Tristan und Isolde
Live recording in mono from
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
July 30, 1953
Conductor: Eugen Jochum
Tristan Ramón Vinay
Isolde Astrid Varnay
Brangäne Ira Malaniuk
Kurwenal Gustav Neidlinger
Marke Ludwig Weber
Melot Hasso Eschert
Ein Hirt Gerhard Stolze
Ein Seemann Gene Tobin
Ein Steuermann Theo Adam
Chor und Orchester der
Bayreuther Festspiele
Golden Melodram, GM 1.0030 4 CDs ADD
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Review by Webster Forrest

This recording of Tristan is especially valuable, as it is the only available recording featuring the Isolde of the great Astrid Varnay. The performance is led by one of the German repertoire's most competent if not most passionate conductors: Eugen Jochum. Jochum is by no means dry in his style of conducting, and this Tristan emits more heat and commitment than many, but we are not talking about a performance on the same level as the famous Windgassen, Nilsson/Böhm recording which so many regard as the finest available version of this opera.

From the outset the key words for this performance are concentration, accuracy, and commitment. Jochum handles the orchestra with a beautiful skill that reminds one of the more sensitive and beautiful performances (infrequent as they may be) of a Haitink or Barenboim, yet where these conductors usually deliver technical skill at the expense of emotional expressiveness, Jochum keeps a Klemperer-like lid on proceedings which actually have a true blood-filled core. The pace is exciting - and measured. The conducting throughout keeps the drama moving very convincingly, though there is not very much in the way of sudden excitement where it might be wanted.

Varnay's Isolde is rather intelligent and proud, and where it counts, passionate. She delivers the role with as much decisiveness and clarity as her Brünnhilde, adding shading to the text which one seldom encounters. Her 'Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen' for example, is not as over the top as many other singers' accounts, but come the end, one has the feeling that this is a woman of self-assured majesty, rather than of, say, hot-headed pride. Varnay's was a voice of huge volume and a rather hot and heavy timbre; some found that she sat on words, using a peculiar pronunciation of consonants to pry her way into a note. This can be true in some of her recorded performances, but here (and this is after all from 1953, a golden year for her: among others her Brünnhilde under Krauss from that year is unparalleled to this day) she displays great vocal facility as well as incredible musicality. Her involvement in the entire night scene, ending with the great love duet in Act II is exceptionally rewarding both musically and dramatically. Her Liebestod must be regarded as one of the finest ever recorded. It is on par with any of her great recordings, and although she was completely ideal in the role of Brünnhilde - which is an accomplishment that would be hard to equal in any other great role - Varnay's Isolde has much more skill and genuine feeling than almost any other singer I can name. The Liebestod is as good a point of example of this as any other portion of the present recording. If initially it tends to the unsubtle, ultimately it slowly and surprisingly elevates the listener to the kind of height one could only expect from the greatest of Wagner performers.

The much-loved and under-recorded Ramón Vinay sings Tristan, and he is a fine choice for the role. Vinay's tenor is one of fine baritonal strength and a robust and penetrating top. His approach to the role is full-blooded and martial without being at all strident. Whether he is a match to the searing determination and interpretive depth of Astrid Varnay is difficult to say. He certainly makes a great deal of the text in many ways and in most instances convinces us of his character. His dying words are a touching yet well-controlled expression of deranged love.

Gustav Neidlinger sings Kurwenal. Being so used to his Alberich (and never having heard him do anything else) it is odd to hear him sing the great role of Tristan's friend. His approach is straightforward and touching in the right places. He brings an excellent incisive tone which is so often lacking in recorded representations of this important character.

The role of Brangäne is skilfully sung by the great Bayreuth mezzo Ira Malaniuk. Her approach reminds me a lot of Martha Mödl: it's a kind of nearly wayward scream that has a lot of effect and actually hits the notes right to the end of the show. Hers is indeed a passionate interpretation, and considering the giantess she shares the stage with, it is well aimed and successful.

King Mark is sung by Ludwig Weber. It's a monster (read Dragon, read Fafner) of a voice, and while it would have been wonderful to have had the more sensitive and charismatic Josef Greindl in the role, one learns to make do. I have yet to find a recording of Weber's that is really worth listening to, but I must say, here he is in better form and sings with more focused intent than I have ever heard him.

There are a couple of notable names in the supporting cast as well: the Hirt is sung by Gerhard Stoltze, and the Steuermann by Theo Adam.

The last forty minutes of the opera - from somewhere around Tristan's 'Ach Isolde ... wie schön bist du' there is a distortion in the sound at the upper dynamic levels. (This alone may perhaps account for the recording's rarity.) It's a crackling, as though the recording levels were a little too high, but it is a noise on top of the recorded music, and apart from it there is no distortion of the actual sound captured (no loss of detail, e.g., or no muffling - just this extra noise on top, like a scratch on a record.)