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Tristan und Isolde Met 1943 | IPCD 1102-3
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Reviews for IPCD 1102-3


WAGNER Tristan und Isolde • Erich Leinsdorf, cond; Helen Traubel (Isolde); Lauritz Melchior (Tristan); Kerstin Thorborg (Brangäne); Julius Huehn (Kurwenal); Alexander Kipnis (King Marke); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1102-3 mono (3 CDs: 204:01) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 2/6/1943

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
March /April 2018

Before you become too impatient with those who moon over “the good old days,” you should hear this performance. It was not a special gala evening. This was the norm for Wagner performances in the 1930s and 1940s at the Met—perhaps even one notch below the norm for Tristan, because Kirsten Flagstad had returned to Norway during the war and Marjorie Lawrence had been struck down by polio, so the Met had to turn to the third-ranked Wagnerian soprano of the era, Helen Traubel. Would that we had her like today. Every principal role is sung at an extraordinary level, and even if one can pick a few nits, the fact is if we walked into such a performance today, we would be utterly astonished.

This performance has been in circulation for many years. The best restoration before the present one was done in 1998 for Naxos by Richard Caniell, who is the proprietor of Immortal Performances. He writes about how he has improved on his earlier work in his Recording Notes in the booklet accompanying this set. A direct A-B comparison makes clear the improvement. The orchestral sound is warmer, fuller, and more natural. The dynamic range is wider because Caniell has been able to correct the compression of the original broadcast material, and the voices are more naturally colored as well. Given the lavish booklet, with its wonderful photos and superb annotation by Immortal Performances’ usual Wagner commentator, Dewey Faulkner, and the sonic improvements, this is definitely worthy of the investment even if you have the previous Naxos version.

One of the nits that can be picked with the performance is the amount of cutting that was frequently employed in Wagner at the Met in those days. There is about 35 minutes of music gone, most of it in the second and third acts. In addition to the traditional cuts that we hear in other performances, there is one apparently added at Traubel’s insistence—the monologue over the dead Tristan immediately following her arrival in the third act.

Traubel lacked the keen dramatic insights of the greatest of Wagnerian sopranos like Frida Leider and Lotte Lehmann, and even to a reasonable degree Flagstad. Traubel’s performance is more a vocally focused reading than a theatrical portrayal. But what a glorious sound it is, rich throughout its range up to about A or B♭. (She avoids the Cs in act II, choosing a lower alternative). Within that range there is a richness of color, a tonal juiciness and glow, that is uniquely hers. And Traubel possessed a marvelously even legato, stitching together Wagner’s long phrases in one continuous arc. There are also some moments of dramatic imagination, inflecting much of act I with genuine anger and bitterness at Isolde’s plight. But it is the glory of her sound that one takes away in memory, a lustrous beauty that rises above the orchestra in the Liebestod with a tonal magnificence that few, even among the great ones, have matched. I would not be without the Isoldes of Leider and Flagstad (or Birgit Nilsson for that matter), but neither would I be without Traubel’s

The one consistent element of Met Tristan performances beginning in 1929 and going through 1950 was the great Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior. John Steane, in his essential book The Grand Tradition, begins his discussion of Melchior this way: “… the years go by, and records continue to show him the greatest singer of the century in his own field.” With Melchior it is not only the steady emission of a beautiful tone, although that is fundamental to his success, but it is also his often-under-appreciated dramatic sense. Melchior had the ability to thunder, to soar, or to tenderly envelop you with the sweetest and tenderest of sounds. He was a far subtler actor with his voice than he was often given credit for, a point that Steane makes firmly. We hear it throughout this performance. Melchior conveys Tristan’s heartache and guilt in his scene with King Marke (where he empties his tone of color), Tristan’s ecstatic potion-induced passion in the first act, and the physical exhaustion and mental anguish of Tristan’s delirium scene in the last act (one wishes it weren’t truncated with cuts). In the opera’s central love duet, the richness and passion of singing from Melchior and Traubel define what we call “golden age” vocalism.

The strengths of this performance do not end with the two protagonists. Kerstin Thorborg sang the role of Brangäne 52 times at the Met, partnering both Flagstad and Traubel, and she was worthy of singing alongside both. Thorborg is vocally magnificent in the long lines of Brangäne’s Watch in act II and very specific with her vocal coloring in the music of the first act and beginning of the second. Her warm caring for Isolde is conveyed in the tone she addresses her mistress in, particularly after Isolde’s long narration and curse. Julius Huehn makes Kurwenal much more than the cardboard character he often seems. First of all, he sings beautifully, particularly in the last act as Kurwenal tries to comfort Tristan (and, quite possibly, himself). In the first act, Huehn is appropriately brusque, particularly in his exchanges with Brangäne. His is an imaginative and convincing portrayal of a character we often overlook.

Then there is Alexander Kipnis as King Marke. This is as splendid a piece of singing as one is ever likely to encounter. The king’s long monologue is, surprisingly, uncut—a decision one imagines Leinsdorf made because of the quality of Kipnis’s singing. The rich, deep bass voice produced on a foundation of almost bel canto legato is a unique pleasure to the ear. Kipnis conveys both Marke’s anger and the sadness at Tristan’s betrayal without overdoing either. His reappearance in the final act is thrillingly sonorous, and again very well conceived in terms of the drama.

The other cast members in smaller parts are all fine, and the sound Caniell has achieved here remains superb for this period. Listeners who know what to expect from a 1940s AM radio broadcast won’t be disappointed. In fact it sounds better than many such broadcasts. The inclusion of Milton Cross’s closing announcement and curtain calls adds a lovely touch of atmosphere to an important release


WAGNER Tristan und Isolde • Erich Leinsdorf, cond; Helen Traubel (Isolde); Lauritz Melchior (Tristan); Kerstin Thorborg (Brangäne); Julius Huehn (Kurwenal); Alexander Kipnis (King Marke); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1102-3 mono (3 CDs: 204:01) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 2/6/1943

Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
March /April 2018

Immortal Performances has issued several Golden Age performances of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I’ve reviewed two for Fanfare, both Met broadcasts, from March 9, 1935 (Sept/Oct 2017, 41:1) and January 2, 1937 (Nov/Dec 2015, 39:2). Both of those broadcasts star the legendary duo of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad in the title roles. During the 1930s, Melchior and Flagstad were the leading Wagner tenor and soprano of their age (and, many would argue, of all time). With the onset of World War II, Flagstad moved back to her native Norway. Melchior remained at the Met. The question arose as whether anyone would be able to take Flagstad’s place as Melchior’s partner in the immensely challenging Wagnerian repertoire. The answer to that question was in the affirmative, and in the person of the American dramatic soprano Helen Traubel. Traubel made her Met debut on May 12, 1937, as Mary Rutledge in Walter Damrosch’s Man Without a Country. With the exception of that opera, and four performances as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the remainder of Traubel’s Met repertoire was devoted exclusively to the works of Wagner. A statuesque woman with a voice of extraordinary depth, warmth, and power, Traubel was indeed the natural successor to Flagstad. Although the upper register was not the consistently strongest weapon in her arsenal, at her best Traubel was every bit Flagstad’s vocal equal. Traubel sang her first Met Isolde on December 4, 1942. The reviews were mixed, and on February 6, 1943, the audience of the Metropolitan Opera’s weekly Saturday afternoon broadcasts had the opportunity to hear and judge Traubel’s Isolde for themselves. And on this occasion, Traubel is in fine vocal form, displaying the qualities that made her such a formidable Wagnerian soprano. The voice is secure from top to bottom. It is true that Traubel avoids the high Cs in act II, and the Bs in act I are not extended beyond their given note values. But Traubel’s voice rides easily over the orchestra, and also keeps pace with Melchior’s heroic tenor, no small feat indeed. Traubel also does an admirable job of portraying Isolde’s shifting emotions throughout the course of the opera, if in a rather generalized way. But to be fair, Kirsten Flagstad took a similar approach. For both, their involvement in the drama is never in doubt, and their gorgeous and powerful voices eclipse the vast majority of Isoldes. Traubel’s stamina is also impressive, allowing her to close with a radiantly sung Liebestod.

All of the other principals are in resplendent voice as well. At the time of the broadcast, Lauritz Melchior was a month shy of his 53rd birthday, and had been singing the most demanding Heldentenor roles for two decades. Nevertheless, Melchior sounds every bit as vocally fresh and secure as he did a decade earlier. Tristan was one of Melchior’s finest dramatic interpretations as well, and he is at the top of his form in this broadcast. That someone could sing this punishing music with such vocal and interpretive mastery from start to finish is nothing short of miraculous. There have been many great Tristans since Lauritz Melchior, but the Danish tenor’s assumption of the role remains supreme. The great Swedish mezzo Kerstin Thorborg was a regular and treasured presence at the Met in the Wagnerian repertoire, including 52 performances of Brangäne. As is typical of her superb assumptions of this role, Thorborg sings beautifully, and creates a passionate, three-dimensional character. Julius Huehn was a vocal marvel, a heroic baritone with a voice of imposing power and virile beauty. Huehn wasn’t always the most subtle artist, but in this Tristan broadcast as Kurwenal, he effects a superb transformation from Tristan’s gruff companion in act I to the tender, supportive figure in the act III. And how wonderful it is to have the majestic bass Alexander Kipnis as King Marke. Kipnis had one of the most richly beautiful bass voices of the 20th century, which he lavishes upon Marke’s extended act II monologue. It is music that can, when performed by lesser artists, well overstay its welcome. That is not the case with Kipnis, who is riveting throughout. The conductor is Erich Leinsdorf, at the time, the Met’s leading Wagner conductor. Leinsdorf leads the performance with great assuredness and fleet tempos, encouraging fine playing from the Met Orchestra. Other conductors such as Beecham, Furtwängler, and Kleiber (Erich and Carlos), to name a few, have mined greater variety and nuance in the score. But when you have a cast of the caliber of this broadcast, shepherding the performance in an expert and efficient manner counts for a great deal. And the vocal glamour of the four principals makes this Tristan broadcast a very important one, indeed

My previous familiarity with this broadcast was via a 1998 Naxos release, restored by Richard Caniell, who is now the driving force behind Immortal Performances. The sound on the 1998 Naxos issue is quite good, better than many of the broadcasts available from a similar period. In his notes on the Immortal Performances recording, Caniell acknowledges that advances in technology have allowed him to improve on the previous release, and that he has done. In the new Immortal Performances restoration, the voices and orchestra are more present, both in volume and color, and there is a greater overall dynamic range. The sound approaches that of commercial discs of the period, and when you are dealing with singing of this level, that is a wonderful gift, indeed. The booklet materials feature a detailed, insightful, and elegantly-written essay by Dewey Faulkner, Richard Caniell’s poetic synopsis of Tristan, recording notes, a performance review by Claudia Cassidy, and artist bios and photos. Of course the various Melchior-Flagstad Tristans, both from the Met and elsewhere, are irreplaceable treasures. But this 1943 broadcast is on an equally rarefied level, and now, thanks to Immortal Performances, is available in excellent sound. A wonderful and very important document, and very highly recommended.

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