Many thanks to our friend from Lake Michigan for this gem
This is one of the most popular modern recordings of the opera though partly by default as there haven’t been many and the consensus is that the most recent ones lack the great singers of the past. It somewhat lags behind Böhm’s and Furtwängler’s in popularity and critical esteem though I think it’s nearly as good. Most of the criticism has been directed at the conducting. I’ll get to that but first I want to discuss the lead singers.…
Composer: Richard Wagner
Performer: Jon Vickers, Helga Dernesch, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry
Orchestra: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Herbert von Karajan
Number of Discs: 5
DR-Analysis: DR 11
Size: 5.03 GB
The more I get to know Helga Dernesch’s Isolde the more I like it, at least since I got over her not being Birgit Nilsson. Actually I got over that very quickly. The truth is I’ve fallen in love with the lady’s voice. She started (and ended) her career as a mezzo and the bottom half of her voice has a lovely dark, sultry quality which goes along with a brightly burnished top, her high notes ringing out and slicing through the orchestral fabric as well as anyone’s. I’ve heard her in a few other recordings such as the Karajan Fidelio where she’s also very good, but this part really brings out the qualities of her voice.
Interpretively, the first act is the acid test for an Isolde. Nilsson with her Valkyrie fierceness brought a unique charisma to the role. Dernesch’s Isolde is a softer creature, her anger suffused with hurt, her voice tremulous with humiliation and the pain of rejection. It occurs to me that, viewing the story realistically rather than mythically, the lovers would have been very young, probably even teenagers, and exhibit throughout the febrile emotions of youth. When I read the text of the first act I think of Nilsson’s Isolde, but Dernesch reminds me of the subtext. In the end, of all the Isoldes I’ve heard it’s Nilsson’s which is the definitive one, the one closest to the character Wagner created in the text and in his music, but there is room for other interpretations and I find Dernesch’s Isolde very moving.
About Vickers I have little to say other than to rave. With his remarkable and distinctive voice and expressive singing he is, for me, the greatest Tristan of the century. (Yes, better than Melchior.)
Turning to the conducting, the performance overall is one of the slowest. That seems to be the chief source of complaint without it always being mentioned explicitly. I find it interesting that a couple of critics who refer to it as “ponderous” or “devitalized” also revere Furtwängler who is even slower. It would have been helpful if they had tried to explain what the difference is. I’ll try to do that. In the first place it isn’t all slow. The first act, exclusive of the prelude, is about average and doesn’t feel slow. I don’t see anything at all wrong with the conducting, including the pacing, either here or in the second act. On the contrary, I find it masterly in all respects. The second act IS quite slow but I’ve come to prefer relaxed tempos in the love duet, particularly in the quieter second half, which helps to express the ecstacy of the lovers suspended in a timeless world, that world of night that Tristan talks about. (And Furtwängler is slower still.)
Where I do have a problem is with the prelude and the third act. The prelude is the slowest I’ve ever heard. Just for some perspective, here are some selected timings from the fastest to the slowest: Knappertsbusch(!) 9’59, Kleiber 10’27, Solti 10’35, Böhm 10’39, Furtwängler 11’01, Karajan 12’40. That Karajan is fifteen percent slower than Furtwangler is quite amazing. It’s so slow and listless as to be positively enervating and I find it frankly unlistenable, preferring either to skip it or substitute another one. (Kleiber’s is a good choice.) The prelude may have put many listeners in a sour frame of mind for appreciating the rest. Talk about a bad first impression!
Karajan also takes the beginning of the third act slower than anyone else though less egregiously so. Wagner specifies “Mässig Langsam” or MODERATELY slow, which is a kind of base tempo to which the music periodically returns. The act is structured like a series of waves, beginning at ebb tide, surging, then falling back to that moderately slow tempo which in Karajan’s hands is much slower than other conductors’, including Furtwängler. These recurrent episodes of extreme slowness weaken the overall flow and momentum of the act, turning it into a series of discrete episodes. Furtwangler’s third act, though actually a few minutes longer, has a greater sense of unity and forward momentum. Perhaps someday I’ll get used to Karajan’s pacing. I hope so, for it detracts from my enjoyment of Vicker’s magnificent singing.
Christa Ludwig is the Brangäne. I like her better here than I did in the Böhm recording. The more relaxed pace makes her seem less frantic. Walter Berry is the best Kurvenal I’ve ever heard. The role fits his voice like a glove, especially in the first act. He has more strength and smoothness in his upper register in parts like “Wer Kornwalls Kron und Englands Erb” than most others who have sang the part. Karl Ridderbusch sings King Marke’s monologue very musically and with great beauty of tone but I prefer the more impassioned renditions of Martti Talvela for Böhm and Kurt Moll for Kleiber.
Analyzed Folder: /96k Wagner – Tristan And Isolde – Karajan
DR Peak RMS Filename
DR13 -0.89 dB -19.88 dB side01.flac
DR12 -0.29 dB -17.85 dB side02.flac
DR15 -1.04 dB -21.56 dB side03.flac
DR12 -1.33 dB -18.14 dB side04.flac
DR14 -0.52 dB -20.56 dB side05.flac
DR14 -0.12 dB -20.65 dB side06.flac
DR15 -0.54 dB -22.43 dB side07.flac
DR12 -0.78 dB -19.21 dB side08.flac
DR12 -0.54 dB -18.05 dB side09.flac
DR13 -0.29 dB -19.60 dB side10.flac
Number of Files: 10
Official DR Value: DR13
- Baritone Vocals [Kurwenal] – Walter Berry
- Baritone Vocals [Melot] – Bernd Weikl
- Bass Vocals [König Marke] – Karl Ridderbusch
- Chorus – Chor Der Deutschen Oper Berlin
- Chorus Master – Walter Hagen-Groll
- Composed By – Richard Wagner
- Conductor – Herbert von Karajan
- Engineer – Wolfgang Gülich
- Liner Notes – Klaas A. Posthuma
- Mezzo-soprano Vocals [Brangäne] – Christa Ludwig
- Orchestra – Berliner Philharmoniker
- Photography By [Titelfoto] – Lauterwasser
- Producer – Michel Glotz
- Recording Supervisor – Christfried Bickenbach
- Soprano Vocals [Isolde] – Helga Dernesch
- Technician [Editing & Montage] – Michael Gray, Roy Emerson
- Tenor Vocals [Ein Junger Seemann, Ein Hirt] – Peter Schreier
- Tenor Vocals [Ein Steuermann] – Martin Vantin
- Tenor Vocals [Tristan] – Jon Vickers
- RCM: Okki Nokki (L’art du son, Clearaudio’s Diamond Cleaner)
- TT: Vintage (1982) Yamaha PX-3
- Cartridge: Sumiko Black Bird
Cartridge: ZYX 50R Bloom
- Phono amp: Audio Research SP15 own tube phono section.
- ADC/DAC: RME Fireface UC
- Pre Amp: Audio Research SP15
- Finals: Opera Consonance 9.9 Mono (Tube)
- Speakers: Dali Helikon 400
- Connections: MIT Terminator, Audioquest Emerald, Audioquest Quartz
- Software: iZotope RX 5 Advanced, Adobe Audition CS 5.5, Twisted Wave 1.18
- Very careful de-clicking with iZotope, significant clicks manually removed, never de-noising
- Wave 32/192(32/384) —> Flac 24/96(24/192): Twisted Wave 1.18
- Artwork: Sony Alpha 350, Epson Perfection V750 Pro, Photoshop CS 5.5
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