Saturday, April 15, 2017

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

In June 2016, Hugo Shirley wrote a very interesting article for Gramophone titled “The opera that changed music”. The article opens with quotes from Alma Mahler, Clara Schumann and Edward Elgar as they each react to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde; a quote from one of Grieg’s pen pals is especially “graphic”:

[T]he most enormous depravity I have ever seen or heard, but in its own crazy way it is so overwhelming that one is deadened by it as by a drug. […] Even more immoral…than the plot is this seasick music that destroys all sense of structure in its quest for tonal colour. In the end, one just becomes a glob of slime on an ocean shore, something ejaculated by that masturbating pig in an opiate frenzy!
The Gramophone article is a great read, especially for those of us who have mixed emotions about sitting through a Wagner opera from curtain rise to curtain fall – let alone try and sink their teeth into the material and make sense if it all. This is a commitment, to be sure!
Shirley writes that the past 150 years are littered with writers trying to express the fascination, revulsion (or both!) that Tristan inspires. Even today, Tristan remains a work that can inspire fierce devotion or baffled resistance: it eludes clear definition and explanation and encourages intemperate hyperbole at every turn. Maybe Michael Tanner’s thought-provoking description is one of the best: ‘Along with Bach’s St Matthew Passion,’ he writes, ‘it is one of the two greatest religious works of our culture.’

The Internet is littered with resources and authoritative (as well as authoritative-sounding) articles regarding Tristan, and I would hate to add more… To me, Tristan is in many ways a “regular day in the office” for Wagner: the creative convergence of Wagner’s devotion to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, the soap-opera that is his own love life and musical exploration that takes him away from established musical convention.

The re-discovery of mediaeval Germanic poetry, including Gottfried von Strassburg's version of Tristan, the Nibelungenlied and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, left a large impact on the German Romantic movements during the mid-19th century. Again, we note here subject matter that Wagner has mined to form the core of his epic operas.

Tristan took five years to compose with the bulk of the work between 1857 and 1859. Sections of the opera and libretto were composed in Switzerland and Italy, as Wagner’s 20-year marriage was disintegrating in large part because of his relationship with German poet and author Mathilde Wesendonck , the wife of a wealthy silk trader. (Wagner set five songs to her words, called the Wesendonck Lieder, in the same time period).

Staging an opera isn’t easy – and it is even less so when it comes to a Wagner opera! The completed work remained unstaged for several years and it’s only after King Ludwig II of Bavaria became Wagner’s sponsor that enough resources were secured to mount the premiere of Tristan und Isolde. Hans von Bülow was chosen to conduct the production at the Nationaltheater in Munich. This of course is happening at the time Wagner was having an affair with his wife Cosima which resulted in a daughter – Isolde – born about two months before the premiere on 10 June 1865.
The next production of Tristan was in Weimar in 1874. Wagner himself supervised another production of Tristan in Berlin in March 1876, but the opera was only performed at the Bayreuth Festival after his death; Cosima (now his widow) oversaw this widely acclaimed production in 1886.

Today’s 1953 performance is also from the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. In a review by Webster Forrest for, he writes:

This recording of Tristan is especially valuable, as it is the only available recording featuring the Isolde of the great Astrid Varnay. The performance is led by one of the German repertoire's most competent if not most passionate conductors: Eugen Jochum […] and this Tristan emits more heat and commitment than many […] From the outset the key words for this performance are concentration, accuracy, and commitment. Jochum handles the orchestra with a beautiful skill that reminds one of the more sensitive and beautiful performances […] The pace is exciting - and measured. The conducting throughout keeps the drama moving very convincingly, though there is not very much in the way of sudden excitement where it might be wanted.
Varnay's Isolde is rather intelligent and proud, and where it counts, passionate. […] Varnay's was a voice of huge volume and a rather hot and heavy timbre; some found that she sat on words, using a peculiar pronunciation of consonants to pry her way into a note. This can be true in some of her recorded performances, but here […] she displays great vocal facility as well as incredible musicality. Her involvement in the entire night scene, ending with the great love duet in Act II is exceptionally rewarding both musically and dramatically. Her Liebestod must be regarded as one of the finest ever recorded.
[…] The much-loved and under-recorded Ramón Vinay sings Tristan, and he is a fine choice for the role. Vinay's tenor is one of fine baritonal strength and a robust and penetrating top. His approach to the role is full-blooded and martial without being at all strident. […] He certainly makes a great deal of the text in many ways and in most instances convinces us of his character. His dying words are a touching yet well-controlled expression of deranged love.
[…] The last forty minutes of the opera - from somewhere around Tristan's 'Ach Isolde ... wie schön bist du' there is a distortion in the sound at the upper dynamic levels. (This alone may perhaps account for the recording's rarity.) It's a crackling, as though the recording levels were a little too high, but it is a noise on top of the recorded music, and apart from it there is no distortion of the actual sound captured (no loss of detail, e.g., or no muffling - just this extra noise on top, like a scratch on a record.)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde, WWV 90
music drama in three acts
German libretto by the composer, based largely on the romance by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Tristan - Ramón Vinay
Isolde - Astrid Varnay
Brangäne - Ira Malaniuk
Kurwenal - Gustav Neidlinger
Marke - Ludwig Weber
Melot - Hasso Eschert
Ein Hirt - Gerhard Stolze
Ein Seemann - Gene Tobin
Ein Steuermann - Theo Adam
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
Conductor: Eugen Jochum

Festspielhaus Bayreuth
July 30, 1953 (Live recording)


Synopsis -
Libretto -

Internet Archive URLs

Act 1 -
Act 2 -
Act 3 -