OP3155. TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Live Performance, 2 Jan., 1937, w. Bodanzky, cond. Metropolitan Opera Ensemble; Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Kerstin Thorborg, Julius Huehn, Ludwig Hofmann, etc. (replete with Milton Cross’ commentaries); BBC Interview: Flagstad talks about singing Wagner; Lauritz Melchior & Kirsten Flagstad: DIE WALKÜRE – ‘Todesverkündigung’, Live Performance, San Francisco Opera, 1939. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1040. - 748252292247
“Richard Caniell describes quite a story in his recording notes to this release. Caniell interpolated all that was necessary to make this January 1937 performance of TRISTAN a complete one, while also adding dimension to the sound. It is hard to believe, indeed, that this is a late 1930s performance….The level of audible orchestral detail throughout is stunning. There is also a sense of presence to the voices that makes this set a joy to listen to. More, the depth of the strings in the Prelude to Act III is magnificent. The ultra-high string ascent emerges as fragile as a sliver of spider’s web, perhaps the pain of Tristan himself internalized into instrumental form; similarly, the English horn solo lament speaks of unutterable pain.
Bodanzky’s Prelude to Act I moves with real intensity towards its crushing climax; and that climax is expertly handled in transfer terms, avoiding overcrowding and maintaining its overwhelming effect. Bodanzky’s Wagner is brisk: his uncut Act I is around 73 and a half minutes, whereas Furtwängler in his famous account with Flagstad is over 85. There is certainly momentum here, a propulsive quality that honors the impulsive side of the action while admittedly underselling the spiritual. It works best by far in moments such as the approach of the ship in Act III. Flagstad and Melchior fully buy into Bodanzky’s approach, though, and somehow Flagstad always manages to place those clarion high notes so they receive their emphasis. The uncertainty and excitement of Act II’s setting suits the propulsive approach, and perhaps surprisingly, the love duet ‘O sink’ hernieder’ is taken at a properly relaxed rate, with plenty of space for the singers’ words to resonate.
Flagstad appears in all her cutting intensity right from her first outcry, holding her head high and her vocal line intact when Bodanzky urges inexorably forward. Yet with Flagstad, Isolde’s nobility remains intact always (‘Dein Werk?’, Act II), even in her most impassioned outbursts. Her voice is fresh yet focused in Act II ('Ich bin’s, ich bin’s') while her 'Mild und leise' begins with unutterable tenderness and builds to a great climax, with her upper register magisterially free throughout. You may hear a few string swoops (that seems a better word than ‘portamenti’ when you hear it) that are very much of the period in this particular Transfiguration. Melchior’s individual sound is captured excellently and intertwines ecstatically with Flagstad’s in Act II; his response to Marke’s speech (‘O König’) is indescribably sweet-toned. Act III holds particular challenges to the tenor, and Melchior’s portrayal of the mortally wounded lover is reflected in the pained transparency of Wagner’s scoring, performed here with true intensity by the Met orchestra. His timbral range moves from the almost spoken through to the highest cry.
As Brangäne, Thorborg moves from perfectly fine to excellent. She is ever a wonderful foil for Flagstad’s Isolde; her Act II Warning is her crowning moment. Thorborg delivers one of the most memorable moments of this entire performance. In some ways this is a perfect complement to the 1937 Beecham TRISTAN with Flagstad and Melchior, where Beecham gives a stunning, flexible account of the score. Vocally, there are so many imperatives here to seek out this performance, imperatives that transcend Bodanzky’s individual conducting.
As Immortal Performances continues to add to its string of Wagnerian pearls, it continues to enchant, inform, and stimulate with its ‘extras’. Here there is an interview with Flagstad, talking about singing Wagner (young singers should ‘leave Wagner alone’: it is vocal growth over time that is important), and demonstrating - unaccompanied - how the opening of Brünnhilde’s address to Siegfried from the ‘Todesverkündigung’ was her way of stabilizing her voice. It leads seamlessly into the first-ever issue of Flagstad (and Melchior) in the Act II ‘Todesverkündigung’ from the San Francisco Opera in 1939. Never previously published, once more one wonders at the glow from the orchestra in the early sound. Melchior is decidedly baritonal here, while Flagstad seems all-encompassing in her assumption, a Brünnhilde who has an Erda-like internal knowing.”
- Colin Clarke, FANFARE, Nov. /Dec., 2015
“A new release on the Immortal Performances label presents a 2 January, 1937 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of a complete performance of Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. The conductor is the Metropolitan Opera’s then leader of the German repertoire and chief Wagnerian, Artur Bodanzky.
First and foremost, the broadcast documents the artistry of three great Wagner singers at the height of their careers and powers. For me, the star of this performance is Lauritz Melchior. Had Melchior decided to rely solely upon the beauty, power, and stamina of his unique and remarkable voice, he would have been the preeminent Heldentenor of his time, and perhaps of all time. But performances like this TRISTAN broadcast demonstrate that Melchior was a serious, dedicated, and thoughtful artist. The diction, range of vocal colors and dynamics, and variety of textual declamation are all exceptional. Melchior was also a master of pacing himself in performances, and here…he is as robust at the close as in his first entrance. Melchior’s final ‘Isolde!’, coming right on the heels of a scorching depiction of Tristan’s delirious joy, would melt a stone. If Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde matches Lauritz Melchior’s radiant vocal beauty, but perhaps not quite his level of dramatic insight and nuance, that may well be a function of the amazing depth and complexity Wagner invested in the character of Tristan. But by any standards, this is a transcendent performance of one of Wagner’s most demanding soprano roles. Kerstin Thorborg’s Brangäne, gorgeously sung and dramatically intense, is worthy of this august company. Among the other principals, Julius Huehn, perhaps inspired by Melchior’s gripping performance, rises to the occasion in the opera’s final act. Ludwig Hofmann handles his duties …capably.
Thanks to the superb restoration work of Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances, we are finally able to hear this TRISTAN broadcast on a soundstage that allows the contributions of its many great artists to shine brightly. While not quite the equal of studio recordings of the era, the sound is detailed, balanced, and warm enough to give a strong sense of the glorious timbres of the voices of Melchior, Flagstad, and Thorborg. The inclusion of Milton Cross’ commentary and rapturous audience response adds to the sense of occasion. The booklet contains lively and informative essays by Dewey Faulkner and Richard Caniell, artist bios, and Caniell’s lovely synopsis of the TRISTAN plot. Welcome audio ‘bonuses’ include an eloquent talk by Flagstad on the challenges of singing Wagner, and the first-ever release of a Flagstad & Melchior 'Tödesverkündigung’ from DIE WALKÜRE, performed at the San Francisco Opera in 1939. How fortunate we are that so many Melchior-Flagstad TRISTAN performances are now available. This new Immortal Performances release deserves a place in any representative collection.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, Nov./Dec., 2015