John Barbirolli conducts Tristan und Isolde Act II [Kirsten Flagstad & Eyvind Laholm; New York 1939]

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Tristan und Isolde – Music-drama in three acts to a libretto by the composer [Act II; concert performance; sung in German]

Isolde – Kirsten Flagstad
Tristan – Eyvind Laholm
Brangäne – Enid Szánthó
König Marke – John Gurney
Kurwenal / Melot – Daniel Harris

New York Philharmonic
John Barbirolli

Recorded 16 April 1939 in Carnegie Hall, New York City

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: July 2012
Duration: 74 minutes



This is the thirteenth issue under the auspices of the Barbirolli Society documenting the conductor’s highly successful tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. This latest offering is of particular interest because it features soloists (apart from the ubiquitous Kirsten Flagstad) who are now virtually unknown. It was also the first American performance of the complete second Act of Tristan und Isolde. In an age now obsessed with authenticity, it might seem bizarre that one of the supreme operatic masterworks should have had substantial passages deleted, but at the time it was thought to make the work more palatable to the average listener.

This West Hill Radio Archives release has excellent (and well illustrated) notes by Tim Lockley that concentrate on the performers and performance, as opposed to the music, which is – of course – well-documented elsewhere. Audio restoration has been undertaken by Ward Marston and Aaron Z. Snyder, and despite some fade-outs, where the sound crumbles (the end of track 5 and most of track 6 are particularly bad), the overall image is very good, having width (it is difficult to tell if ambient imaging has been used) depth, clearly audible brass and woodwind, excellent string tone, rich, well-focused voices and hardly any serious pitch variation. This all suggests that the tapes or acetates were in exceptionally – and unusually – good condition, and/or harmonic balancing, and a recent innovation, pitch-stabilisation software, have been used.

The performance itself has a lot going for it. Its weakest link is Flagstad – fine voice, not much else. In her opening exchanges with Brangäne the intonation falters, although her singing of “das hell sie dorten leuchte” (that she may brightly shine there) does have unforgettable grandeur. Of the two high Cs (both of which come in the tumultuous opening paragraph of the duet with Tristan) the first at “Seele” (Soul) features a huge leap of a diminished tenth and Flagstad barely touches the note. You only have to turn to Birgit Nilsson with Karl Böhm (Bayreuth in 1966, at virtually the same tempo) to realise just how unacceptable this denial of ecstatic rapture is. The second comes shortly afterwards at the start of the huge arching, soaring two-bar phrase “Himmel höchstes” (Highest heavens). It is completely omitted, which destroys its verbal and musical meaning and impact. Unfortunately there is also a lack of sensuality and passion. Flagstad usually – in whatever role she undertook – ended up sounding rather matronly. The love-duet is pure passion, the quest for love in death, whose musical and sexual climax is shattered by King Mark barging in. Flagstad wasn’t at ease with such eroticism; and it shows. As the climax approaches, Eyvind Laholm’s Tristan becomes increasingly ecstatic; his phrasing rises and falls in excited, agitated waves, whereas Flagstad sounds reserved, which won’t do. One can only wish that the finest of contemporary Isoldes, Helen Traubel, had been available; she was far more passionate and sexually aware.

Laholm’s somewhat dubious claim to fame is that he was Hitler’s favourite tenor. Born in 1894 Jon Edwin Johnson of Swedish-American parentage, he changed his name to avoid confusion with the American tenor Edward Johnson (who became General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera). He spent a lot of time in Germany – where Hitler heard him – and returned home prior to the outbreak of World War Two. He made his debut at the Met as Siegmund in1939, and this Carnegie Hall appearance was his first American appearance after his return. Writing in the New York Times, Olin Downes said of his Siegmund that “He showed his intelligence and conscientiousness last night, but it must be said that he did not provide a highly distinguished or dramatic performance”, an impression that this Tristan rendition doesn’t entirely support. The voice isn’t huge and lacks the cutting edge and penetration of many heldentenors, but it has definition, controlled vibrato and immaculate intonation. He also uses a wide range of dynamic and tonal shading (although one ppp comes perilously close to falsetto) and unlike Flagstad he understands the score’s sensuality, is far more interesting than his illustrious partner, and it is a pity that his recorded legacy is so small.

Enid Szánthó sounds more like a contralto than a mezzo. Her Brangäne has rich tone that is reasonably firm, and blends well with Flagstad’s opulent voice. She brings plenty of character to the role and has the necessary vocal heft to ride out the climaxes. The real find is John Gurney as King Mark. He was born in America in 1902 and studied music in Paris before joining the Met in 1935, where he sang smaller roles until 1945; when he retired he became a portrait artist, furniture designer and builder. During the ‘thirties and ‘forties the Met boasted two superb basses in Emanuel List and Nicola Moscona, and two of the all-time greats, Alexander Kipnis and Ezio Pinza, so getting – and keeping – a starring role was going to be very difficult. Gurney debuted as Sparafucile (Rigoletto) and also sang Ramfis (Aida), but when Moscona took over these roles, was demoted to Monterone and the King. His tone has quick, controlled, vibrato, is fairly lightweight, but is well projected, the intonation is excellent, and he uses vivid word-painting to evoke the King’s immense sorrow and bewilderment, without ever sacrificing line; he makes the listener concentrate on every word.

John Barbirolli’s conducting is wonderfully virile and also alive to every mood-change. To those accustomed to the torpor of Furtwängler’s overrated 1951 studio performance, the opening bars will be a shock. Like Böhm, Barbirolli (knighted in 1949) drives forward observing the Sehr lebhaft (very lively) marking, and 2/2 time signature, with mercurial phrasing from the woodwind and strings. There is urgency in the scene with Isolde and Brangäne, which is entirely apposite; Isolde is longing to get her hands on Tristan and her servant is warning her of the consequences of such an action, but Barbirolli is also able to relax. When Tristan enters, the New York Philharmonic exults with wonderfully concentrated abandon: this really is great orchestral playing. When the tension subsides and the love-in-death duet begins (at “O sing hernieder, Nacht der liebe”) Barbirolli slows right down but without grinding to a halt. Like all great conductors Barbirolli is able to make every tempo change sound seamless and inevitable and the cumulative effect is immensely powerful. For this reason, the unusual soloists, and (for the year) excellent sound, this release is self-recommending.

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