Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan und Isolde is a music-drama in three acts to alibretto by the composer after Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, firstperformed in the Court Theatre in Munich, Bavaria on 10th June 1865. Consideredby most Wagnerians to be the most radical of the composer's works in theoriginality of its treatment of chromatic harmony, it also had a profoundinfluence beyond the realms of pure music. Tristan und Isolde has beendescribed as a wonderful achievement. It is a huge flood of expression,exposing the hidden chambers of the heart. What cannot be denied nearly 140years after its composition is the extraordinary hypnotic power and intensehuman emotion it evokes, from that remarkable opening chord of the Prelude tothe over-powering resolution of the final chord at the end of the Liebestod.Wagner was most certainly one of the most dominant figures in the second half of nineteenth-centurycultural development. Furthermore, he was recognised as a fine writer, was hisown librettist and the first modern interpretative conductor.
Following the departure of his wife Minna for Germany in thesummer of 1854, Wagner, who was living in Z?â??rich at the time, becameincreasingly attracted to the 26-year-old Mathilde Wesendonck. This growingattraction made the composer conceive the idea of a music drama, based on thetale of Tristan and Iseult. It was not until August 1857 that Wagner began workon the poem of Tristan and Isolde, based on the Arthurian legend. Music for thefirst act was completed in short score by the last day of 1857, with theorchestration being finally finished the following April. Composition wasresumed in Venice in October 1858 and the whole second act finished by March1859. Wagner then moved to Lausanne to complete the third act by August of thatsame year. The premi?â?¿re of the music drama was scheduled for Karlsruhe inNovember 1861 but Wagner withdrew from the proposed production. The composerthen had great hopes of an ideal presentation in Vienna, also in November, butthen abandoned such plans. It was not until June 1865 that the work reached thestage.
The present 1952 studio-made recording of Tristan und Isoldewas Wilhelm Furtwangler's first complete opera recording. It was also EMI'sfirst large-scale complete operatic recording to be recorded in London entirelyusing magnetic tape. Additionally, it was to be the only complete recording ofa Wagner opera to be recorded in the studio by the producer Walter Legge. (Hehad, incidentally, been in charge of the live recording of Die Meistersingervon N?â??rnberg made during the 1951 Bayreuth Festival.) Furthermore, it was thefirst complete large-scale operatic recording to be undertaken by thePhilharmonia Orchestra. It would also be the first Wagner opera to beengineered by Douglas Larter, who had been involved with the technical aspectsof recording for HMV, and later EMI, for almost thirty years.
At the time of recording in June 1952 Kirsten Flagstad waswithout doubt the foremost Wagnerian soprano of the day. She was then aged 57,and had sung her final Isolde on stage a year earlier in London. She was,understandably, somewhat reluctant to undertake such a demanding r?â??le under thespotlight of the microphone. Flagstad was nervous about the reliability of hertop notes at her age, especially when she might have to repeat certain passagestime and again. It was then suggested to her that she might like to have some'cover' for her top Cs in Act Two. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was happy to assistand Flagstad eventually agreed. Thus in the Love Duet there were three singersin the studio: Suthaus and Flagstad with Schwarzkopf to sing the notes inquestion. They were quite definitely not edited in at some later stage. (TheMelot in this recording, Edgar Evans, was present at the time and quite clearlyremembers the event fifty years on as if it were yesterday.) Also members ofthe orchestra have also testified to this fact over the years. Nevertheless,when some unwitting member of EMI inadvertently leaked this news to a DailyMail reporter, Flagstad was greatly distressed by the disclosure, so much sothat she refused to renew her contract beyond the end of 1953.
Another major obstacle surrounding the recording concernedwho was to produce or supervise the project. Flagstad was adamant that she wantedWalter Legge, who had produced all her post-war recordings in Britain.Furtwangler, however, had had a bitter on-going grievance against Legge overthe latter's secretive choice of Karajan as conductor of two Mozart operas inVienna in 1950 (Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote), after Furtwangler hadconducted both operas at the Salzburg Festival that year. Then in April 1952Legge made some unfortunate comments about the older musician that reachedFurtwangler's ears. The conductor wrote to Brenchley Mittell, the GeneralManager of EMI's International Artistes Department, demanding that in futureLegge was not to supervise any further sessions with him. The upshot of allthis unpleasantness was that Lawrance Collingwood (HMV's senior producer) was despatchedto see Furtwangler immediately in an attempt to placate the conductor.(Collingwood would produce all of Furtwangler's recordings after Tristan untilthe latter's death in November 1954.) Eventually an apology was forthcomingfrom Legge and, for the moment, the dust settled, and Legge was assigned toTristan. The recording progressed successfully and finished before time, somuch so that the conductor remarked to the producer at the final playback: \Myname will be remembered for this, but yours should be also".
The advantages of magnetic tape over the previous wax systemwere soon appreciated by Furtwangler, who, until then, had had to beconstrained by having to stop and restart every four and half minutes. The newtechnology allowed for far longer stretches of music to be recorded at a time.This greatly assisted the conductor's famed ability to think and work in longparagraphs. Although editing was still at a fairly early stage, it was nowpossible to edit out serious errors and to splice in corrected versions.Nevertheless, both producer and engineer were still very wary of such attemptsat editing and such things were kept to a minimum. Quite unlike what it wouldbecome half a century later.
The final choice of the other singers would also prove inpart troublesome. The original choice for Brangane was Martha Modl. Originallya mezzo, she had now moved into the soprano repertoire and had been booked tosing Isolde at the 1952 Bayreuth Festival under Karajan. (Legge, incidentally,wanted to record those performances as well.) Eventually she declined the mezzor?â??le, so the choice now moved to Margarete Klose. Unfortunately she had othercommitments from which she could not obtain release. Finally, Blanche Thebom(American-born of Swedish parents) was selected at the suggestion of Flagstad.Three tenors were short-listed for Tristan, Bernd Aldenhoff, G?â??nther Treptowand Ludwig Suthaus, but as Furtwangler knew the last of these from havingworked with him on a number of occasions, he was the final choice.Fischer-Dieskau and Schock, both then contracted to EMI, were pencilled in fromthe start. The r?â??le of King Mark was a toss up between the German Ludwig Weber(who the previous year had recorded Mark's Monologue for Legge) or theBulgarian Boris Christoff (whose German was little better than his French). Inthe end. however, it was the German Josef Greindl who was selected. The choiceof Edgar Evans as Melot was a late decision. As he told me, when I was writingthis note: "I was at Covent Garden rehearsing Alfredo in La traviata, when Ireceived a phone call asking me to go over to the Kingswa