WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde – Act 2 – Kirsten Flagstad, soprano/ Eyvind Laholm, tenor/ Enid Szantho, soprano/ John Gurney, bass-baritone/ Daniel Harris, baritone/ New York Philharmonic/ John Barbirolli – Archipel ARPCD 0485, 71:53 [Distr. by Qualiton] ***:
Archipel restores the first American radio transmission (16 April 1939) of the complete Second Act of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, a landmark in the evolution of both opera and Western classical music generally. Act Two, famous as the Liebesnacht, provides a series of culminations of loyalty and betrayal at once, since Tristan owes fealty to King Mark, but the love-potion he and Isolde consume demands a higher allegiance. Much of Wagner’s own libretto for this extended love scene, interrupted by periodic warnings from Brangene that the knight Melot will reveal their forbidden love to the King, finds parallels in Novalis’ Hymn to Night. By the end of the tryst, Melot confronts Tristan, and Tristan allows Melot to inflict the fatal wound that claims his life and seals the conceit that love and death remain inextricable.
Enid Szantho and Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) establish the heroic-tragic tone of Act II, allowing the hunting horns to fade into the distance before Brangene extinguishes the brazier, the signal for Tristan to rendezvous with Isolde. Tenor Eyvind Laholm (1894-1958) has not the sheer lyric sweetness in his voice as do Set Svanholm and Lauritz Melchior, but his vocal stamina and tessitura certainly meet the requirements for a convincing Tristan. Too often, the quality of the original acetates has deteriorated too badly to maintain every nuance of the vocalism and the sustained, chromatic beauty of the orchestra, but we can still appreciate the sensual power of Flagstad and Laholm in the sequences after O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe. Yet, despite the intrusive swish and crackle of the shellacs, the mystical voluptuousness of the scene evokes a panorama of color and transcendent fulfillment, as when we traverse the Einsam wachend in der Nacht and virtually float in the ecstasy of Lausch, Geliebter! At So stuerben wir, um ungetrennt, Tristan and Isolde sing a total anticipation of the Liebestod as a vocal duet, the orchestra weaving a stream of unending melody that swirls and eddies in sensuous bliss.
After yet another Brangene admonition to desist before the arrival of the King and his entourage, Tristan and Isolde bid sweet farewell, O ew’ge Nacht, suesse Nacht! the tempo of their passion increased, and the intensity concentrated into a paroxysm of anguished desire. Were it not for the antique sonics, the performance would shatter the most modern equipment. John Gurney (1902-1997) sings the role of King Mark, and he must convey the sad betrayal of wife and trusted vassal as well the treason of Melot to a fellow knight. The sadness and resignation in his confrontation with Tristan bears a palpable misery of spirit. Mark’s extended aria, Wozu die Dienst ohne Zahl, combines regal duty with personal grief, a fine testament to Gurney’s vocal power, in spite of intrusive sound deterioration. Tristan responds with his most contrite response, O Koenig, das kann ich dir nicht sagen, Laholm’s most touching moment, surrounded by the “Tristan chord” that defines the harmonic progression of the opera itself, quoting the orchestral prelude. The shadows of the love-night impinge on Tristan’s sincere regret, a visceral reminder of the potency of erotic Fate. The wages of sin is death, and so the final scene confronts the lovers with the treacherous Melot (Daniel Harris), Isolde’s loving tropes soon shattered by the men’s enactment of the archetypal blood-price.
In Memoriam… a fine tribute to Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire