Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Tristan und Isolde
PERFORMER: Günther Treptow, Ferdinand Frantz, Helena Braun, Paul Schöffler, Albrecht Peter, Margarete Klose, Paul Kuen, Fritz Richard Bender; Bavarian State Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Hans Knappertsbusch
CATALOGUE NO: C 355 943 D ADD mono
Wagner himself once wrote that good performances of Tristan would ‘be bound to drive people mad’. This live performance, given at Munich’s Prinzregententheater on 23 July 1950, may not quite have doctors reaching for the strait-jackets, but it does come across, even with the less than ideal (though perfectly acceptable) recorded sound and some untidy ensemble, as the most consistently well sung and conducted Tristan currently available.

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The star of the show is undoubtedly Hans Knappertsbusch, the only mid-century conductor, save perhaps for Furtwängler, able to project Wagner’s complex musico-dramatic structures as integrated totalities, while allowing each gesture its full expressive weight. His Tristan und Isolde certainly gives the lie to those who maintain his tempi were impossibly distended: within his global vision, the ‘big moments’ are as viscerally thrilling as any. The Prelude, for instance, is just that, a prelude to something far greater, not a conductor’s showpiece.

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Miracle upon miracle, his singers, as experienced and tightly knit a team of Wagnerians as you could wish for, rise heroically to the challenge. Helena Braun is as commanding and vocally steady an Isolde as any, aptly paired with Günther Treptow’s musical, sensitive Tristan, over-reticent in places, but sustaining his Act III ravings impressively. Margarete Klose’s Brangäne, Paul Schöffler’s Kurwenal and Ferdinand Frantz’s Marke complete a first-class team. One of the great Wagner recordings, not to be missed. Antony Bye