Reviews for IPCD 1042-4
Wagner TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
Thomas Beecham, cond; Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde); Lauritz Melchior (Tristan); Margarete Klose (Brangäne); Karin Branzell (Brangäne, Act 3); Herbert Janssen (Kurwenal); Paul Schöffler (Kurwenal, Act 3); Sven Nilsson (King Marke)
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
18 and 22 June 1937
& WAGNER Tristan und Isolde: Act II June 22, 1937 Performance (see review for details)
& WAGNER Flourish for a Coronation :Thomas Beecham, cond; London P O & Ch 4/1937
& John Steane speaking about Royal Opera Seasons between the wars.
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1042-4 (4 CDs, 295:27).
The history of the 1937 Covent Garden Tristan with Beecham is convoluted, the principal reason being that EMI officials made a mess of their legacy. Although they desperately wanted to record Melchior and Flagstad in this opera, and did in fact record two performances of the complete work on June 18 and June 22, 1937, they managed to retain not one single, unified performance. Some masters were lost, some were damaged. Clearly this was a company whose executives neither knew nor cared what art treasures their vaults held. The result is that this recording is a compilation, with the first two acts coming from the June 18th performance, and the third from June 22nd. We have a different Kurwenal and Brangäne in the third act, but other cast members are the same, and of course Beecham is a constant as well.
Prior releases have been less than successful, none worse than EMI’s which mixed up these two performance with a third, from 1936 conducted by Fritz Reiner, and issued the mess as Beecham’s before later admitting to the mistake. Other private labels have more or less gotten the source material mostly right, but with poor sonic results (many at the wrong pitch), and some not knowing that the first act was missing a bit from June 18th near the end, and that they really had June 22nd in that segment too. The June 18th original has, in fact, turned up for that final part of the first act, and is included in this version.
More important than getting the individual segments correctly identified is the overriding fact that this is an utterly remarkable performance of Tristan und Isolde, and is available now in a version that so completely supersedes all prior versions as to render them irrelevant. Richard Caniell has given his usual attention to detail, removing hiss, grit and noise to the extent possible but without destroying the color of the voices and the orchestra. Between this and other Flagstad performances, including EMI’s studio version with Furtwängler, we have many choices in hearing the soprano who most would agree was the greatest mid-twentieth century Isolde. If you told me I could take only one to that mythical desert island, I would choose this one (if the Furtwängler had Melchior in his prime as Tristan, my choice might be different).
Flagstad is often accused of being matronly, stolid, lacking in passion. To be sure, there are performances of hers that merit at least some of that criticism, though for me it always pales when set against the sheer glory of the voice itself. But this performance, perhaps inspired by Beecham, shows Flagstad not only at her vocal best, but responsive to text and to dramatic moment. She is girlish, she is impassioned, she is anguished, she is furious, she is tender; she is, in short, a complete Isolde. In no prior releases of this performance did her voice glow and shine the way it does in Immortal Performances’s transfer. The rich beauty of her top notes comes through with remarkable impact. We begin to have a hint as to what it must have been like to experience that sound in the opera house. The story of the high Cs in the Furtwängler performance being dubbed in by Schwarzkopf is well known to collectors, and that was a justifiable choice for a great Isolde near the end of her career. But those Cs in this performance, obviously sung by Flagstad, ring gloriously and with a complete sense of vocal freedom, and even triumph.
Melchior too benefits from the sonic improvements of this edition. There are enough live performance recordings of Melchior available now for us to recognize that the criticism of rhythmic sloppiness always hurled at him was only true on very limited occasions. In fact, Melchior sang long and complicated roles with as much accuracy as almost any tenor, and with a more beautiful and warm sound capable of more nuance and color than anyone else could manage in this music. This is the Tristan of one’s dreams, combining urgency, vocal beauty, and a very musical way of putting forth a phrase. In The Grand Tradition, still the best examination of operatic singing in the twentieth century, John Steane wrote of Melchior: “…the years go by, and records continue to show him the greatest singer of the century in his own field. Again (although his singing had much more subtlety than is generally attributed to him) it is basically a vocal excellence that distinguishes him. That is: a firm, steady emission of tone, exceptionally resonant and powerful, yet capable of a sweetness and grace of which any lyric tenor might be proud.”
The other prime beneficiary of the superb sonic restoration here is Beecham, or rather Beecham and the orchestra. No other edition of this performance offers this degree of richness and variety of orchestral color, this dynamic range, and in particular this beauty of string tone. Just getting the pitch right has made a huge difference, but opening up the orchestral sound has clarified the stature of this performance. Listen to the orchestra after the drinking of the potion, as it virtually explodes with passion. This is a score in which tension and release is crucial—particularly the long build-up of tension in the second act—and Beecham is a master of that element. It is, in fact, in the balance that he achieves between urgency and tenderness, between the intimate and the grand, along with his innate feel for phrase-shaping, that Beecham achieves something very special here. In Caniell’s thorough and candid commentary, he points out the peculiarly uninvolved playing of the orchestra leading up to the second act meeting of the lovers, and he is quite right, but he is also right in stating that is the only point in the entire opera with which one can fault the conducting (this is true, by the way, in both performances of the second act). Beecham does preserve some of what were then traditional cuts in the score (some of which might well have been to take some of the vocal cruelty out of the long third act scene for Tristan), but he cuts much less than Bodansky did.
We are fortunate that history has preserved a number of different performances of this opera with Flagstad and Melchior. There are performances conducted by Leinsdorf, Reiner, and Bodansky as well as Beecham. That is an estimable group, but having heard them all it seems to me that it is Beecham who most successfully maintains the enormous architecture of the score, balancing moment-to-moment drama with lyrical beauty and a sense that the music is always headed somewhere. Beecham takes the most risks, daring tempos that range from quite slow to very fast, and making it work because of his strong internal rhythmic pulse and the internal logic of the transitions.
That the third act of necessity comes from a performance four days later in and of itself is not seriously troubling. It was the same production, same conductor and orchestra, and same two lead singers. In the opera house there would be a 20 or 25-minute intermission, so to think in terms of direct musical continuity is disingenuous. There is, however, an issue caused by the different Brangäne and Kurwenal, but it is in reality a really unimportant. We are so swept up in the passion generated by Beecham and Melchior, as well as Flagstad at the end, that the change becomes a minor detail. Having the alternative June 22nd version of the second act as a bonus gives us an opportunity to directly compare Branzell and Klose in the same music. Both are strong Brangänes, Klose being a stronger, more forceful presence, Branzell the richer voice of a true contralto, which she uses movingly. As for the two Kurwenals, Janssen has the warmer timbre, Schöffler inflects with more specificity, but both are distinguished singers.
All of the subsidiary roles, including Sven Nilsson’s black-voiced and powerful Marke, are done well, and they are never a reason that one listens to, or doesn’t listen to, a performance of Tristan und Isolde. No operatic work depends more on its two principal singers and its conductor for success. What we have here is one of the greatest performances of that opera ever to be captured in recorded form, finally transferred in a way that respects the quality of the music-making and brings it all vividly to life.
Richard Caniell also gives us extensive and thoughtful notes that are way beyond what we get in most releases, either by the major record companies or certainly those specializing in historic material. I always appreciate and enjoy the fact that his notes are highly personal in nature. In addition, as a bonus he has included the June 22nd second act, which makes a fascinating comparison, particularly of the two Brangänes. I like both, in different ways, but think I prefer the vocal richness of Klose. Then he adds a bit of spoken commentary by one of the great vocal critics of the past century, John Steane, and a celebratory piece for chorus and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I know of no other recording of this work, which makes it all the more valuable. And one must also note the wonderful photographs included in the two accompanying booklets.
There are many labels, major companies and small independent producers, that make historic material available. None does it with the consistently high standards of Immortal Performances. Those of us who believe that the history of the art form of opera must be well documented, for our own enjoyment and for future generations, owe this company an enormous debt of gratitude.
Wagner TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
Covent Garden 1937
Sir Thomas Beecham conducting
Classical Recordings Quarterly
What Furtwängler called ‘the superhuman splendour of Madame Flagstad’s voice’ is gloriously in evidence, but here it has an enchanting freshness and youthfulness not found in her post-war recordings. The Tristan is Melchior – has there ever been a voice to equal his in Wagner’s Heldentenor roles? But he also knows how to act with it. . . . And, in the pit, there are Sir Thomas and the London Philharmonic, the orchestra he founded five years before, playing Tristan like musicians possessed.
Beecham’s is veiled, mysterious, beautiful . . . His interpretation, and the orchestra’s playing, have an extraordinary intensity. The phrases sing; at the same time there is a sure grasp of the score’s larger, wavelike motion. Nothing is rushed, the music is given space. And in the Liebestod the work comes to a wonderfully satisfying culmination; Beecham paces it flexibly but broadly, so that the final crescendo and climax, when they arrive, are overwhelming.
The achievement of Richard Caniell, mastermind of this 1937 Tristan project and restorer of the discs, is admirable. . . . the voices now sound marvellous: clear, rich, present, with a lovely bloom. As John Lucas says in his biography of Beecham . . . ‘for once the cliché is justified – a Golden Age of Wagner singing’, and you hear it in this Tristan.