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Tristan und Isolde Met 1935 | IPCD 1078-3
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Reviews for IPCD 1078–3


WAGNER Tristan und Isolde • Artur Bodanzky, cond; Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde); Lauritz Melchior (Tristan); Karin Branzell (Brangäne); Friedrich Schorr (Kurwenal); Ludwig Hofmann (Marke); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1078-3 mono (3 CDs: 220:51) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 3/9/1935

& Interview with Geraldine Farrar and Giovanni Martinelli. WAGNER Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod (Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Lange, unidentified O.)

Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
September/October 2017

On February 2, 1935, the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad made her Metropolitan Opera debut, performing Sieglinde in broadcast performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Four days later, Flagstad sang her first Met Isolde. Isolde proved to be Flagstad’s most frequently performed role for the Met—55 times in the New York opera house, and 18 times on tour. Between 1935 and 1941, nine of the house performances were broadcast. A new Immortal Performances release allows the opportunity to hear the very first broadcast, from March 9, 1935. Flagstad was already 39 at the time of her Met debut, and entering the period of her career when the voice would soon become darker and weightier. All of Flagstad’s Met Isoldes are worth hearing, but it is the March 1935 broadcast that finds the soprano in her freshest voice. It was also a time when Flagstad best embodied the physical appearance (as Lawrence Gilman described in his review for the New York Herald Tribune, included in the CD set booklet) of “a young woman of royal dignity and grace, comely and girlish and grave, made desperate by the tragic passion that has enmeshed her.” Flagstad, in radiant voice, does indeed sound quite youthful, even more so when compared to her later broadcasts. To be sure, as the voice darkened over time, the interpretation also took on greater specificity and intensity. But there is something very special about hearing Flagstad in her youthful vocal prime, sailing through Wagner’s demanding music with enthusiasm and passion, albeit of a somewhat generalized type. An exquisite Liebestod rounds out a performance compelling both on its own terms, and as a harbinger of what would become a cornerstone of the legacy of perhaps the finest Wagnerian soprano of the 20th century.

In all nine Met broadcasts, Flagstad’s Isolde was paired with the Tristan of the Danish Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. By the time of the 1935 broadcast, Melchior had been singing Tristan at the Met for six years, and his masterful (indeed, unparalleled) assumption of the role was fully formed. As such, my comments about Melchior’s Tristan in the January 2, 1937 Met broadcast (also released by Immortal Performances) for the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of Fanfare (39:2) apply with equal force here: “Had Melchior decided to rely solely upon the beauty, power, and stamina of his unique and remarkable voice, he would have been the preeminent Heldentenor of his time, and perhaps of all time. But performances like this Tristan broadcast demonstrate that Melchior was a serious, dedicated, and thoughtful artist. The diction, range of vocal colors and dynamics, and variety of textual declamation are all exceptional. Melchior was also a master of pacing himself in performances, and here … he is as robust at the close as in his first entrance. Melchior’s final ‘Isolde!,’ coming right on the heels of a scorching depiction of Tristan’s delirious joy, would melt a stone.” The Swedish contralto Karin Branzell is a first-rate Brangäne, dramatically involved, and in lovely, fresh voice. Friedrich Schorr was the preeminent Heldenbaritone of his day, and an artist of the highest order. In this performance, there is no denying his artistry, and identification with the role of Tristan’s loyal friend Kurwenal. Schorr’s interactions with Melchior in the final act are extraordinarily moving. But although Schorr was only 46, the upper register had already begun to betray him, with many notes taking on a hard, colorless quality. As in the 1937 broadcast, Ludwig Hofmann is a sympathetic and well-sung King Marke.

Artur Bodanzky, then the Met’s leading conductor of Wagner, directs a masterful performance. Once again, my comments regarding the January 1937 broadcast apply: “Bodanzky was also known as a conductor who favored rapid tempos. That is certainly evidenced in this Tristan broadcast. The first act moves at a lively pace. And in moments like the buildup to Tristan and Isolde’s meeting in act II, Bodanzky whips the orchestra into a frenzy. But Artur Bodanzky also understood the need for repose. And so, the Liebesnacht, Brangäne’s Watch, and many portions of Tristan’s suffering in act III are taken at a pace that achieves full musical and dramatic effect. Throughout, Bodanzky elicits committed, beautiful, and incisive playing from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In Bodanzky’s hands, Tristan und Isolde journeys inexorably from the Prelude’s iconic opening bars (featuring subtle and lovely string portamentos) to the close of the Liebestod. In many ways, Bodanzky impresses me as an ideal complement to Ettore Panizza, his contemporary at the Met who conducted so many brilliant performances of the Italian repertoire.” Bodanzky’s superb conducting makes it all the more regrettable that he chose to cut significant portions of Wagner’s score. But what remains is Wagner conducting of the highest order. As an appendix, Immortal Performances includes an intermission feature from the broadcast, a conversation between two Met legends, soprano Geraldine Farrar and tenor Giovanni Martinelli. While the “spontaneous” exchange is, in truth, rigidly scripted, it also has considerable charm, and its historical value is of some significance. The set concludes with an excellent remastering of Flagstad’s first Liebestod she recorded for RCA, in 1935. The liner notes include Richard Caniell’s in-depth analysis of Wagner’s opera and the artists, a detailed and lovely synopsis, and comments on challenges surrounding the sonics of the broadcast. There are also some wonderful stills from the Met’s Tristan production.

The March 9, 1935 Met Tristan was previously issued on CD by West Hill Radio Archives. The recorded sound on that issue leaves much to be desired. For the most part, the voices have ample presence and definition, but louder passages, both vocal and instrumental, are harsh and congested. It’s not an exaggeration to say each time such an episode approaches, I feel compelled to rush to the volume control. In addition, there is often intrusive surface noise. Act III is in even poorer sound, as the engineers of the time struggled, often unsuccessfully, to capture voices situated great distances from the orchestra pit. The new Immortal Performances issue of the broadcast represents a dramatic improvement. To be sure, the sound does not begin to approach studio recordings of the time, or even the 1937 Tristan broadcast. But the balances between singers and orchestra are far better, and the climaxes emerge as a natural extension of the volume continuum, rather than an apocalyptic, ear-shattering experience. In the final analysis, the Immortal Performances release is best recommended to veterans of historic broadcasts, tolerant of the challenges such documents often present. But if you are at all interested in experiencing this performance, the Immortal Performances issue is the clear first choice. At long last, it is possible to hear and enjoy, rather than endure, a shining moment in the Met’s history.

WAGNER Tristan und Isolde • Artur Bodanzky, cond; Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde); Lauritz Melchior (Tristan); Karin Branzell (Brangäne); Friedrich Schorr (Kurwenal); Ludwig Hofmann (Marke); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1078-3 mono (3 CDs: 220:51) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 3/9/1935

& Interview with Geraldine Farrar and Giovanni Martinelli. WAGNER Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod (Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Lange, unidentified O.)

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
September/October 2017

Flagstad’s debut at the Met was on February 2, 1935, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Four days later she sang her first Met Isolde. She then, on February 15, returned to Die Walküre, but in the role of Brünnhilde. Then, on March 9, came this broadcast of Tristan und Isolde. By the time of her final performance of that season, on April 19, 1935, she had sung a total of 16 performances (in two-and-a-half months!), adding Elsa, Elisabeth, and Kundry to the three roles already noted (and a performance in one Gala).

The highlight, for me, of this performance is the second act. There is a beauty, even if I might be so bold, a humanity to the singing in the big duet. Without sacrificing any of the grandeur and magnificent scope of the music, Flagstad and Melchior (and, in her interjections, Branzell) bring a rarely encountered intimacy and quiet beauty to the music as well. The beauty of tone produced by Flagstad is remarkable. One can point to sopranos with perhaps more raw power, or a more incisive way of sculpting a phrase or indicating drama, but for sheer nobility and inner glow to the tone Flagstad had no equal. Caniell, in his superb notes, refers to Flagstad’s “tonal luminosity,” and that captures it perfectly. Hearing her here in her first season at the Met, just a bit over a month after her debut, is indeed to be in the midst of history.

And of course one should not take Melchior’s remarkable Tristan for granted, even though during his career many critics did. We have not really heard his like since his career ended. Tonal beauty, far keener dramatic instincts than many gave him credit for, astounding stamina, and a unique ability to produce a beautiful bronzed tone at all dynamic levels made him unique among Heldentenors. Particularly because the recorded sound in the third act is the poorest of all, this is not the best way to encounter his Tristan. But once again, enabling us to imagine what it must have been like for an audience in 1935 to encounter Wagnerian singing of this level is what makes this set valuable.

Branzell may well give us the most beautifully sung Brangäne I have ever heard. Hers is a very feminine portrait, sounding more like Isolde’s closest friend and confidant than some assigned to watch over her. Friedrich Schorr’s Kurwenal is also extremely empathetic, and his interchanges with Tristan are tellingly inflected. He does not always sound vocally comfortable, but he always sounds completely in character. Ludwig Hofmann’s Marke is perhaps not as strongly intoned as Alexander Kipnis’s was in those days (or René Pape’s is today), but it is inflected with a very touching affect. He sounds brokenhearted at Tristan’s betrayal, but at the same time understanding.

Everything about this performance is alive with excitement, intensity, drama, tenderness, passion, all the ingredients of a great Tristan und Isolde. At the core is the frenzied, but not out-of-control, conducting of Bodanzky. Yes he employed what were then traditional cuts, but his love for the music and investment in its overall momentum and beauty are clear.

As is always the case with Immortal performances, the presentation and production values are leagues beyond the norm. Also, as is usual with this company, the mood of the old Met broadcasts is re-created by the inclusion (on separate tracks) of Milton Cross’s commentary. A wonderful booklet is enclosed with insightful notes by Caniell on the opera, this performance, and the recording. In addition it has some terrific historic photographs, and biographies of the cast, along with a copy of Lawrence Gilman’s New York Herald Tribune review of Flagstad’s Isolde, which is a treat to read. The bonus interview of Giovanni Martinelli by Geraldine Farrar is fun to listen to, though hardly revelatory (and it sounds quite scripted). Hearing Farrar sing Grieg’s I Love Thee as a part of the intermission is, though, a lovely treat, as is hearing the Flagstad RCA recording of the Liebestod made also in 1935, particularly because the sound is so much better (and, again, beautifully restored by Caniell). This is the true glory of the Flagstad sound. For those who already own this broadcast on a prior release (West Hill Radio Archives), this is a significant improvement in every way, and definitely worth replacement.

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