When Art Transcends to the Spiritual: Richard Wagner's Tristan & Isolde Conducted by Leonard Bernstein

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    Apr 19, 2015 3:56 AM GMT
    This recording of Tristan und Isolde conducted by Leonard Bernstein has had about as star-crossed a history as the lovers themselves in this tragic story. When it was first released in 1982 it was spread out on to five compact discs making the purchase price exorbitant and unattractive to most collectors. CDs were very expensive in the early days of the new technology and this was the most expensive Wagner opera in the shops at the time. Later it was rereleased on four discs. Reviewers were sharply divided on this recording, some finding it sublimely mystical and others tiresomely self-indulgent on Bernstein's part. This last opinion stemmed largely from the extremely slow Prelude to Act 1. Bernstein takes 14 minutes! Furtwängler, the next slowest, clocks in around 12, most other conductors are in the 10 minute range. So I still waited a few years before finally buying it. I regret my hesitation!

    This is a tremendous recording of Tristan und Isolde. I balked the first time I listened to the Prelude to Act 1, but after that opening meditation Bernstein's tempi are about 'average'. That coupled with his unerring sense of the theater kept me riveted for the next four hours.

    Bernstein was a passionate, romantic and impetuous man. This story was magnetic to his being. Of course everyone knows his Broadway show West Side Story based upon Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and his famous recordings of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, but Wagner's salute to Shakespeare, who he declared was the world's greatest poet, is the jewel in the crown of Bernstein's recordings, and not just of this story. It is sad he never recorded Prokofiev's glorious music for this story.

    His years of conducting Ives and Mahler, oddly enough, prepared him for the most abstruse and complex moments in this astonishing score, especially in Act 3 when Tristan is going mad. Bernstein mines treasure out of this music, sonorities I had never noticed before, spot-lighting of particular instruments in unusual areas that make Wagner's genius even more awesome in its vision and forward looking harmonies.

    His cast is fully up to the task as well. Peter Hofmann, who had an up and down career, gives the performance of his lifetime on this recording. He is a magnificent Tristan, vocally and dramtically. I hardly recognized him as the same man who staggered vocally through Die Walküre in San Francisco a few years after this set was released. It is gratifying to hear him in such splendid voice and in such a monumentally difficult role. A Tristan to stand proudly next to the greats like Vickers, Vinay and, yes, even Melchior.

    Hildegard Behrens had one of those voices that could often frighten the listener with some pretty odd sounding animal noises as she tried to bark and squeeze out every ounce of sound she could muster in the heavier Wagnerian roles. Here, with the sympathetic Bernstein leading her, she is incandescently beautiful. She never betrays a hint of wobble or hooting. The middle of her voice is smooth and lovely, the bottom, though never her strong point, is audible and sensitively delivered, and her always glorious top notes are in prime condition. She manages the extremely slow Liebestod with effortless aplomb, achieving that rare thing most sopranos in this role never quite get... Rapture.

    Yvonne Minton's Brangäne is splendid as well. She is placed a tad too far in the distance in her Act 2 calls from the Tor, but this allows her to let her huge voice bloom a little more comfortably. In her live recording with Carlos Kleiber at Bayreuth she is more forward sounding and has to hold back a little causing some slight unsteadiness at the end of her call.

    Bernd Weikl has never made a finer opera recording. The finest Kurwenal I've ever heard on record. His beautiful and heroic baritone is perfectly suited to this role, unlike his ill-advised foray into Dutchman and Hans Sachs territory in later years.

    Hans Sotin is a young-sounding King Mark than usual, which is all to the good. His voice is beautiful and he delivers his Act 2 monologue with a fine steady legato. And with Bernstein's interesting musical high-lighting makes this much more tolerable than usual. This scene, in my experience, is the one scene in all of Wagner that often makes me drift off for a few zzzzzs.

    The supporting cast is wonderful as well, right down to Raimund Grumbach's Steersman with only one line near the end after Tristan dies in Isolde's arms.

    The dramatic impetus of the last scene of this opera is overwhelmingly involving. It starts with the most interesting thing, a wooden trumpet, announcing the arrival of King Mark's troupes. This can't be an easy instrument to play, especially at the very quick speeds Bernstein utilizes here. The trumpeter, Chandler Goetting, gets his name on the cover of this recording, he's so great, as does the marvelous English hornist, Marie-Lise Schüpach.

    The Bavarian Radio Symphony chorus and orchestra are second to none in this recording. I did not for one moment regret the absence of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics.

    This was Bernstein's only recording with the Philips label. There is not another studio recording of this work that comes close to the beauty and theatrical ambience the Philips engineers have created here, not even Karajan's for EMI. There is only one spot that I questioned. After the stunningly beautiful 'O, sink hernieder' has gone on for awhile Tristan suddenly finds himself relegated to a sort-of echoey place up stage. Isolde is right up front in your face, as are the violins. Hofmann's large voice sounds a little distant while Behrens sounds rather stentorian. Perhaps the engineers thought she was over-whelmed by Hofmann's volume, but it was a misjudgment, though not detrimental in any serious way. Aside from that this is a very great piece of recording engineering. It is a pity that company has vanished into the maw of Universal records with Decca and DG getting all the kudos these days. Philips made the greatest recordings ever. But it is always the tallest poppies that are targeted for destruction.

    Karl Böhm was a great admirer of this recording, saying it was about time someone had the guts to record this work as Wagner intended it to sound. Of course, Böhm himself made a very great live recording at Bayreuth in 1966 with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen, long my favorite of all Tristan sets. But I have to say Leonard Bernstein and his forces here rattle the heretofore unassailable castle gates of Böhm's hegemony in this opera on record.

    This Tristan und Isolde by Leonard Bernstein is a Must-Have recording. Highest possible recommendation.
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    Apr 19, 2015 4:02 AM GMT



    Yes, I will watch all of it (not in one sitting).

    Listen to the first 17 minutes 18 seconds. That's where I stopped for now.
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    Apr 19, 2015 4:04 AM GMT
    StephenOABC said

    His cast is fully up to the task as well. Peter Hofmann, who had an up and down career, gives the performance of his lifetime on this recording. He is a magnificent Tristan, vocally and dramtically. I hardly recognized him as the same man who staggered vocally through Die Walküre in San Francisco a few years after this set was released. It is gratifying to hear him in such splendid voice and in such a monumentally difficult role. A Tristan to stand proudly next to the greats like Vickers, Vinay and, yes, even Melchior.

    Hildegard Behrens had one of those voices that could often frighten the listener with some pretty odd sounding animal noises as she tried to bark and squeeze out every ounce of sound she could muster in the heavier Wagnerian roles. Here, with the sympathetic Bernstein leading her, she is incandescently beautiful. She never betrays a hint of wobble or hooting. The middle of her voice is smooth and lovely, the bottom, though never her strong point, is audible and sensitively delivered, and her always glorious top notes are in prime condition. She manages the extremely slow Liebestod with effortless aplomb, achieving that rare thing most sopranos in this role never quite get... Rapture.



    Funniest ... (in bold).
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    Apr 19, 2015 4:16 AM GMT
    http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/dec/05/wagner-tristan-und-isolde-changed-music-history