Wagner
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan – Max Lorenz
Isolde – Gertrude Grob-Prandl
Brangane – Elsa Cavelti
Kurwenal – Sigurd Bjorling
Marke – Sven Nilsson
Melot – Vincenzo M. Demetz
Sailor – Gino del Signore
Shepherd – Luciano Della Pergola
Steersman – Paolo Montarsolo

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala Milan conducted by Victor de Sabata
CD No: ARCHIPEL RECORDS ARPCD 0027-3 (3 CDs)
Duration:
Reviewed: December 2001
This recording of Tristan und Isolde, taken from a La Scala broadcast on 13 December 1951, is an important issue on several counts. To my knowledge, it’s the only extant complete Wagner performance conducted by the legendary Victor de Sabata, whose discography, though admired, is comparatively small. It also restores to the catalogue a version of Tristan that ranks, in my opinion, among the finest preserved in sound. This is not, I hasten to add, a view universally shared, though other assessments of the recording have been few and far between.
Though de Sabata was rated by such greats as Ernest Newman as one of the finest of all Wagner conductors, his achievement here has tended to be sidelined. Availability has doubtless been one factor in the recording’s neglect: Melodram first issued it on vinyl in the late ’seventies, though it was soon dropped from its catalogue; this marks its first appearance on CD. The date and place of the performance may have been another contributory factor. Discussions of Wagner performances in the early ’fifties tend, with the exception of Furtwangler’s famous ’Ring’, to be focused not on La Scala, but on the post-war re-opening of Bayreuth in 1951. Other important Tristans around the time have also tended to hog the critical limelight, notably Karajan’s 1952 Bayreuth performance (still hotly discussed and now on Myto), and, of course, Furtwangler’s epoch-making EMI version issued the following year.
Victor de Sabata’s recording also brings a number of problems in its wake, on which its detractors have always leapt and which must be mentioned before going on to assess its strengths. First of all, the sound, even by the standards of the period, is variable – restricted if acceptable in the first two acts, though with Act III notably marked by a rapidly increasing level of distortion that sets in some twenty minutes into its course. The Archipel re-mastering is unquestionably impressive. Most of the awkward tape joins that marred the Melodram issue have been smoothed out. Some distortion has been eliminated, though there are still stretches in both Tristan’s delirium and the ’Liebestod’ that require extreme patience. The second problem concerns the cuts, which are extensive. In addition to the standard snips in the first half of the love duet and Tristan’s Act III monologue, de Sabata made further excisions in the lovers’ Act I confrontation, the second half of the love duet and King Mark’s monologue in Act II, and several passages between Tristan’s death and the Liebestod in Act III.
His reasons for doing so are undocumented though they don’t seem to have been made to ease the vocal burden of any one specific singer. Against these drawbacks must, however, be set the devastating impact of the performance, which is characterised by a daunting momentum, a deceptive use of tempo and pace and by De Sabata’s (in my opinion) unequalled ability to integrate fine points of detail into the whole. One of the main ideas behind the work is that the lovers’ inexhaustible and unquenchable desire for each other finds expression in music that is never melodically or harmonically still, and here the sense of restless energy, the convulsive ebb and flow of emotion, is all-pervasive. The whole progresses in a single, relentless, erotic span, in which the tension never slips for a moment. The ’white heat’ – a critical commonplace used in describing de Sabata’s conducting in general – is very much in evidence in every bar.
Yet the unremitting propulsion is deceptive. Just as Wagner deems the phenomenal world in which the lovers are trapped to be illusory, so de Sabata presents us with a soundscape in which tempo and pace are unnervingly at odds with one another. The first act, shrill with hysteria and repression, is seemingly taken at breakneck speed, though de Sabata is actually slower throughout than Karajan, Furtwangler or Reiner, all of whom come over as less edgy and more spacious. The opposite effect occurs in the love duet, where, in the string passage after Brangane’s call from the watchtower, de Sabata appears to bring the score almost to a standstill, though he’s faster here than Bohm, who seems infinitely more urgent at this point.
The wealth of detail embedded in the sonic tapestry is astonishing too. Open the score at any point and you will find Wagner’s expressive instructions obeyed to the letter without a single interruption to the onward flow. In the Act I ’Prelude’, the differentiation between ’belebend’ (being stimulated – the connotation is predictably erotic), ’belebt’ (stimulated) and ’zart’ (tender) is meticulously observed. Turn to Isolde’s memory of looking into Tristan’s eyes and you find the instruction ’sehr ausdruckvoll und zart’ (very expressive and tender) – and that is precisely what you hear. At the opening of the fast section of the love duet, de Sabata seems to allow the tempi to career all over the place instead of holding the beat steady – though this is comparably true to the score where we find Wagner requesting the conductor to ’follow the expression depending upon whether it is fiery or tender’.
Textures are all phenomenally dealt with, as well. It’s a measure of de Sabata’s genius that so much orchestral detail is apparent given the restricted sound. His approach here is essentially forward-looking, aligning Wagner with his effective successors, whether willing or not. A Debussyian delicacy underpins Brangane’s warnings. There’s a Straussian glow in the basic orchestral sound. A single moment of ragged ensemble apart (at the start of Act II), the playing is magnificent, with the La Scala strings at once sumptuous and staggeringly accurate, the woodwind warm and reflective, the brass very vibrant.
The singing is variable though the best of it is stamped with greatness. Another factor that may have mitigated the recording’s wider circulation is the absence of obvious ’star’ Wagnerians in the cast, with the exception of Max Lorenz, who, ironically, gives the weakest vocal performance. A natural Siegfried with a big, clarion Heldentenor voice, he never quite possessed the ability to sustain an extended legato line at pianissimo – qualities that are necessary for Tristan if the love duet is to work ideally. By 1951, Lorenz was nearing the end of his career and gravitating towards roles such as Herod. His voice had developed a beat, which sometimes widened into a spread that pulled him off pitch. You’re also aware that he’s ’saving himself’ for Act III, where he characterises Tristan’s ravings with considerable force, even if he’s prone to bark in places.
His Isolde is Gertrude Grob-Prandl, a singer respected if not idolised in her day, though of late there has been a considerable revival of interest in her work. She appeared on the scene at a time when the great Wagnerian vocalists (Flagstad, Traubel) were beginning to be eclipsed by outstanding singing actresses (Modl, Varnay), and to a certain extent she embodies the approach of both schools. The voice itself stuns, though it possesses qualities unique and unusual in Wagner – a cuttingly penetrative quality rather than comfortable amplitude, and astonishingly vibrant upper registers, even though the tone quality diminishes low on the stave or beneath it. There are moments – particularly in the Act I confrontation with Tristan – where you become aware that Wagner’s vocal writing lies awkwardly. Her dramatic commitment is never for a second in doubt, however. Her scorn and rage in Act I are terrifying. Isolde’s curse seems wrenched from her with terrible fury (the high notes are simply electrifying). Once past the drinking of the potion, her singing is characterised by an easy, flowing, ecstatic quality at once erotic and mystical. There’s no doubt about her stamina too – despite the wretched sound by the time we get to the ’Liebestod’ you can still hear her voice riding the orchestra with sumptuous ease.
The rest of the cast is equally outstanding. Elsa Cavelti is the most human and sensitive of Branganes, rapturous and sexy in her call from the watchtower. The Kurwenal, Sigurd Bjorling (he had sung Wotan at Bayreuth the previous summer), is velvet-voiced, supremely beautiful and passionate – so much so that you’re left wondering whether there’s a homoerotic tinge to his feelings for Tristan. Sven Nilsson is a reflective, noble Mark.
The whole, whatever its flaws, still strikes me as an overwhelming experience. This may be something of a collector’s item – but it should also be an essential item in the collection of anyone who cares remotely about Wagner, and about Tristan in particular.

 

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