About this Recording
8.110068-70 - WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Melchior, Flagstad, Reiner) (1936)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Tristan UI

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)

Tristan Und Isolde


A music drama in three acts to the composer's libretto, based on Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan of circa 1210


"… a monument to love, this most beautiful of all dreams"  Wagner on Tristan und Isolde


This thrilling recording of Tristan und Isolde preserves one of the greatest partnerships in the whole history of opera, Kirsten FIagstad and Lauritz Melchior first sang together (at the Metropolitan, New York) in 1935, Flagstad's arrival took the American public by storm; she had hitherto sung little outside Scandinavia and her name was known to few opera enthusiasts, To quote her accompanist and biographer, Edwin McArthur, "… from an obscure position in the provincial musical world, this woman, relatively late in life, suddenly blazed upon the international scene"," Isolde was almost new to her as, apart from a handful of performances in Norway (and in Norwegian) a few years earlier, this visit to New York offered her first assumption of the role, Flagstad's appearances at Covent Garden in 1936 were similarly greeted with enthusiasm and we are fortunate indeed that this recording was made "live" at the opera house that season, during which she sang tout performances of Tristan und Isolde.


In the summer of 1936 Lauritz Melchior was far better known than Flagstad in both Britain and the United States. At the time this recording was made, his Tristan was a thoroughly experienced and secure interpretation; he had been singing the role for over seven years and during his career he performed it more frequently than any other in his repertoire – over 200 times.


Yes, one of the greatest partnerships in the history of opera, but one that lasted only six years, In April 1941 Flagstad flew from the United States to rejoin her husband, the industrialist Henry Johansen, in occupied Norway and the greatest Tristan and Isolde of the century never sang together, never met, again.


Both Melchior and Flagstad performed in the opera (or Handlung/music drama to use Wagner's own term) with other singers of international renown, but never apart did they generate the dramatic excitement and lyrical eloquence that this recording illustrates; and both were easily able to sustain their long roles through three acts without any audible evidence of tiring (though it must be mentioned that in this performance some then-customary cuts were made in the first part of the Act 2 love duet and in Tristan's taxing scene in Act 3).


Flagstad is truly aristocratic. By sheer tonal splendour she portrays the Irish princess in all moods; the fury of the first act outburst, followed soon by the fervent declaration of love as the potion takes effect. Isolde's greeting of Tristan in Act 2 is spontaneous and, not unexpectedly, tense with anticipation. The love duet exemplifies Flagstad's reputation for beautiful, soft singing which then, without apparent effort, soars passionately before the untimely interruption of Marke and his courtiers; always secure, achievement never in doubt. At the close of the third act Flagstad, resigned, fulfilled and still enraptured by her love for Tristan, sings the most moving Liebestod on record.


Melchior's interpretation is based on different assets. Immediately we hear his first responses in Act I we are aware that his early training as a baritone remains a beneficial influence. Just where some tenors are particularly vulnerable -at the lower end of their range - Melchior is strong and assured; and so on, up through to a ringing top, confident and secure all the way. (Incidentally, there is little evidence on this recording of some of Melchior's noted mannerisms. He had a reputation for rhythmical slackness and carelessness over note values. But here, some oddly emphatic pronunciation apart, he behaves pretty well.) He is incomparably moving in his third act delirium - and makes a whole world of love out of the single word "Isolde" at Tristan's death.


These two fine singers are handsomely supported by their colleagues on stage and in the pit. The London Philharmonic Orchestra play with commitment under Fritz Reiner (1888 -1963). His reputation for irritability with orchestras is fortunately not evident in this tautly led, well paced performance -no self-indulgence here. Janssen (1895 -1965) is a compassionate Kurwenal, a role he also sang with success at Bayreuth and, from 1939, at the Met, after voluntarily terminating a career at the Berlin Staatsoper. As King Marke, the Austrian-born Emanuel List (1890 -1967) employs his dark, resonant tones in a part he too sang regularly at the Met (from 1934). Like Janssen, he appeared in Berlin before the second world war and also in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Buenos Aires and throughout the USA. As Brangane we hear the Polish contralto Sabine Kalter (1890 -1957). After training in Vienna she sang mostly in Hamburg, moving to London before the war; at Covent Garden she sang principally Wagnerian roles, ending her career there in 1939. She sings with haunting beauty in the distant warning to the lovers in Act 2 and her exchanges with Isolde in Act I display an urgency that shows what can be made of this part.


As "live" recorded performances frequently do, this Tristan und Isolde has a theatrical frisson often absent from studio recordings. Even to an offstage voice briefly vocalising during the First Act Prelude (Flagstad warming up?), even to the sound of Kurwenal running up steps to see Isolde's ship in Act 3, even to the occasional audience cough, we are taken back to Covent Garden on that summer night in 1936 to hear one of the great performances of the century.


Paul Campion




Act I

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 which Isolde bursts into a rebellious tirade against the weakness of her own people who have been overcome by their enemies. Her servant Brangane tries to pacify her as Tristan, with his servant Kurwenal, is seen standing at the stern of the ship. After the sailor's song has been heard again, Brangane 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. Incensed by Kurwenal's response, Isolde tells Brangane 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, Isolde demands to speak to Tristan under the pretext of pardoning his crime, and 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 Brangane 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, Brangane has prepared a love potion instead of poison; before long it takes potent effect and Tristan and Isolde declare their passionate love while Brangane 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.


Act II

A summer night in King Marke's castle in CornwaIl.

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 Brangane'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 organised the King's night-time expedition as a ploy to catch the lovers unawares. Isolde dismisses Brangane's warning and orders her to extinguish the lighted torch, which will be the signal for Tristan to join her in the garden. Brangane 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 Brangane to keep watch for the return of the hunt.


Tristan hastens in and the lovers greet each other, sharing their feelings in a prolonged "Hymn to the Night". Their ardent expressions of love are interrupted only by Brangane's admonition as she keeps vigil in a nearby tower. Emotions intensify, Brangane is again heard briefly, as the duet continues, rising unrestrainedly towards an ecstatic climax.


But 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 and 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 his servant where he is; on being told that Isolde has been summoned to join him, he deliriously imagines that she is nearby and orders Kurwenal to find her ship. But the shepherd's sad music is again heard. 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. 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. Brangane 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, Brangane 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


Keith Anderson


Close the window