First performed in Munich in 1865, Tristan und Isolde changed the course of musical history. Wagner, hopelessly driven by an unconsummated passion for Mathilde Wesendonck (the wife of one of his patrons), took the iconographic adulterers of medieval literature, and underpinned their tragedy with Schopenhauer's quasi-oriental philosophy. The end result rewrote the entire harmonic rulebook.
Karl Böhm, conducting the work at Bayreuth in 1966 (originally on DG, now on Phillips), presents us with a study of erotic mania, imprisoning his lovers - Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen - in a world of almost sadomasochistic savagery, while Georg Solti (Decca) is even more frenetic.
Leonard Bernstein (Phillips) holds Hildegard Behrens and Peter Hoffmann in a world of suspended erotic languor, while Carlos Kleiber (DG) uncovers diaphanous textures. Kleiber's Isolde is the super-subtle Margaret Price, who never sang on stage; her Tristan, René Kollo, is intense, if effortful.
The favourite post-war Tristan for many was Jon Vickers, who recorded the opera with Herbert von Karajan (EMI), opposite Helga Dernesch's Isolde. Vickers is vivid, but the sound is glutinous and Karajan too self-indulgent.
For many, the greatest recording of the work is Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1952 EMI set, which aspires more to spiritual awe than sexual intensity. Kirsten Flagstad's mature Isolde is set against the impetuous Tristan of Ludwig Suthaus.
Yet I still prefer Fritz Reiner's performance, taped live at Covent Garden in 1936. Flagstad again is the Isolde, her voice twining round Lauritz Melchior's gorgeous Tristan. Reiner's conducting exudes decadent splendour, and the playing from the LPO is awesome. Reiner offers an overwhelming experience that is second to none.
Sonically speaking, there's little to choose between the Naxos edition of Reiner's gripping 1936 Covent Garden Tristan and VAI's 1992 release, both transferred by Ward Marston. I prefer the Naxos edition for four reasons:(1) It lacks the smidgen of added reverb present in the VAI set; (2) Naxos squeezes all 78 minutes of Act 1 onto one disc; (3) The annotations are more specific and informative vis-à-vis this recording; (4) It's a lot cheaper.
What can anyone add to 65 years worth of praise heaped upon the fabled Melchior/Flagstad partnership? The singers are captured in their vocal and expressive prime, tearing into the Act 2 love duet with ferocious abandon. What's more, their effortless vocalism (singly and together) abounds in sheer musicality and more dramatic insight than is often credited to them. Emanuel List's insidious dark bass makes you forget how boring King Mark's betrayal monologue can sound via lesser singers. Herbert Janssen's able-bodied Kurwenal reminds you of what this supporting role sounds like when sung rather than shouted. The Brangäne, Sabine Kalter, is best when egging Isolde on in their intense Act 1 exchanges.
Despite the vagaries inherent in the original HMV live recording, the voices and orchestra register well. Fritz Reiner's disciplinary tactics yield coherence, shape, and a high standard of orchestral playing. As was often the case, the "traditional" theater cuts are in effect. Even if you don't ordinarily respond to historic recordings and anything less than high fidelity, give this Tristan und Isolde a shot. It's worth it.