Tristan Fanatics Roundtable

Monday, April 30, 2007

Listen on Demand
WNYC Music Director George Preston hosts an informal chat about Tristan und Isolde's extensive discography with director Robin Guarino, tenor Brad Cresswell, and Tristan Mysteries producer Amy O'Leary.

Join the ongoing discussion by telling us what recording of Tristan turns you on the most—and why—by clicking on the "Leave a Comment" link below!

Comments [10]

Geoffrey Riggs from New York City

Esther and A.C. Douglas having submitted their opinions as to their favorite Isoldes -- Margaret Price and Birgit Nilsson respectively -- it occurred to me that it might be interesting to zero in on specific recordings showcasing our respective choices for individual roles -- both those sets showcasing our choices at their vocal best, and also those sets showcasing them in the best company. While I remain most consistently satisfied with the '52 Mödl/Vinay/Karajan on Orfeo/Myto as a whole, there are one or two Isoldes on disc that I somewhat prefer to Mödl, just as there are one or two Tristans I somewhat prefer to Vinay, and so on.

Consequently, if I had to choose purely on the basis of the Tristan, I would probably pick Jon Vickers by a hair over Lauritz Melchior, for pretty much the same reasons George Preston gives in the link higher up on this page.

As to which Vickers recording I'd pick, that would probably be the "live" Böhm/Orange b'cast, since by ca. 1970, I don't like Karajan as much as Böhm, the latter giving Vickers' "Mad Scene" in the last act more propulsion and intensity than does Karajan -- aside from the fact that Vickers is such a superb actor that, ideally, he should be heard in the full heat of staged performance anyway. Of course, it's a shame that only on the '70 Karajan with Dernesch can we catch Vickers in an uncut duet.

For Isolde, there are great ones who boast incandescent vocal beauty, others who boast great clarity and strength, others who give the role deep humanity and sorrow, others who give it great dramatic intensity and bite, and so on. Few give the role all these qualities. I suppose I prize most an interpreter who can combine something of true vocal beauty together with abiding warmth in the less clarion and less high-lying passages together with at least a modicum of verbal bite. That combination is not easy to find, but I do find some of all this in Helen Traubel's more youthful readings.

Naxos has released her first Isolde b'cast from 1943, where she is heard at her best, in the company of Melchior, Thorborg, and Kipnis. Here, though, while Leinsdorf does some marvelous things, I find Traubel's conductor after the war -- in a b'cast from South America -- to be even more inspired, Fritz Busch. I find it hard to choose between these two, since Busch's finer conducting (IMO) is offset by Melchior's more fresh-voiced Tristan in '43 (although he is still more than merely respectable under Busch). Traubel herself is fine on both, although even her first '43 reading already skirts both high Cs.

When Furtwaengler is at his best on the fabled Flagstad/Suthaus set, no one (IMO) can equal him. Inspired sequences there like the superb reading of Isolde's and Brangaene's colloquy in the first scene of Act II achieve both a naturalness and a sweep unmatched by any other conductor that I can recall. But at the risk of sounding like an apostate, much of Act I, for instance, seems relatively "un-lived-in", so to speak. For much of this set, I don't hear the same consistent drive and surge, ebb and flow of the '47 excerpts heard "live" at Berlin (if only that perf. was available complete and could boast a more apt Isolde than Schlueter).

To experience the whole score with a naturalness somewhat akin to what Furtwaengler appears to have achieved "live" in '47, I'd go to the Munich b'cast under Hans Knappertsbusch, in 1950. Here, we have the kind of command, both of melos and of narrative pull, that Furtwaengler achieved so effortlessly in the theater. I'm not a big fan of Knappertsbusch's Isolde at all. But his Tristan, Treptow, is still capable at this point in his career of some shapely singing, IMO. Granted, I would not pick Treptow as one of the great Tristans, but we're choosing here for one's favorite maestro ultimately, so Treptow's surprisingly accomplished Tristan with Knappertsbusch is icing on this cake.

I'd be curious now which individual interpretations (and which extant recordings of them) others here might choose as individual favorites.


Geoffrey Riggs

May. 01 2007 02:26 AM
A.C. Douglas from New Jersey

I hope you all will pardon me for this, but you folks had a real chance here to educate your listeners, and you so far have blown it. You should have had real Wagner experts participating in that round table, not mere opera experts and opera fans. The mature works of Wagner are sui generis in the world of opera, and cannot be handled or discussed in the same way as conventional opera.

If I've been too hard in my above, I do beg your pardon, but said hard or more softly, it had to be said. I mean, this is NPR, not some commercial enterprise.


Apr. 30 2007 10:41 PM
Eugene from Queens

Dear Overnight Music:

Verdi’s repertoire has more memorable lines.(How about a Verdi-fest for = time?)

Chopin had foreshadowed Wagner’s use of the “Tristan chord” in his work.

Many aspects of his personal life are terribly unappealing.

Most composers are egotistical, but his was of the first rank and reflected directly though his music.

In the end what saves his music for me is what music critic Virgil Thompson said,

“No matter what the quality of the music writing, it always sounds well. It is always instrumentally interesting and infallibly sumptuous.”


Rudolf Kempe, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

It’s only an orchestral version, but the sheen of the Vienna strings in Austro-German repertoire is almost unmatched.

Also an opportunity to pay tribute to Kempe as a Wagnerian conductor, his Lohengrin on disc is well thought of.

Apr. 30 2007 10:28 PM
David from North Carolina

All-time favorites would be Karajan/Vickers/Dernesch and Furtwangler/Suthaus/Flagstad; also excellent are Bohm, Karajan 1952, . Have lately been enjoying the 1949 live recording with Schmidt-Isserstedt/Lorenz/Baumann.

Apr. 30 2007 09:00 PM
A.C. Douglas from New Jersey

If you folks wanted your listeners to hear the benchmark Isolde (which, of course, is Nilsson), you played the wrong recording of the Verklärung ("Liebestod"). Böhm undercut her in that performance. The benchmark on records is the Nilsson with Solti, a much- (and wrongly-)maligned recording of _Tristan_. The only thing seriously wrong with the overall performance of the opera on that recording is that Uhl was simply not up to the part; ergo, the recording's bad rep. It's otherwise quite splendid.


Apr. 30 2007 08:52 PM
Esther from Jersey City, NJ

I've tried to come up with my favorite recording, but it keeps changing. These days it is the Vickers/Dernesch you just sampled, and I've begun listening to the Suthaus/Flagstad from Furtwangler. But (probably because it was my first one), I have a real weakness for the Kleiber recording with Kollo and Margaret Price. I still consider her the very finest Isolde of all--a gorgeous voice, very musical, sweet but strong, and never shrill. Thanks so much for this program! The whole thing is such a heady experience. I wonder how long before it starts to bother me. But no sign of that yet.

Apr. 30 2007 08:40 PM
Brian from Brooklyn

Love that Vickers recording! Will you be playing any Ben Heppner?

Apr. 30 2007 08:11 PM
Geoffrey Riggs from New York City

As the pianist, Jeffrey Swann, has remarked, the greatest masterpieces are often those works for which no single performance seems to encompass everything in the score. There is always something new to be discovered. So no single Tristan has given me complete satisfaction. I would wish that either the Flagstad/Melchior or the Traubel/Melchior pairings would be uncut performances with sound quality doing justice to Wagner's orchestration. I would wish that either the Furtwängler set or the Böhm set would feature a Tristan who was equal to his Isolde. But such is not the case, IMO.

My choice is a compromise, I suppose, but still one of the most heartfelt and heroically sung readings I ever expect to hear: the 1952 Bayreuth performance under the youthful and unmannered von Karajan, with Mödl and Vinay displaying two genuinely heroic voices in their prime. They may not be absolutes in vocal beauty but they are in vocal command of their roles. (Suthaus on the Furtwängler is past his prime and Windgassen on the Böhm is not a full-fledged heldentenor.) The '52 Mödl/Vinay/Karajan is uncut, and, in the Orfeo or Myto pressing, boasts sound quality worthy of Wagner's score.

Apr. 30 2007 12:33 PM
cletche from seattle

I agree with the above comment that the Bohm recording is excellent. However the 1952 version with Furtwangler conducting Flagstad is my favorite Tristan. You can't lose with either of these recordings though the sound quality of the Bohm is definitely better. However after seeing the Tristan Project last week I'm hoping for a recording from that. Brewer was outstanding!

Apr. 29 2007 06:50 PM
Henry Holland from Los Angeles

My favorite Tristan is the Nilsson/Windgassen; Bohm recording from Bayreuth, 1966. Nilsson simply IS Isolde for me--the Liebestod is amazingly intense. Windgassen copes well with a thankless role, the other roles are incredibly sung (eps. Christa Ludwig's Brangaene) and Bohm drives the music like it's Strauss, the exact opposite of Leonard Bernstein's wallow. Great sound, too.

Apr. 28 2007 06:17 PM

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