RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Tristan und Isolde—Lauritz Melchior (Tristan), Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde), Margarete Klose (Brangäne, Acts I & II), Karin Branzell (Brangäne, Act III), Herbert Janssen (Kurwenal, Acts I & II), Paul Schöffler (Kurwenal, Act III), Sven Nilsson (König Marke), Booth Hitchin (Melot), Parry Jones (Stimme eines jungen Seemanns), Octave Dua (Ein Hirt), Leslie Horsman (Ein Steuermann); Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, on 18 June 1937 (Acts I & II) and 22 June 1937 (Act III); Immortal Performances IPCD 1042-4; 4 CDs for the price of 3, 295:27; Available from Immortal Performances]
Oh, to have been in London in the Spring of 1937, when the Royal Opera House celebrated the coronation of King George VI with as much operatic pomp and circumstance as could be created upon the Covent Garden stage! In the span of ninety days, fashionable Londoners—and, in some cases, wireless listeners—heard a mind-boggling company of the best singers and conductors from Britain, America, and Continental Europe in operas both familiar and unfamiliar. Contemporary press not unexpectedly focused on who was there and what they wore, but the Coronation Season was not merely a see-and-be-seen affair: Immortal Performances’ releases of the 1937 broadcasts of Der fliegende Holländer [reviewed here] and Tristan und Isolde confirm that the musical personnel were committed to honoring His newly-crowned Majesty with performances of uncompromising quality. The romantic leads of the Coronation Season Tristan und Isolde, Lauritz Melchior (1890 – 1973) and Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962), were in their incomparable primes in 1937: they were frequently heard in these rôles during the next decade, both together and separately, but never again quite as they were in the broadcast performances preserved on this Immortal Performances release. Superlatives are often meaningless in opera, every pair of ears hearing voices and performances differently, but it is impossible to overstate the significance and sheer glory of this performance, particularly when it can finally be heard in sound that enables full discernment not just of the magnificent climaxes but also of the countless minutiae that foster them. Is this the finest Tristan und Isolde on disc? Each individual listener must answer that question for himself, but here is a piece of friendly advice: if your answer is ‘No,’ be prepared to defend it when this writer asks, ‘Which, then, is better?’
The earnest Wagnerian laments few of the cruelties of operatic fate more than the failure of broadcasters and record labels to preserve a substantially-complete Tristan und Isolde with Frida Leider, the preeminent Isolde of the entre-deux-guerres years. Leider sang the first Isolde of Covent Garden’s Coronation Season on 14 June, a performance in which contemporary accounts reported her to have been on near-best form, but, as Richard Caniell writes in the typically extensive and lavishly informative liner notes that accompany this painstakingly-remastered recording, providing not only words of wisdom about both performers and performances but a plethora of superb, rarely-seen photographs, the sole focus of British HMV’s recording efforts was on preservation of Flagstad’s Isolde. With an Isolde such as Flagstad’s captured at its vocal and dramatic summit, it seems unpardonably ungrateful to bemoan the missed opportunity of memorializing Leider’s interpretation of the part. Still, considering HMV’s almost comically inept endeavors, perhaps it is better to have no Leider Isolde than to be subjected to an exasperatingly poor one. Owing to Caniell’s technical and musical erudition, the Coronation Season broadcasts—in the context of this release, a complete performance compiled from Acts One and Two of the 18 June broadcast and Act Three of the 22 June outing—can now be heard in clear, properly-pitched restorations that shame many broadcast recordings of decades later. With original source materials now more than seventy years old, there are unavoidable imperfections, but what is perfection in the context of performances such as these? The beauty of Melchior’s timbre, surpassed by no other Tristan heard in the sixty-five years since he last sang the rôle at the Metropolitan Opera in 1950, and the amplitude and opulence of Flagstad’s voice are magnificently evident on Immortal Performances’ discs: that alone is an achievement that transcends clinical notions of perfection.
Substantively, Tristan und Isolde is no less evocative of the sea than Der fliegende Holländer, and this has rarely if ever been more apparent than in Sir Thomas Beecham’s (1879 – 1961) management of this performance. The lapping of the waves against the hull of the ship is felt in Act One, though not via the nausea-inducing fluctuations in pitch that afflict other labels’ editions of this performance, and the chill of the Cornish climate slashes in the orchestra during Brangäne’s Watch in Act Two. So attuned are Beecham’s tempi to nuances of both text and orchestration that the listener can virtually sense, even after seventy-eight years, the sloshing of Brangäne’s fateful potion in the cup, the night air caressing the faces of Tristan and Isolde in their love duet, and the cold penetration of Melot’s sword. As in most recordings of Covent Garden performances of similar vintages, neither the orchestral playing nor the choral singing is absolutely first-rate in these performances [in addition to a complete performance consisting of the combined music from the 18 and 22 June broadcasts, Caniell provides an embarrassment of riches by also including the complete Act Two from the 22 June performance on a bonus disc—gratis!], but the standards that Beecham achieved are often little short of miraculous. Few conductors whose approaches to Tristan und Isolde are preserved on records have mastered both the nuances and the broader construction of the score as Beecham does in these performances, and appreciation of this is intensified by the fact that the momentum that builds in Acts One and Two from the 18 June performance continues unabated in Act Three from the 22 June performance, there being virtually no indications in terms of dramatic impetus that the opera’s concluding Act is drawn from a different show. This should not suggest that there are any deficiencies of spontaneity or individuality in Beecham’s conducting. Rather, there are abiding consistencies of emphasis and dramatic thrust that are possible only with absolute familiarity with the score. In Beecham’s handling, the famous Tristan chord seems not so much a musical innovation as an inevitable musical linchpin in the tonal construction of the opera as a whole. The dramatic significance of the augmented intervals and harmonic suspension throughout the score is intuitively highlighted by Beecham, and his conducting of the Vorspiel that begins the opera spawns incredible tension that persists until the last bar of the Liebestod. The Liebestod is at once the most extraordinary portion of Beecham's Tristan and the zenith of Caniell's endeavors. The severely-cracked condition of the original source disc necessitated punctilious conservation in order to faithfully reproduce the singular authority of Beecham's reading of the scene. The mammoth crescendi with which Beecham resolves the musical quandaries of love's transcendence—crescendi too ambitious for HMV's microphones—here thunder forth as Beecham intended. Were there no other recordings of Beecham’s conducting, neither his groundbreaking Berlioz nor Händel, no Zauberflöte with Lemnitz and Rosvaenge or Bohème with de los Ángeles and Björling, this Covent Garden Tristan und Isolde would more than suffice as proof of Beecham’s genius.
When first heard as the Stimme eines jungen Seemanns in ‘Westwärts schweift der Blick; ostwärts streicht das Schiff’ at the start of Act One, Welsh tenor Parry Jones (1891 – 1963), a versatile singer who both was a member of the D’Oyly Carte company and sang parts as heavy as Waldemar in Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder and Wagner’s Tannhäuser, sounds slightly out of sorts, but his forwardly-placed timbre makes a strong impression in his voicing of ‘Wehe, wehe, du Wind! – Weh, ach wehe, mein Kind! – Irische Maid, du wilde, minnige Maid!’ The voice of Flagstad spreads into the auditorium like the wings of a great eagle with her exclamation of ‘Wer wagt mich zu höhnen?’ Who, indeed, might dare to mock such a woman? Berlin-born mezzo-soprano Margarete Klose (1899 – 1968) was among the few singers of the Twentieth Century endowed by nature with a voice appropriate for Brangäne, and she here sings the rôle splendidly, often stunningly, beginning with a beautifully-projected ‘Blaue Streifen stiegen im Osten auf’ that shudders with enigmatic unease. She responds to Flagstad’s volcanic singing of ‘Zerschlag es dies trotzige Schiff, des zerschellten Trümmer verschling’s!’ with frenzied intensity in her voicing of ‘O weh! Ach! Ach des Übels, das ich geahnt!’ Their interview is interrupted by the Seemann, whose ‘Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu’ Jones sings lyrically. As Isolde gazes at Tristan, Flagstad’s phrasing of ‘Mir erkoren, mir verloren, hehr und heil, kühn und feig!’ is magical, the meter and Leitmotiv already unmistakably foreshadowing the Liebestod. The innocence of Klose’s ‘Frägst du nach Tristan, teure Frau?’ is answered by the harsh determination of Flagstad’s ‘Der zagend von dem Streiche sich flüchtet, wo er kann, weil eine Braut er als Leiche für seinen Herrn gewann!’ There is poetry even in Kurwenal’s brief warning to Tristan as Brangäne approaches, ‘Hab acht, Tristan! Botschaft von Isolde,’ as sung by Herbert Janssen (1892 – 1965), who—unsurprisingly to anyone who has heard his Holländer in Immortal Performances' recording of the Coronation Season Der fliegende Holländer—is an uncommonly thoughtful Kurwenal. From his first ‘Was ist? Isolde?’ as he receives the nervous Brangäne, Melchior’s Tristan is, even alongside Flagstad’s Isolde on standard-setting form, the true glory of this recording. The layers of meaning in Tristan’s ‘Was meine Frau mir befehle, treulich sei’s erfüllt’ are conveyed by the sheer loveliness of Melchior’s tone. Taking his cue from Melchior, Janssen devotes attractive sounds to Kurwenal’s goading, dispatching the top Fs in his song with sonorous ease.
In the third scene of Act One, Klose and Flagstad interact with utter synchronicity as the enraged Isolde launches her Narration and Curse. Flagstad seems barely able to contain her fury as she sings ‘Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen, wohl könnt auch ich erwidern!’ Klose misses none of the irony of ‘O Wunder! Wo hatt’ ich die Augen? Der Gast, den einst ich pflegen half,’ Brangäne’s coy disbelief contrasting with the stinging bitterness of Isolde’s ‘Da Morold lebte, wer hätt’ es gewagt uns je solche Schmach zu bieten?’ Something near the full power of Flagstad’s voice is unleashed in ‘O blinde Augen! Blöde Herzen! Zahmer Mut, verzagtes Schweigen!’ The pair of top Bs on ‘mit ihr gab er es preis!’ and ‘mir lacht das Abenteuer!’ are struck like hammer blows, the intonation spot-on. Unlike many Brangänes, Klose has no need to resort to faking the top A on ‘O Süsse! Traute! Teure! Holde! Goldne Herrin! Lieb’ Isolde!’ A profound sadness flows through Flagstad’s voicing of ‘Ungeminnt den hehrsten Mann stets mir nah zu sehen, wie könnt ich die Qual bestehen,’ the simplicity of her utterance reflected in the girlish lilt of her phrasing. The horror of Brangäne’s cry of ‘Der Todestrank!’ when Isolde reaches for the death potion is startlingly enacted by Klose. The sailors’ ‘Ho! he! ha! he! Am Untermast die Segel ein!’ has rarely seemed more intrusive than in this performance.
Even in the jaunty ‘Auf! Auf! Ihr Frauen! Frisch und froh! Rasch gerüstet! Fertig nun, hurtig und flink!’ Janssen’s Kurwenal is a hearty but not unrefined fellow. He meets with a decidedly haughty Isolde, epitomized by Flagstad’s defiant delivery of ‘Du merke wohl, und meld es gut! Nicht woll ich mich bereiten, ans Land ihn zu begleiten.’ There is the slightest hint of amusement in Janssen’s rejoinder of ‘Sicher wisst, das sag’ ich ihm: nun harrt, wie er mich hört!’ Isolde’s mood hardly improves upon Tristan’s arrival, Flagstad lashing him with her singing of ‘Wüsstest du nicht, was ich begehre, da doch die Furcht, mir’s zu erfüllen, fern meinem Blick dich hielt?’ The ferocity with which Melchior and Flagstad spar as Isolde recalls her vow to have vengeance for the slain Morold is thrilling, but even this is dwarfed by the vehemence of Flagstad’s declamation of ‘Siech und matt in meiner Macht, warum ich dich da nicht schlug?’ Klose braves the high tessitura of ‘Wehe! Weh! Unabwendbar ew’ge Not für kurzen Tod! Tör’ger Treue trugvolles Werk blüht nun jammernd empor!’ unflinchingly. Anyone who maintains that Flagstad was a matronly singer of unthawing Nordic coolness should hear the tingling eroticism that surges through her singing as Brangäne’s potion alters Isolde’s disposition. She and Melchior intone ‘Wie sich die Herzen wogend erheben!’ expressively, their ringing expressions of love giving way to panic as they realize that their bodies are in thralls of passion, not impending death, and that the Cornish shore is before them.
As in the Vorspiel, Beecham ignites a blaze of menacing sensuality in the opening pages of Act Two. The duality of the first scene, Brangäne’s desperation growing as Isolde’s longing for Tristan’s return blossoms, is indelibly imparted by Klose and Flagstad, the latter’s voice taking on the bright gleam of the torch of which she sings in ‘Zur Warte du: dort wache treu! Die Leuchte, und wär’s meines Lebens Licht, – lachend sie zu löschen zag ich nicht!’ Melchior’s adrenalized ‘Isolde! Geliebte!’ and Isolde’s animated ‘Tristan! Geliebter!’ commence an impeccably-vocalized, intoxicatingly expressive exposition of the majestic love duet. The top Cs famously supplied by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the 1952 studio recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler held no terrors for Flagstad in 1937, the notes produced in this performance—and in Act Two from the 22 June performance—with virtually no stress. The tenor and soprano sing ‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe, gib Vergessen, dass ich lebe’ hypnotically, again revealing the gravity of the music’s relationship with the Liebestod. Klose fills the long lines of Brangäne’s Watch with firm, focused tone, her diction in ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht, wem der Traum der Liebe lacht’ enhancing the impact of her warning. Melchior and Flagstad phrase ‘O ew’ge Nacht, süsse Nacht!’ with tremendous tenderness.
The panic of Janssen’s articulation of Kurwenal’s ‘Rette dich, Tristan!’ proves justified when Booth Hitchin, about whom little is documented except that he sang frequently throughout the British Isles in the 1920s and ‘30s and was variously billed during his career on stage and in recording studios as tenor, baritone, and bass, snarls Melot’s ‘Das sollst du, Herr, mir sagen, ob ich ihn recht verklagt?’ The antidote to Hitchin’s petulant Melot is the solemn Marke of Swedish bass Sven Nilsson (1898 – 1970). The fortitude of Nilsson’s singing of ‘Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das” Sieh ihn dort, den treuesten aller Treuen’ is rousing, but his heartbroken elocution of ‘Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir? – Wohin nun Treue, da Tristan mich betrog?’ is profoundly moving. His singing of the towering monologue, ‘Wozu die Dienste ohne Zahl, der Ehren Ruhm, der Grösse Macht, die Marken du gewannst,’ is imposing, the voice not always perfectly steady but the interpretation unerringly dignified. Melchior’s Tristan is crushed by the weight of his betrayal, and the tenor communicates ‘Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isold’, ihm folgen?’ with sorrow that is only partially remedied by Flagstad’s resolute statement of Isolde’s ‘Wo Tristans Haus und Heim, da kehr Isolde ein.’ Hitchin’s ‘Verräter! Ha! Zur Rache, König! Duldest du diese Schmach?’ is capably sung and wholly repulsive. Melchior voices ‘Mein Freund war der, er minnte mich hoch und teuer’ plaintively before precipitating the tragedy to come.
The performance of Act Three on this recording dates from 22 June, when Brangäne was sung by Karin Branzell (1891 – 1974) and Kurwenal by Paul Schöffler (1897 – 1977). The first voice heard is that of the Hirt, however, and tenor Octave Dua (né Leo van der Haegen; 1882 – 1952) sings ‘Kurwenal! He! Sag, Kurwenal! Hör doch, Freund!’ and ‘Eine andre Weise hörtest du dann, so lustig, als ich sie nur kann’ effectively. Schöffler’s gruff Kurwenal declaims ‘Endlich! Endlich! Leben, o Leben! Süsses Leben, meinem Tristan neu gegeben’ resonantly but without the sensitivity that Janssen likely brought to the passage. Melchior and Schöffler converse with the camaraderie of old friends as Tristan’s delirium deepens, both gentlemen coping with the demands of Wagner’s music with little strain. The emotional tempest that Beecham conjures in Tristan’s death scene roars through Melchior’s and Flagstad’s singing. Tristan is one of those characters whose death throes often seem to go on longer than is credible even in opera, but Melchior makes every word, every resplendently-sung top A indispensible. His final ‘Isolde!’ is piercing: it penetrates the listener’s heart as palpably as it shatters Isolde’s. Like Hitchin, baritone Leslie Horsman is little remembered, but he sings the Steuermann’s brief interjection ably. Branzell’s Brangäne is surprisingly of a piece with Klose’s, her ‘Isolde! Herrin! Glück und Heil! Was seh’ ich! Ha! Lebst du? Isolde!’ abounding with sisterly concern. Nilsson extracts every modicum of feeling from Marke’s lines ‘Du treulos treuster Freund!’ and ‘Die Ernte mehrt’ ich dem Tod: der Wahn häufte die Not.’
Flagstad’s singing of the Liebestod in this performance is perhaps her finest extant elucidation of a scene to which she brought awe-inspiring singing and emoting throughout her career. When she sings ‘Mild und leise wie er lächelt,’ Tristan’s smile seems to materialize in the mind’s eye, and her vision of ‘Immer lichter wie er leuchtet, sternumstrahlet hoch sich hebt’ is caressed with such a prodigious outpouring of tone that the glow of her love ascending to the heavens seems almost tangible. ‘Hör ich nur diese Weise,’ Isolde asks, but Flagstad renders the wondrous, gentle melody audible to the listener with excruciatingly beautiful tone. The final F♯ at the top of the stave is like a teardrop falling back to earth from the height to which Isolde has flown on the back of love that cannot, will not die. Flagstad the great singer is in this performance, and especially in this Liebestod, undeniably, unforgettably Flagstad the great artist.
In the recording of Act Two from the 22 June performance generously included on this release, Flagstad and Melchior sing with immediacy equal to that heard in their 18 June traversal of their music, and Branzell sings Brangäne’s Watch almost as idiomatically as Klose. Schöffler’s is a vastly different, considerably sterner Kurwenal than Janssen’s. Also included as a welcome appendix is an enlightening excerpt from a BBC discussion by John Steane about Covent Garden’s seasons between the World Wars, and a grandly ceremonial performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Flourish for a Coronation by the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, nobly conducted by Beecham in April 1937, is a delightfully undemanding companion to the 22 June broadcast of Act Two on the bonus disc.
In many cases, the fervent eulogies orated by opera lovers for bygone eras of great singing are little more than peevish words that bemoan the failures of individual predilections. There are great singers at work in 2015: many of them now sing Monteverdi or Händel rather than Verdi or Wagner, but changing tastes and evolving technical capabilities grant opera a resiliently cyclical life—not the life for which those who love operas like Tristan und Isolde above all others hope but a life nonetheless. Hearing Immortal Performances’ recording of Covent Garden’s 1937 Tristan und Isolde is nothing short of a spiritual experience. This is a performance that confirms that, even if only for a season, there was a Golden Age of singing not so long ago. To a degree, it is damning to contemplate the reality that artists like Beecham, Melchior, and Flagstad cannot be replicated in conservatories, rehearsal rooms, or lecture halls, but knowing this Tristan und Isolde is not to grieve for the impossibility of surpassing it: it is to rejoice in the ability to strive in every performance that one hears, sees, or gives to honor it. Hearing this Tristan und Isolde disseminates through music the knowledge that Shakespeare deemed ‘the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.’