Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A "new" Flagstad-Melchior Tristan for the ages

Among Melchior-Flagstad Tristan recordings, between the Reiner and the Beecham, I've always preferred the Reiner for reasons I can't quite explain, other than that the conducting of Reiner seems more in touch, more of a mind with the interpretations of Flagstad and Melchior. Even on the Marston transfer for Naxos, however -- by all accounts the best sonic choice for the Reiner -- one will often have to listen very carefully to hear Melchior in Act I: he's almost constantly off-mike. The rest of the show is engrossing enough that I can deal with the sound; I've certainly heard plenty worse from La Scala in the '50s.

As for the *best* Flagstad-Melchior Tristan, I've got a new favorite: the March 9, 1935 Met broadcast -- an incredible performance. Even with all the time freed up by the healthy cuts, Bodanzky must've been rushing to catch the 11:30 to New Haven; that said, he actually makes the quick tempi work -- it's conducting of great fire and intensity, almost what I'd imagine a Toscanini Tristan would sound like, yet Bodanzky seems more flexible, more of a "singers' conductor." His sudden death must've been a tremendous blow to the Metropolitan, especially given the fact that his successor was the prosaic Leinsdorf.

Both Flagstad and Melchior are sensational, as great as I've ever heard them. Flagstad is even fresher-voiced than at Covent Garden, and Melchior simply outdoes himself with gorgeous lingering mezza voce effects in the lyrical passages and shattering power in the climaxes. The performance has a certain spark of excitement that the Covent Garden recordings lack. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm following Flagstad's spectacular debut just a few weeks before. I'd guess that nobody of our age or younger can possibly imagine the sensation she created. This is a souvenir of those exciting days.

The sound is what it is. One has to take a lot of both the singing and orchestral work on faith. The former is again affected by the singers wandering on and off mike, and the boxiness of orchestral sound makes for loss of color and nuance. Still, I find it more listenable than the Reiner: the singers are in general more closely-miked and can be heard more of the time; as for the orchestral sound, both recordings are fairly wretched. If you're familiar with the sound of other 1935 Met broadcasts -- the Ponselle Traviata or the Tibbett Rigoletto, for example -- the Met recording is about on par with those: excruciatingly bad sound by normal standards, but experienced listeners should be able to hear through the muck.

Flagstad and Melchior are of course the draw here. We can go another century or two and still not hear Wagnerian singing like this again. I'm very happy to have it all on CD in any form.

The set is the product of an outfit called the West Hill Radio Archives, the proprietor of which is one Don Hill. It has been intermittently available on eBay. The artwork and annotation are very professionally done. Considerable time, effort, and affection was clearly lavished on this project. Here's the label and catalog number:

West Hill Radio Archives WHRA 6001 3 2003

Assuming the prospective listener is acquainted with the sound of murky antediluvian broadcasts, this is very highly-recommended. Should this be one's first or only Tristan? Certainly not. I can't imagine a recording with so much of the score missing and with such poor sound serving as one's reference or introduction to the work.

For me, the near-ideal would be the Boehm on DG, which in additon to its other merits should satisfy in the soprano department (Birgit Nilsson). After that, perhaps the Furtwaengler/Flagstad, for the great conducting (albeit less intense than his live work) and the soprano in excellent late form (those famous non-high C's aside), all in good mono studio sound.

Of course, it's a faint echo of the Flagstad of 1935 vintage. So I do think one would want to get at least one of the Flagstad - Melchior recordings later, if only to hear how the music can be sung by two superhuman voices born to sing it, both at their absolute peaks.



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