The evening before I listened to this 'historical' recording of Tristan und Isolde on Naxos, I listened to the 'historic' recording of Tannhäuser, also Naxos, also re-engineered from the original old cylinders and transferred by the wonderful recording engineer Ward Marston. He did a splendid job on both of these important performances, and we are lucky to have them.
However, clearly the English recording engineers at the BBC or Covent Garden, whomever, were not anywhere in the same exalted league as the engineers who captured Elmendorff's Tannhäuser SIX years earlier, in 1930, at Bayreuth. I loved that Tannhäuser, it is competitive with the most modern versions mainly due to the exceptional, albeit elderly, fidelity of the originals. This Tristan und Isolde under the direction of Fritz Reiner at Covent Garden is pretty woeful sounding, though the voices are captured clearly enough so show us what great singing was about before the jet-setting luvvies took over in the 1960s.
Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior need no further accolades from Little Me. Their voices cut through the dim recesses of time like lasers through a swamp. The golden refulgence of Flagstad's voice is evident but has to be as much imagined as actually heard in this set. Melchior's steady and ringing sound is much the same. What comes through loud and clear is their mastery of the text and their voices. The legato, the dynamic variety and the subtlety of their impersonations are object lessons in How To Sing Anything.
The support cast is equally fine with a notable Brangäne in Sabine Kalter. She sounds like a soprano, which the part was intended for, a young serving maiden, not some old nurse, yet Kalter is listed as a mezzo-soprano. Her famous calls from the tower are exquisite. Like Flagstad and Melchior she holds the lines out to their fullest extent without loss of breath control or flattening of the note. And her vocal acting is up to her illustrious colleagues as well.
Emmanuel List (King Mark) and Herbert Janssen (Kurwenal) round out a splendid cast of singers that makes one long for this recording in the latest state of the art sound. Alas, the overtones are lost forever.
Aside from the poor-ish but acceptable sound, Fritz Reiner's conducting is either very interesting or very odd, depending on how you like your Tristans to be conducted. His prelude to Act 1 is positively weird. It seems choppy and punchy and does not flow like the usual smooth as soft butter approach taken by most conductors, beginning with Karajan. But somehow by the end of this Prelude it has all made sense. This is a rough story about rough people and tough times in the Medieval land of Cornwall. Reiner's gruff playing of the slower parts of this score are not inappropriate in light of the settings.
The prelude to Act 2 is even more bizarre in that Reiner takes that very difficult section with all those off-beat little grace notes in the violins at a hair-raisingly fast speed. I wondered if the strings of the London Philharmonic could pull it off without descending into chaos. They do! He takes the opening of this prelude at a very fast clip then suddenly slows down by about half for the second phrase then gradually accelerandos up to the entrance of the singers. The orchestra, by the way, is throughout this performance, amazing. Making it all the more a pity that you don't hear very much of its work. Once you get used to the duck-like oboes you can more appreciate the high artistry of those musicians.
Reiner's conducting, overall, is incandescent and alive to every nuance of the score, his Liebestod being especially rapturous and overwhelming, cutting through the mists of time with its passion.
I hope a better sourced performance of this opera with these two protagonists appears during my lifetime. Someone mentioned the Metropolitan Opera archives being chock-full of Tristan und Isoldes by Melchior and Flagstad. If so at least one of them should be made available after cleaning up and remastering.
This Naxos set is a stop gap but I won't be listening to it much I don't think (except for Flagstad and Reiner's transcendent Liebestod). Unlike Elmendorff's Tannhäuser this Tristan und Isolde IS an historical release overall, and a valuable addition to any Wagnerian's collection. One for those winter afternoons (I fell asleep in Act 1 after dark) and a bottle of old port, a plate of Stilton and a bowl of walnuts. Just like old times.
No libretto or anything beyond a blurb about how the original recordings were transferred by Marston.