Tristan und Isolde
Live recording in mono from
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
July 23, 1952
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Tristan Ramón Vinay
Isolde Martha Mödl
Brangäne Ira Malaniuk
Kurwenal Hans Hotter
Marke Ludwig Weber
Melot Hermann Uhde
Ein Hirt Gerhard Stolze
Ein Seemann Gerhard Unger
Ein Steuermann Werner Faulhaber
Chor und Orchester der
Bayreuther Festspiele
Golden Melodram, GM 1.0054 4 CDs ADD
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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 "Mir dies".

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.