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A R T S

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P H O T O G R A P H Y

TRISTAN ON RECORD This might suggest that Tristan would be particularly well suited to recording. And bearing in mind Wagner’s letter to Mathilde, in which he expressed concern that a good stage performance of Tristan would be enough to send anyone mad, Tanner suggests that hearing the opera on record has one major advantage: ‘It enables us to stop and wait until we can cope with Act 3; an advantage the tenor singing Tristan must still be more grateful for.’ Right from the very first major studio recording of the work – Fürtwängler for Walter Legge’s EMI in 1952 – the advantages of the studio have been exploited. Famously, Kirsten Flagstad, some way past her prime as Isolde, would only record the role if her diminished top notes could be bolstered by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Three decades later, Carlos Kleiber’s DG recording allowed us to hear Margaret Price as the fiery Irish princess, a role she never came anywhere near performing on stage, though we’ll only ever have an imperfect idea of what Kleiber was aiming for in this recording of the sole Wagner opera he ever conducted. Disagreements during the sessions led to him walking out, leaving the project unfinished. DG’s producer, however, had kept the microphones on during rehearsals, and managed to put together a complete performance, released two years after the conductor had abandoned the recording.

Karl Böhm’s famous Bayreuth set, recorded by DG in an empty Festspielhaus in 1966, rattles through the score at some lick, while Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable Philips recording, taped act by act in concerts in Munich in 1981, can seem like an experiment in pushing the boundaries of interpretative possibility. Karajan, in his EMI recording, seems to view the work as a grand symphony, into which the singers often feel poorly integrated, while Antonio Pappano’s 2005 set, also for EMI, is perhaps best enjoyed as an early record of Nina Stemme’s world-leading Isolde (also captured on Marek Janowski’s live-in-concert set for Pentatone). No paid-up Wagnerian would want to be without many of these, or the studio recordings by Solti, Goodall and Barenboim. But it’s surely significant that when Mike Ashman surveyed the work’s discography in these pages (9/06), it was a live recording that came top of the 65 then extant versions: Knappertsbusch’s 1950 set, on Orfeo, from the Bavarian State Opera.

Perhaps this leaves us with one conclusion to draw about Tristan, a work so fascinatingly woven through with contradictions: despite its outlandish demands, it still belongs in the opera house, the very institution it changed forever.

RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS Four very different approaches to Tristan und Isolde

Flagstad, Suthaus; Royal Opera / Furtwängler Warner Classics S d  585873-2 (8/04)

Tristan’s first major studio outing, and for many Wagnerians the best

Nilsson, Windgassen; Bayreuth Festival / Böhm DG M c 449 772-2 (7/88R)

Böhm’s classic Bayreuth recording is taut, unindulgent and dramatic

Price, Kollo; Staatskapelle Dresden / C Kleiber DG S d 413 315-2 (11/86)

Very much of the studio, Kleiber’s Tristan is still often thrilling

Behrens, Hofmann; Bavarian Radio SO / Bernstein Philips F d 438 241-2 (10/84R)

A Tristan of extremes: Bernstein stretches the score to its limits gramophone.co.uk

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE

GRAMOPHONE JUNE 2015 15

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