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8.110200-02 - WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Larsen-Todsen, Graarud) (1928)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde


The story of Tristram and Yseult is one of the most potent and enduring legends of the Nordic, Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon peoples, so potent that it even became grafted on to the Arthurian cycle of legends when Tristram or Tristan (originally Drostan or Drystan) was said to be one of the Knights of the Round Table. It says much for the success of the opera Tristan und Isolde that since its première in Munich on 10th June 1865, the tale of the tragic lovers has been indissolubly associated with the name of Richard Wagner. Even before that première, however, the opera had been sending out shock-waves, as the famous Prelude with its extraordinary harmony – the very first sound to be heard has become known as the ‘Tristan chord’ – had been performed in three major cities and the entire score had been in print since 1860. For reasons which seem inexplicable today, it was thought unstageable: a première scheduled at the Vienna Court Opera in 1861 was aborted after 77 rehearsals. Undoubtedly the action was steamy by nineteenth-century standards of morality; but in addition the advanced harmonic thinking that was in evidence on every page appalled traditionalists as much as it excited the avant-gardists. Significantly Tristan und Isolde took nine years to achieve its second production, seventeen years to reach London and a further four to achieve a New York première.

            Wagner had been acquainted with the medieval legend for years, and it is strange that no other composer had tackled it, although Schumann had contemplated an opera on the subject and it had been lightly satirised in Donizetti’s delectable L’Elisir d’amore. In his work, Wagner was influenced by the writings of Schopenhauer and by a purely biographical factor – when he first became obsessed with the project in 1854, he had a guilty love for the married Mathilde Wesendonck. In order to complete Tristan he laid aside work on his Ring tetralogy and composed at unusual speed for him. The music was begun in 1856, the poem was written the following year and the score was ready by the end of 1859. Wagner made some changes to the story as he received it from his main literary source, Gottfried von Strassburg’s thirteenth-century epic Tristan. In particular he made Tristan and Isolde fall in love even before they became stricken by the love potion. There were one or two interesting undertones to the Munich première. The lovers were sung by a real-life husband and wife, Ludwig and Malwina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and the opera was conducted by Hans von Bülow, whose wife Cosima was already under Wagner’s thrall and had borne him a child, Isolde (supposedly Bülow’s daughter), on the day of the first orchestral rehearsal. Soon her liaison with him would become the scandal of the musical world.

            Recording Wagner’s music dramas was first taken seriously by His Master’s Voice (the Gramophone Company) in the early 1920s. Extensive excerpts in English, involving the brilliant conductor Albert Coates and the great bass Robert Radford, as well as other English-speaking singers, were recorded even in the acoustic era, when the vital orchestral element was perforce rather muffled, but as each 78rpm disc was considered as an entity, sessions were rather laissez-faire and there was no attempt to maintain a cohesive cast – in the excerpts from The Valkyrie, Radford as Wotan even had to interact with three different Brünnhildes. The advent of electrical recording in 1925 brought the possibility of achieving some semblance of Wagner’s orchestra, and HMV was quickly into action, producing a number of important Wagnerian excerpts in 1926, sung in German. So the firm’s executives were extremely put out when the following year they lost the auction for the right to record at the holy-of-holies, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, to their deadly rivals at The Columbia Graphophone Company.

            To its credit, Columbia rejected the HMV system of piecemeal excerpts and made a determined effort to give the Wagnerian record-buyer a coherent view of each drama. It was found too difficult to take down actual performances, so recordings were made when the Festspielhaus was not in use. Although, in the event, only extended excerpts from Parsifal were achieved in 1927, virtually the whole of Tristan und Isolde was set down in 1928 – Acts 1 and 2 were done substantially complete and only Act 3 was cut, a practice which was usual in those days anyway, in the interests of conserving the energies of singers and audience alike at the end of a long evening. The greatest exponents of the title rôles, Lauritz Melchior and Frida Leider, were under contract to HMV, but a fine cast was assembled, including Rudolf Bockelmann, regarded as second only to Friedrich Schorr as a Heldenbariton, and the handpicked Bayreuth orchestra and chorus were conducted magnificently by the underrated Karl Elmendorff. The set was issued with a disc of musical exegesis by the doyen of Wagnerian criticism, Ernest Newman.

            Around the same time, HMV was assembling a set, recorded in two different cities, making up an even bigger portion of Act 3. It was uneven in both performance and recording – three conductors were involved, the faithful Kurwenal was portrayed by three separate baritones and Sides 7 and 10 were difficult to reproduce smoothly on the gramophones of the day – but at its best it burnt more brightly than the Columbia set. In particular Albert Coates was capable of greater incandescence than Elmendorff and the lovers were interpreted by two legendary singers, the English tenor Walter Widdop and the Swedish soprano Göta Ljungberg. King Marke was interpreted by the same singer as at Bayreuth, the black-voiced bass Ivar Andrésen. It may help listeners to know that Howard Fry sings Kurwenal up to ‘es kann nicht lang’ mehr säumen’, then Charles Victor (Widdop’s teacher) takes over from ‘O Wonne! Freude!’ and Eduard Habich assumes the character in Scene 3, mostly recorded in Berlin. Kennedy McKenna sings the Shepherd in the London-recorded first scene (without its cor anglais solo, so well played on the Bayreuth set), while Marcel Noë takes the rôles of the Shepherd, the Steersman and Melot in Scene 3. Those who know the beautiful acoustic of Queen’s Hall will recognise it on the London sides.


Karl Elmendorff (1891-1962) was born in Düsseldorf and studied philology before entering the Cologne Conservatory in 1913. He conducted in Hagen, Aachen, Munich (the Bavarian State Opera, 1925-32), Wiesbaden, Kassel, Berlin (the State Opera, 1938-41), Mannheim, Dresden (the Saxon State Opera, 1941-5) and then, after denazification proceedings, Kassel again (1948-51) and finally Wiesbaden again. He was a regular conductor at Bayreuth (1927-42). His other major studio recording was the fine Bayreuth Tannhäuser of 1930, but other superb opera recordings were made during his Dresden period by German Radio.


Albert Coates (1882-1953) was born in St Petersburg; his father was English, his mother Russian. He studied the violin, cello and organ, also taking composition lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov. His other education was received in England, including four years at Liverpool University, and the Conservatory in Leipzig, where he came under the influence of Arthur Nikisch. He conducted at the Leipzig Court Opera, the Elberfeld Opera, the Saxon Court Opera, the Mannheim Court Opera and the Imperial Opera, St Petersburg (1910-18). He then embarked on an international career, although most of his many recordings were made in England. He ended his days in South Africa.


Nanny Larsén-Todsen (1884-1982), who hailed from Hagby in Sweden, studied at the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm before making her début at the Royal Opera there as Agathe in Der Freischütz in 1906. Later she had further studies in Berlin and Milan. From 1916 she had an international career, from 1922 virtually exclusively in Wagnerian rôles. She had successes at La Scala (1923-4), the Metropolitan in New York (1925-7), Bayreuth (1927-31) and all the major European houses including Covent Garden (1927 and 1930). After her retirement she taught singing and lived to a great age. She recorded for several labels.


Göta Ljungberg (pronounced Yerta Lyoongberry) (1893-1955) was also from Sweden, born at Sundsvall. At eight she sang for the Queen and after studies at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm with Gillis Bratt, she joined the Royal Opera in 1918, singing Gutrune (Götterdämmerung) and Elsa (Lohengrin). A beautiful woman with a charismatic stage presence, in 1924 she made a sensational début at Covent Garden as Salome and thereafter she was an international star, known especially for Wagner and Strauss rôles. In 1931-5 she was at the Metropolitan, New York, but by the mid-1930s it was clear that, like her contemporaries Rethberg and Austral, she had ruined her voice with too many dramatic rôles. Luckily she left a number of records which show her at her best.


Gunnar Graarud (1886-1960) was born at Holestrand near Oslo and studied engineering in Karlsruhe before being encouraged to take up singing seriously in Berlin. He made his début in 1919 at Kaiserslauten and sang all over Germany, including four seasons at Bayreuth. He also guested at most of Europe’s major houses. From 1929 to 1937 he was a member of the State Opera in Vienna, where he later taught singing at the Academy of Music. Best known for Wagner and Strauss, he was also a fine Handel singer. He recorded for a number of labels.


Walter Widdop (1892-1949) was born at Norland near Halifax into a labouring family but soon became known for his voice and after studies with Arthur Hinchcliffe, a pupil of Santley and Gustave Garcia, was just making progress when he volunteered for war service in 1914. Further studies in London with Charles Victor and Dinh Gilly led to his début as Radames in Leeds in 1923 with the British National Opera Company. He was the outstanding British tenor of the interwar years, famed equally for singing Wagner and Handel, and before HMV virtually stopped recording British singers, he made a number of superlative records. He died soon after singing Lohengrin’s Farewell at the Proms.


Rudolf Bockelmann (1892-1958) was from Bodenteich near Celle. After studies in philology and music at the University and Conservatory in Leipzig, he volunteered for war service and was wounded several times. He made his début in Celle in 1920 and from 1921 to 1926 sang at the Leipzig Opera. His first season at Bayreuth was 1928 and he returned regularly until 1942. In the meantime he enjoyed a brilliant international career, mainly in Wagnerian rôles. His few recordings sadly included songs with a blatant Nazi agenda. After the war he sang only in Hamburg and at the smaller German theatres, retiring in 1957.


Ivar Andrésen (1896-1940) was born in Oslo and after thinking he was a tenor, studied in Stockholm with Gillis Bratt and Hjaldis Ingebjart, emerging as one of the best basses of his era. His début was made as the King in Aida at Stockholm in 1919 and he remained a magnificent Verdi singer, while also making a reputation in Wagner and Mozart. From 1926 to 1934 he was the leading bass at Dresden. He then moved to the Berlin State Opera, where he had first appeared in 1931. From 1927 to 1936 he sang at Bayreuth and from 1930 to 1932 he was at the Metropolitan in New York. He also made guest appearances in London, Paris and other major cities. He died in Stockholm at the height of his powers. His dark voice was captured on many fine recordings of both opera and song.


Tully Potter






Act I

At sea, on the deck of Tristan’s ship.


[1] An extended prelude introduces a number of significant motifs which will be heard again during the drama.


[2] 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. Tristan’s comapnion Kurwenal is seen standing at the stern of the ship. After the sailor’s song has been heard again, Brangäne 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. [3] Incensed by Kurwenal’s response, Isolde tells Brangäne 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. [4] 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. [5] Refusing his offer of a sword with which to kill him, Isolde calls Brangäne whom she has instructed to prepare a draught of poison; as Tristan drinks, Isolde snatches the cup from him and empties it herself. [6] Unknown to either of them, Brangäne has prepared a love potion instead of a poison: before long it takes potent effect and Tristan and Isolde declare their passionate love while Brangäne 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 Cornwall.


[1] 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. [2] Isolde listens to the sounds of the night, oblivious to Brangäne’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 organized the King’s night-time expedition as a ploy to catch the lovers unawares. Isolde dismisses Brangäne’s warning and orders her to extinguish the lighted torch, which will be the signal for Tristan to join her in the garden. Brangäne 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 Brangäne to keep watch for the return of the hunt.

[3] Tristan hastens in and the lovers greet each other, [4] sharing their feelings in a prolonged “Hymn to the Night”. [5] Their ardent expressions of love are interrupted only by Brangäne’s admonition as she keeps vigil in a nearby tower. [6] Emotions intensify, Brangäne is again heard briefly, as the duet continues, [7] rising unrestrainedly towards an ecstatic climax. [8] 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. [9] 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.


[1] & [7] 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. [2] & [8] 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 [9] and how he came there. 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. [10] 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. [3] 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. [4] & [12] 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. [13] Brangäne 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. [5] 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, Brangäne tells her that she has revealed the truth about the love potion to the King,who forgives his intended bride. [6] & [14] 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

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