Review by Geoffrey Riggs|
This "live" Martha Mödl/Ramón Vinay/Herbert von Karajan Tristan
und Isolde, not the greatest in each and every respect, hangs together in
a marvelous way as a whole. Available in a number of pressings (avoid the
Opera d'Oro), this broadcast preserves Wieland Wagner's first Tristan
production for the so-called "Neu Bayreuth" in 1952.
Here is a thrilling dramatic interpretation that is uncut, boasting two
genuinely heroic voices that are caught in prime condition under a
conductor who is clearly "up" for the occasion. Which other set brings it
all together like this? Yes, there are some warmup problems for both
principals - in fact, for all the chief cast members, if it comes to that -
but once we're into Isolde's Act I Narrative and Curse, everyone, not just
the two lovers but even the pallid Ira Malaniuk (Brangäne) and the
quavery Hans Hotter (Kurwenal), "straighten up and fly right", with
Karajan providing a "spine" to the proceedings that is all too atypical,
I find, in his later years and a joy on this occasion. Ludwig Weber (Marke)
too, though past his prime here, is appropriately heartbreaking in his
I find the dramatic rapport between the two principals surpasses that of
any other heroic-voiced partnership I've heard on disc, with the exception
of one abridged reading of the Love Duet featuring the frenzied Frida
Leider/Lauritz Melchior (Albert Coates conducting, 1929).
Outside of the Love Duet proper, if there's any exchange between the doomed
lovers that is usually taken too much for granted, it's the moment at the
end of Act II where Tristan in effect invites Isolde to join him in
oblivion, after they have been trapped by Melot/Marke, and Isolde responds
in kind ("O König" ... "Als für ein fremdes Land"). Tristan's sombre
invitation is sometimes excerpted as a separate "aria", but Isolde's
musical variation on this melody in response makes it clear that this
entire exchange is an ingenious throwback to the tradition of the bel
canto duet where each principal sings almost the same melody, altering
certain contours slightly in reiteration. In addition, the intensely
intimate, even morbid, psychology of the lovers in this oblivion "duet"
helps strip this musical portrait down to a raw unvarnished image showing
the bleakness of two haunted characters.
I never concentrated that much on this act's closing exchange until I first
heard this recording. Now, however, I almost think it may be the most
critical moment in the work after having been mesmerized by Vinay and
Mödl. They are so exclusively responsive to each other at this point
that they have spoiled me for any other pair - so far. I almost feel now
that something is somehow missing from the whole work when I hear/see this
exchange done in a less mutually absorbed way. The rapport between the two
here is overwhelming, properly obsessive.
The searing effect of this moment from Vinay and Mödl is only
symptomatic of an entire performance where the full emotional odyssey of
both protagonists is revealed more unflinchingly than in any other reading,
it seems to me. An essential reading, in my view.
Happily, I have a sense that more and more listeners, certainly on the
Internet, may be coming round to the view that this Mödl/Vinay
Tristan does indeed equal, if not surpass, both the other Tristans that
have most often been touted in the past - the '52 Furtwängler and
the '66 Böhm.