About this Recording
8.110321-24 - WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Furtwängler) (1952)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde


Tristan und Isolde is a music-drama in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, first performed in the Court Theatre in Munich, Bavaria on 10th June 1865. Considered by most Wagnerians to be the most radical of the composer’s works in the originality of its treatment of chromatic harmony, it also had a profound influence beyond the realms of pure music. Tristan und Isolde has been described as a wonderful achievement. It is a huge flood of expression, exposing the hidden chambers of the heart. What cannot be denied nearly 140 years after its composition is the extraordinary hypnotic power and intense human emotion it evokes, from that remarkable opening chord of the Prelude to the over-powering resolution of the final chord at the end of the Liebestod. Wagner was most certainly one of  the most dominant figures in the second half of nineteenth-century cultural development. Furthermore, he was recognised as a fine writer, was his own librettist and the first modern interpretative conductor.


Following the departure of his wife Minna for Germany in the summer of 1854, Wagner, who was living in Zürich at the time, became increasingly attracted to the 26-year-old Mathilde Wesendonck. This growing attraction made the composer conceive the idea of a music drama, based on the tale of Tristan and Iseult. It was not until August 1857 that Wagner began work on the poem of Tristan and Isolde, based on the Arthurian legend. Music for the first act was completed in short score by the last day of 1857, with the orchestration being finally finished the following April. Composition was resumed in Venice in October 1858 and the whole second act finished by March 1859. Wagner then moved to Lausanne to complete the third act by August of that same year. The première of the music drama was scheduled for Karlsruhe in November 1861 but Wagner withdrew from the proposed production. The composer then had great hopes of an ideal presentation in Vienna, also in November, but then abandoned such plans. It was not until June 1865 that the work reached the stage.


The present 1952 studio-made recording of Tristan und Isolde was Wilhelm Furtwängler’s first complete opera recording. It was also EMI’s first large-scale complete operatic recording to be recorded in London entirely using magnetic tape. Additionally, it was to be the only complete recording of a Wagner opera to be recorded in the studio by the producer Walter Legge. (He had, incidentally, been in charge of the live recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg made during the 1951 Bayreuth Festival.) Furthermore, it was the first complete large-scale operatic recording to be undertaken by the Philharmonia Orchestra. It would also be the first Wagner opera to be engineered by Douglas Larter, who had been involved with the technical aspects of recording for HMV, and later EMI, for almost thirty years.


At the time of recording in June 1952 Kirsten Flagstad was without doubt the foremost Wagnerian soprano of the day. She was then aged 57, and had sung her final Isolde on stage a year earlier in London. She was, understandably, somewhat reluctant to undertake such a demanding rôle under the spotlight of the microphone. Flagstad was nervous about the reliability of her top notes at her age, especially when she might have to repeat certain passages time and again. It was then suggested to her that she might like to have some ‘cover’ for her top Cs in Act Two. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was happy to assist and Flagstad eventually agreed. Thus in the Love Duet there were three singers in the studio: Suthaus and Flagstad with Schwarzkopf to sing the notes in question. They were quite definitely not edited in at some later stage. (The Melot in this recording, Edgar Evans, was present at the time and quite clearly remembers the event fifty years on as if it were yesterday.) Also members of the orchestra have also testified to this fact over the years. Nevertheless, when some unwitting member of EMI inadvertently leaked this news to a Daily Mail reporter, Flagstad was greatly distressed by the disclosure, so much so that she refused to renew her contract beyond the end of 1953.


Another major obstacle surrounding the recording concerned who was to produce or supervise the project. Flagstad was adamant that she wanted Walter Legge, who had produced all her post-war recordings in Britain. Furtwängler, however, had had a bitter on-going grievance against Legge over the latter’s secretive choice of Karajan as conductor of two Mozart operas in Vienna in 1950 (Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte), after Furtwängler had conducted both operas at the Salzburg Festival that year. Then in April 1952 Legge made some unfortunate comments about the older musician that reached Furtwängler’s ears. The conductor wrote to Brenchley Mittell, the General Manager of EMI’s International Artistes Department, demanding that in future Legge was not to supervise any further sessions with him. The upshot of all this unpleasantness was that Lawrance Collingwood (HMV’s senior producer) was despatched to see Furtwängler immediately in an attempt to placate the conductor. (Collingwood would produce all of Furtwängler’s recordings after Tristan until the latter’s death in November 1954.) Eventually an apology was forthcoming from Legge and, for the moment, the dust settled, and Legge was assigned to Tristan. The recording progressed successfully and finished before time, so much so that the conductor remarked to the producer at the final playback: “My name will be remembered for this, but yours should be also”.


The advantages of magnetic tape over the previous wax system were soon appreciated by Furtwängler, who, until then, had had to be constrained by having to stop and restart every four and half minutes. The new technology allowed for far longer stretches of music to be recorded at a time. This greatly assisted the conductor’s famed ability to think and work in long paragraphs. Although editing was still at a fairly early stage, it was now possible to edit out serious errors and to splice in corrected versions. Nevertheless, both producer and engineer were still very wary of such attempts at editing and such things were kept to a minimum. Quite unlike what it would become half a century later.


The final choice of the other singers would also prove in part troublesome. The original choice for Brangäne was Martha Mödl. Originally a mezzo, she had now moved into the soprano repertoire and had been booked to sing Isolde at the 1952 Bayreuth Festival under Karajan. (Legge, incidentally, wanted to record those performances as well.) Eventually she declined the mezzo rôle, so the choice now moved to Margarete Klose. Unfortunately she had other commitments from which she could not obtain release. Finally, Blanche Thebom (American-born of Swedish parents) was selected at the suggestion of Flagstad. Three tenors were short-listed for Tristan, Bernd Aldenhoff, Günther Treptow and Ludwig Suthaus, but as Furtwängler knew the last of these from having worked with him on a number of occasions, he was the final choice. Fischer-Dieskau and Schock, both then contracted to EMI, were pencilled in from the start. The rôle of King Mark was a toss up between the German Ludwig Weber (who the previous year had recorded Mark’s Monologue for Legge) or the Bulgarian Boris Christoff (whose German was little better than his French). In the end. however, it was the German Josef Greindl who was selected. The choice of Edgar Evans as Melot was a late decision. As he told me, when I was writing this note: “I was at Covent Garden rehearsing Alfredo in La traviata, when I received a phone call asking me to go over to the Kingsway Hall where Walter Legge wanted to audition me for Melot. I knew the part, having sung it opposite Flagstad at Covent Garden since 1948. I had a piano rehearsal in front of Legge and Furtwängler, and was offered the part on the spot. I was asked to remain for the rest of the day as I would be needed for the afternoon session. During the course of the afternoon, however, matters became highly strained, when the conductor became increasingly unhappy with the whole proceedings and walked out in a tantrum. I was asked to return the following morning when, happily, all went well”. The chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was a fairly new body with many excellent voices in it, and the Philharmonia Orchestra was under contract to EMI for a large number of sessions annually. (It also happened to be ‘owned’ by Legge.)


The release of the recording in early 1953 was greeted with unstinting praise from the critics and from Wagnerians, who were thrilled to have a complete recording of the opera. The heroes of the recording proved to be, first and foremost, Flagstad and Furtwängler, but Suthaus was felt to have surpassed himself, while the young Fischer-Dieskau (still only in his late twenties) as Kurwenal set the seal on his growing international career. Opinions of Thebom and Greindl were more guarded but Schock and Evans were praised for their contributions. The Philharmonia covered themselves in glory, proving that they were indeed a world-class orchestra. Legge’s contribution should not be overlooked but Douglas Larter’s engineering contribution was never sufficiently recognised at the time. Overall, it is small wonder, therefore, that this recording remains a landmark in recording history.


The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) made her début at the age of eighteen while still a student in Oslo. For the following decades she sang exclusively in Scandinavia. It was only in 1934 that she was engaged for the Bayreuth Festival, but it was with her sensational unscheduled first American appearance as Brünnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York that her international career took off. She appeared most successfully in London in 1936-37 as Isolde and Senta, as well as Brünnhilde. In 1941 she returned to occupied Norway to rejoin her husband who was a Nazi sympathizer. Although she was freed from any taint of collaboration, her post-war return to the United States did not take place until 1949, when she sang in San Francisco. She returned triumphantly to Covent Garden, however, between 1948 and 1951 to present her Wagnerian interpretations. Although she sang in opera in New York (1950-52) and Salzburg (1950), her final stage appearance was as Purcell’s Dido in London in 1953. Retiring in 1954 she became the Director of the Royal Norwegian Opera between 1958 and 1960. Before recording for Decca between 1956 and 1958, Flagstad had made a number of earlier discs for HMV and Odeon. It was, however, the recordings for EMI and RCA, covering the years 1935 to 1953, that established her internationally. If not the most dramatic of stage performers her place in the gallery of great Wagnerians is exemplified by her sheer vocal beauty and quality of tone.


The German tenor Ludwig Suthaus (1906-1971) was born in Cologne, later studying at the city’s Musikhochschule before making his début as Walther von Stolzing in 1928 in Aachen, where he would remain until 1931. He sang regularly in Stuttgart between 1932 and 1941, when he moved to Berlin where he was based until 1965. His international career blossomed in postwar Europe with appearances in Wagnerian rôles in Vienna (1948), Paris (1949), Buenos Aires (1949), London and San Francisco (both 1953) and Milan (1954). His other rôles included Samson, Rienzi, Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos), Sadko, Otello, Florestan and Hermann (The Queen of Spades). Although his voice was somewhat baritonal in quality, Suthaus was admired in the Wagnerian Heldentenor repertoire. In 1954 he sang Siegmund in Furtwängler’s recording of Die Walküre.


The mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom was born in New York of Swedish parents in 1918. Studying with both Margarete Matzenauer and Edyth Walker, it was as a concert singer that she made her début in 1941. Her first appearance with the Metropolitan Opera on tour was as Brangäne in Tristan in November 1944, with her New York house début as Fricka in Die Walküre the following month. She remained a member of the company until the 1966-67 season, giving 236 performances of 26 rôles. Thebom sang at Glyndebourne in 1950 and made a much talked-about appearance in the first English professional production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens at Covent Garden in 1957. Her other rôles had included Marina (Boris Godunov), Herodias (Salome), Orlovsky and Amneris. She was also much admired as a concert performer throughout the United States. After retiring in 1967 she became General Manager of the short-lived Atlanta Opera Company before teaching at the University of Arkansas.


The German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin in 1925. After war service he studied with the tenor Georg Walter and made his operatic début as Posa in Don Carlos in 1948. His career soon blossomed internationally with stage appearances in Vienna (1949) and Salzburg (1952). His London début was in Delius’s Eine Messe des Lebens conducted by Beecham in 1951, a year which marked his first recordings in that city. He sang the rôles of Herald (Lohengrin), Wolfram, Köthner and Amfortas at the Bayreuth Festival during the years 1954-56. His Covent Garden début took place in 1967 as Mandryka in Arabella. His much awaited but delayed portrayal of Hans Sachs took place in Berlin when he was fifty. His operatic repertoire embraced all the principal Italian rôles in addition to the main German ones. It is, however, in Lieder and song that he is probably best remembered. His work in these fields resulted in his becoming the most recorded classical singer of all time. In later years he took up a conducting career, in addition to writing on Schubert, Schumann and the area of Lied in general.


The German bass Josef Greindl was born in Munich in 1912 and studied singing with the bass Paul Bender and the soprano Anna Bahr-Mildenberg. His début took place with a semi-professional performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1935, followed by a professional one the following year in Krefeld as Hunding. He sang in Düsseldorf between 1938 and 1942 before moving to Berlin. Engaged first at the city’s Staatsoper, Greindl moved to the Städtische Oper in 1949. His first appearance at the Bayreuth Festival was in 1943 and he returned regularly during the seasons 1951 to 1970, singing all the principal bass rôles in addition to Hans Sachs, the rôle with which he made his London début in 1963. He also sang in New York and Milan. Greindl was a fine Mozartian and a much-admired Boris Godunov in addition to also appearing in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in the first German performances in 1959. After retiring he taught singing in Saarbrücken. He died in 1993.


The German tenor Rudolf Schock (1915-1986) was born in Duisberg and studied singing in Cologne and Hanover. His stage début was at Brunswick in 1937 but his singing career was interrupted by five years of military service. In 1946 he was engaged by the Staatsoper in Berlin and Hamburg, remaining with the latter until 1956. His Salzburg Festival début was in 1948, followed by two seasons at Covent Garden (1949-50) where his rôles included Rodolfo (La Bohème), Alfredo (La traviata), Tamino, Pinkerton and The Olympians (Bliss). In 1951 he joined the Vienna State Opera and the following year sang at the Edinburgh Festival. His Bayreuth début was as Walther von Stolzing in 1959, a rôle he had earlier recorded with Rudolf Kempe. His later career was most successful in operetta, television and film. He recorded prolifically over a period of almost thirty years, including Lohengrin, Erik in Der fliegende Holländer, and Max in Der Freischütz, in addition to operettas by Johann Strauss and Lehár, Lieder and popular song. He was generally considered the successor to Richard Tauber.


The Welsh tenor Edgar Evans was born in Cardiganshire in 1912 and studied singing in London and Milan. He was a member of the chorus of Sadler’s Wells Opera from 1937 until 1940, the year he joined the Police War Reserve in London, followed by a spell with ENSA. In 1946 he became a founder member of the new permanent company at the Royal Opera House Company at Covent Garden with whom he was a Principal Tenor for 29 years. His rôles included many of the main French, German and Italian ones, but he is especially remembered for his gripping portrayal of Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Retiring from Covent Garden in 1975, he spent what he describes as “ten very happy years” teaching at the Royal College in London. His only other commercial recording is the rôle of the Mayor in Britten’s own recording of Albert Herring.


Controversial he may have been but Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) was the foremost German conductor of his time. Born in Berlin, he studied composition with Rheinberger and Max von Schillings, having written his first work at the age of seven. In 1906 he made his conducting début in Munich and later that year became a répétiteur at the Stadttheater, Breslau. Following appointments in Zürich (1906-07), Munich (1908-10), and Strasbourg (1910-11), he became Music Director at Lübeck Opera in 1911. This was followed by five years in Mannheim from 1915. His first Viennese engagement took place in 1919. After the death of Nikisch in 1922 Furtwängler succeeded him at the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestras. He made his first visit to London in 1924 and to the United States the following year. His international reputation grew with further American and European engagements. His appointment as Toscanini’s successor in New York in 1936, however, was blocked for political reasons. Controversially Furtwängler had chosen to remain in Germany during the Nazi period but resigned all his German appointments in 1934. After being ‘de-Nazified’ in 1946, he resumed his European career in 1947 with great success. In addition to his annual appearances at the Salzburg Festival, he also conducted the opening concert at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival in 1951. He died of pneumonia in November 1954, aged 68. This recording of Tristan, regarded as his finest achievement in the recording studio, very possibly represents his interpretative creativity at its finest within such limitations. Half a century on and this document remains a superb achievement and a testament of a great performance from all involved.


Malcolm Walker



Producer’s Note


The present transfer was made primarily from two sets of German LP pressings, with an additional two sets of American pressings used for patching in a couple sections.  There are occasional, brief dropouts and distortion due to volume level overload inherent in the original tape masters.  Radical methods have not been used to reduce hiss in the interest of preserving high frequencies.


Mark Obert-Thorn





CD 1


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 this, Isolde bursts into a rebellious tirade against the weakness of her own people who have been overcome by their enemies. Tristan’s companion Kurwenal is seen standing at the stern of the ship. [3] 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. [4] Isolde is incensed by Kurwenal’s response. [5] She 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. [6] Now she wishes she had been more courageous, curses him and determines to avenge Morold’s death with poison. [7] As the ship reaches land, Kurwenal urges the women to prepare themselves. Isolde demands to speak to Tristan under the pretext of pardoning his crime. [8] He finally joins her. She tells him that she recognised his murder disguise but that now she truly will take revenge.


CD 2


[1] 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. [2] 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.


[3] 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. [4] 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. [5] Tristan hastens in and the lovers greet each other, joining in their delight in the night, [6] although Isolde reminds her lover that he has been a creature of the day, distorting their love. [7] She sits, while Tristan kneels by her side as they call together on the night of love. [8] Their ardent expressions of love are interrupted only by Brangäne’s admonition as she keeps vigil in a nearby tower.


CD 3


[1] Emotions intensify, Brangäne is again heard briefly, as the duet continues, rising unrestrainedly towards an ecstatic climax, as they glory in the night. [2] A horrified scream is heard from the maid as the King, Kurwenal, Melot and their friends rush in to surprise the lovers. [3] The King questions Tristan, reproaching him for this betrayal of trust. [4] 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.


[5] 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. [6] 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 Kurwenal where he is [7] and how he came there. On being told that Isolde has been summoned to join him, he deliriously imagines that she is nearby.


CD 4


[1] Tristan praises Kurwenal’s loyalty and thinks he sees Isolde’s ship approaching, but the shepherd’s sad air is heard again. [2] There is no ship to be seen. 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] He faints and Kurwenal finds that his master is still breathing. [4] 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. [5] 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. [6] Unable, to revive him, Isolde falls insensible to the ground. [7] The shepherd tells Kurwenal that he can see a second ship approaching and the helmsman confirms that King Marke and others are aboard. 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. 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. [8] 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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