- Tristan und Isolde, opera, WWV 90
This classic performance of "Tristan und Isolde" from the 1952 Bayreuth Festival has seen a number of incarnations on CD. That's not surprising, given the sound quality, which is unusually clean, full, and well-balanced for a live recording of that era, the high standard of the orchestral playing, and the star turns from the principals. Herbert von Karajan leads a performance that avoids extremes and interpretive idiosyncrasies, but which is exceptionally supple, sensitive to the singers, and surgingly urgent. All the singers perform with consummate skill and commitment; this is clearly an ensemble fully at ease with the opera's fearsome demands. Martha Mödl's Isolde is womanly and passionate; she fully throws herself into the role and persuasively conveys Isolde's transformation from furious adversary to tender lover. Her tone is full and earthy, but can also be meltingly warm and intimate. She has the solidity to make the low-lying parts of the role powerfully menacing, and the lightness to soar when Isolde's passion has been awakened, and she colors her voice with wonderful subtlety. Ramón Vinay was one of the few effective non-German Wagnerian tenors of his generation, and the Latinate quality of his ample voice and delivery make him a touchingly human Tristan. He has plenty of power, even through the grueling third act, and he comes across as genuinely heroic. As King Marke, Ludwig Weber is appropriately somber but fails to bring his monologue to life. Hans Hotter's Kurvenal is blustery and mature-sounding in the first act and gently supportive in the third, but his voice tends to be somewhat stiff. Ira Malaniuk makes a very fine Brangäne, although she is nearly overpowered by Mödl's charismatic Isolde. As noted, the recorded sound is good, apart from a normal amount of stage noises and the prompter's voice in some very quiet passages. This strong performance should be of interest to any fans of the opera.