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Three versions of Tristan und Isolde sail their troubled way to us this month: an abundance of existential misery, sublimation and transcendence. Listening to them one after the other has proved fascinating, if somewhat overwhelming at times; and, alas, I cannot single any one out above the others as the obvious choice you must rush to purchase. Let us first consider the conducting.

Number one is Peter Schneider, captured live at Bayreuth in 2009. This is excellently recorded: I felt as though I was onstage with the soloists (thankfully not the case) but with great orchestral clarity. Schneider is swift– no drooping around here; for example, the prelude comes in at 9’12”. This makes for a pacy and exciting performance, though when Tristan and Isolde commence their Act II duet it does mean that the effect is more of a rushed slither than erotic elation as the singers scramble over each other to get their lines out.

Number two is Wolfgang Sawallisch, also recorded live at Bayreuth, this time in 1958. The sound is mono, but surprisingly good, and generally free of stage noise. Sawallisch takes more time to breathe – his prelude is 11’07” – and likewise bestows this obvious benefit to his singers: the start of the aforementioned duet is still a bit of a shouting match, but allowing a little more appropriate urgency. His overall conception is detailed and confident, but not overwhelmingly personal.

Conductor number three is Leonard Bernstein, filmed live in (dull) semi-staged concerts in Munich in 1981, and who takes things slowly – and I mean incredibly slowly… In fact almost in slow motion, with pauses that make you wonder whether you’ve sat on the remote control and inadvertently paused Wagner with a buttock. His prelude lasts a whole 14’42”. You could almost leave the room, fix a drink (trust me, you’ll need several), return, and Bernstein would still be poised mid-flow, head back, a look of ecstasy on his face, orchestra looking up in quivering anticipation, before you catch the downbeat and realise it was actually part of the musical weave. One advantage is that the Act II duet starts with appreciable singing, amorous phrases repeated and returned with precision. And Bernstein certainly maintains dramatic tension across all three acts, as well as making one listen anew to details. The sound, however, is of its time; the picture quality likewise.

Schneider’s Tristan is Robert Dean Smith, fresh of voice, with plenty of heft, though parts of Act III push start to push him beyond his comfort zone. But he sounds youthful and vigorous, and you can see why an Isolde would fling herself at him. His Isolde, Iréne Theorin, is rich-voiced and confident, but also pushed at climaxes such as the Narration and Curse, and her ‘Liebestod’ remains disappointingly earthbound. But they generally make an attractive and very human couple.

Sawallisch has the theoretical dream cast of Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson. Windgassen has a more noble sound than Smith, and makes some very beautiful noises indeed. He is occasionally wayward in pitch, particularly in Act III, where he is also vocally stretched beyond the natural limits of the voice. Nilsson offers some gleaming tone above the stave, some surprisingly woozy tones below it at times, and some equally surprising radiant piano singing in the middle of her voice. At times she spills into implacable goddess mode, but then pulls back with some ravishing phrasing.

Bernstein’s Tristan is Peter Hofmann, who has the advantage and disadvantage that we can watch him. He was a handsome chap, but considering this is a semi-staged performance he stands like a robot (and this was the man who had almost spontaneously combusted at Bayreuth five years earlier as an X-rated Siegmund?) Vocally, he starts with confidence and ends in some unintended distress. His Isolde is Hildegard Behrens, who has a perfect blend of fire and ice, coupled with a soprano of lyric attractiveness but dramatic heft, when not pushed to the limits by Bernstein’s tempi.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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