Thielemann, and the Bayreuth Festival Orch. for Karl Böhm, the 1952 Karajan, and Barenboim (in case you consider him a major Wagner conductor—I don’t, but the orchestra plays very well for him in a live performance on Teldec). In the opera house I don’t think the Covent Garden orchestra could remotely keep up, but on Domingo’s EMI recording they sound quite beautiful, also.

For fifty years shadow cast by Melchior was so deep that every future Tristan was considered a make-do. However, Melchior left no commercial recording of the role.

Since the mid-sixties the field has opened up for musical singers who have almost but not quite enough voice to rank as Heldentenors. Wolfgang Windgassen gives an exemplary account for Böhm on DG, even though his leathery voice wasn’t beautiful and he tires badly before the end—the musicality is undoubtedly there. Even better is Domingo for Pappano, a studio effort that finds the senior superstar in tremendous voice, delivering one of his best Wagner roles (it was recorded in pieces with time-outs for rest, but there’s no feeling of segmentation). Domingo’s thrilling high notes and bright tone are a huge plus. At the same level I would put Ramon Vinay singing for Karajan in his Bayreuth rendition. Vinay traveled back and forth between heroic tenor and powerhouse baritone, giving tremendous animal magnetism and visceral impact to his portrayals.

Both he and Domingo come from a Spanish-Italian tradition, so neither can be classed as a true German singer, yet they make convincing, moving Tristans. Siegfried Jerusalem, another intelligent artist, lags behind them on the Barenboim set because the role is two sizes too big for him; the same goes for Thomas Moser under Thielemann obvious vocal strain makes both tenors hard to listen to. At the back of the pack comes René Kollo for Kleiber he is so over-parted that you feel like you’re watching a marathon runner trying to cross the finish line before he collapses from exhaustion. On Furtwängler’s classic set Ludwig Suthaus has a dry voice with medium heft, and the conductor’s slow tempos quickly wear him out. I’m not sure why his dull portrayal has become a silk purse in the eyes of modern critics. If only the better-voiced and more musical Set Svanholm had stepped in to take his place.

The best news among Tristans is that two tenors come as close as possible to being a match for Melchior. The first, Jon Vickers, gives a risky, emotionally intense performance on Karajan’s stereo account. If no one else in the modern era had sung the role on disc, I would be satisfied with Vickers, pace those critics who find him too personal, even eccentric in his decidedly non-German approach. Sheer power, intelligence, and vocal gleam make up for whatever lack of authenticity one detects. The other “real” Tristan is Ben Heppner, who may fall a fraction short of being a Heldentenor (he’s more naturally suited to Walther in Die Meistersinger and the title role in Lohengrin), but who overcomes all objections through beauty of voice, thrilling high notes, and emotional intensity. Sadly, his Tristan can only be heard on a DVD of a live Met performance under James Levine. One hopes that a record company will capture Heppner on disc before he gets too old—I believe Sony BMG has announced plans of the sort.

Conventional wisdom has it that two singers have owned the role, Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. That seems to leave little room for other dramatic sopranos, yet the case isn’t quite so simple. It may offend true believers, but Flagstad is past her prime and unexciting in her recording under Furtwängler, and although she sings with great authority, I for one don’t hear much dramatic diversity—she keeps pouring out the same steady, huge sound without telling us much about Isolde’s emotional changes. Birgit Nilsson, criticized in her day for the same reason, strikes me as a fierce Isolde in her live Bayreuth account under Böhm, and nothing overshadows the fact that her assumption was vocally stupendous. The gleaming voice conveys enormous intensity and power, and the character stands before you in all her rage, passion, and eventual transcendence. To me, it’s unthinkable to say you know the opera unless you have heard Nilsson. For a younger, somewhat softer version, she is also the Isolde for Solti on Decca, caught in 1960 as opposed to 1966 under Böhm. I find both portrayals incomparable vocally.

Things get muddled after the big two. On Karajan’s mono set we have Martha Modl, a powerful, intensely dramatic Isolde whose great flaw is that her voice was striking rather than beautiful—it’s almost curdled at times—yet for anyone who can listen beyond beauty of tone, Modl is very satisfying and a real risk-taker. On Karajan’s stereo set the role goes to Helga Dernesch, a Karajan discovery whose voice was supposedly ruined by taking on Brünnhilde and Isolde too early—or perhaps she was never destined to be a true Wagnerian soprano, a hindrance that didn’t stop Hildegard Behrens, either (she’s heard to distressing effect on Bernstein’s star-crossed version for Philips). Other over-parted Isoldes include Deborah Voigt (for Thielemann), Margaret Price (for Kleiber), Nina Stemme (for Pappano) or Waltraud Meier (for Barenboim…she isn’t even a soprano.

Among these contenders (or pretenders?), Dernesch comes closest. She had the misfortune to walk in Nilsson’s shadow—not only here but as Karajan’s Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. I have never understood the dismissive criticism of her Isolde, which strikes me as beautiful, dramatic, and intense. Critics invariably praise Margaret Price, on the other hand, whose lyric soprano suited Mozart in youth and later grew into Verdi, but to me her Isolde is purely a gimmick of the microphone. Yes, she’s youthful and fresh, but there’s no real Isolde there in terms of stature and authority. Nina Stemme could turn into a convincing Isolde with time—the young Swedish soprano shows great promise—but she was out of her depth on the Domingo set, where her agreeable vocalism is undercut by dramatic blandness. Meier is too obviously a make-do, squeezing out her high notes and hanging on for dear life the rest of the time, which brings us to Voigt. Her ventures into Wagner make sense in vocal terms, and she has the courage to do the role of Isolde live for Thielemann, exposing herself to cruel demands and inevitable exhaustion.

The problem with Voigt is that, like Behrens, she possesses only half a Wagner voice—the gleaming top—and where Behrens made up for lack of vocal weight through thrilling characterization on stage, Voigt is a dull singing actress. She pushes the notes with sufficient intensity, yet you never feel Isolde’s emotional power—at every moment a soprano with a big, beautiful voice is just pouring out sound. Make that shining voice twice as large, and you get Jane Eaglen, the dominant Wagner soprano of the day. Her strength lies in her top notes, too, but she can give a credible rendition of the entire role. Eaglen succeeds through sheer power, being able to carry over the orchestra without benefit of enhancement from the engineers. In the opera house she is vocally stunning, but Eaglen isn’t much for acting, so her portrayal on the same Met DVD as Heppner lacks dramatic interest. (I don’t believe she will be paired with Heppner on his proposed recording, but there are reasonable sounding pirate versions of their partnership from the Chicago Lyric Opera, easily found online. Be prepared for distortion and odd balances; clearly someone sneaked a portable tape recorder into the house) .

I’ve tried to give a fair assessment of the Tristan recordings that impress me personally. In the end, of course, each listener must decide which elements of this vast opera are most critical. Since I put conducting first and foremost, followed by dramatic believability, my preferred sets are as follows:

1. Karajan—EMI (stereo)
2. Karajan—Orfeo (mono)
3. Böhm—DG
4. Pappano—EMI
5. Furtwängler—EMI
6. C. Kleiber—DG

Demoting Furtwängler from his legendary status is controversial, but for overall enjoyment my top three versions are the ones I have returned to for several decades.

P.S.—For years the Met has suppressed live recordings from its stage, but under the new management, many have suddenly appeared online at Real Rhapsody, and now on the Met’s own site. They include a Dec., 1999 Tristan under James Levine with Heppner and Eaglen as the leads. It’s a formidable performance, one of the very best since the Nilsson era. Unfortunately, Heppner’s voice cracks three times in the final act, to painful effect. He and Eaglen are in fine voice otherwise, at least as good as on their DVD.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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