Bernstein: Wagner Tristan und Isolde - Philips 6769 091 (5-LP box) - magnificent
Box: EX / Vinyls: NM / Dutch pressing
This beautiful 5-LP box set from Philips (6769 091, Dutch pressing, red/white labels, DDD stereo, booklet/libretto included) features Leonard Bernstein's remarkable, legendary presentation of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde – recorded 'live' at the Herkulesaal, Munich in November 1981.
The recording's producer was the veteran Erik Smith and the results he achieved matched Bernstein's conception, with rich, finely detailed sound set in a warm, ideal acoustic.
It was a unique occasion and one can only be grateful that Philips had the foresight to preserve it. In fact, it remains something of an anomaly in Bernstein's vast discography, one of his few complete opera recordings, and the only one of Wagner's. It was made with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and a starry line-up of soloists:
Peter Hofmann, Tenor (Tristan)
Hildegard Behrens, Soprano (Isolde)
Yvonne Minton, Mezzo-Soprano (Brangäne)
Hans Sotin, Bass (König Marke)
Heribert Steinbach, Bass-Baritone (Melot)
Bernd Weikl, Baritone (Kurwenal)
Thomas Moser, Tenor (Seemann)
Heinz Zednik, Tenor (Hirte)
Raimund Grumbach, Baritone (Steuermann)
Wrote Alan Blyth in the October 1984 issue of The Gramophone:
"Bernstein's more controversial Tristan spreads to five discs, possibly because of the slow tempos adopted. This interpretation hasn't been as much praised by others as it was by me, but I make no apologies for admiring it so highly. Hearing it in the clarity of CD, and in Erik Smith's natural recording (better focused than the Parsifal), I was once more carried away by the dedication and commitment on all sides. Where other finds exaggeration in Bernstein's direction, I hear only a total involvement in the work that is seconded in Behrens's vulnerable, ecstatic Isolde. Hofmann, though somewhat stretched by Bernstein in Act 3, is a moving Tristan. His is not the most firm or beautiful of heroic tenors, but first impressions of the somewhat gritty tone are always dispatched as a performance continues by the thought and feeling behind his singing. Minton and Weikl contribute convincingly, and Sotin makes a nobly sympathetic King Marke, among the best on record.
"The very absence of surface interruptions allows us to hear home studio and/or concert-hall noises not audible on LP, but they are a small price to pay for what is a much larger and more exciting sound that was previously evident, and I note especially how well Erik Smith and his team have caught Behrens's voice and how ideally it is balanced with the orchestra in, for instance, the Narration and the Liebestod. Even more than before, I think this is the most rounded and consistent Tristan since Furtwangler's LP set on HMV."
“There's never been a Tristan und Isolde quite like it and it is said that the veteran conductor and Wagnerian Karl Bohm was deeply moved by Bernstein's conception, congratulating his colleague at the end of the performance for the latter's achievement. Said Böhm: "For the first time somebody dares to perform the music as Wagner wrote it. The rest of us never dared to!" It is a daring performance, and a triumphal one at that.”
Although taped during the early digital era, this set's issue preceded the advent of compact disc, and Philps spared no expense in its presentation, with its beautiful and striking glossy box (the cover art by Peter Behrens [1868-1940]) and lavish 64-page full-size book/libretto.
Printed on heavy paper, the booklet/libretto (all texts in German, French and English) not only contains extensive biographies and photographs of all the principals, but also Arthur Holmberg's penetrating essay "Tristan und Isolde, A Drama of the Soul", and a personal reminiscence ('About This Recording') by Philips producer Erik Smith.
One of the most beautiful Bernstein LP issues and this particular copy in pristine condition.