Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Classics: Wagner, master of musical motion, Part 2 (yes, last night's preview was Part 1)


The revolutionary opening phrase of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, highlighting the unresolving half-diminished seventh chord that became known as the "Tristan chord"

by Ken

And here is the Tristan Prelude itself, in a performance I liked a lot when I first heard it, and I'm relieved to say I still like very much. I'll tell you in a moment who the conductor and orchestra are -- I think you'll be surprised.

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I

Our subject this week, you'll recall, is "musical motion," how performers find -- or don't -- what makes a piece of music move forward from the inside, how they re-create it with real energy and purpose instead of just grinding out one damned note after another. In Friday night's preview we tested the idea in music that lives or dies via believable and engaging musical momentum, by Dukas, Rossini, and Johann Strauss. Then last night we began exploring the subject of inner musical momentum in terms of one of the foremost masters of it, Richard Wagner. And as I indicated last night, our primary work unit is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.

We've got so much ground to cover today that I'm afraid we're going to have to throw overboard what was to have been our first order of business: a too-fast video performance of Rossini's Overture to La Gazza ladra by Claudio Abbado that makes a cheap effect while stripping away most of the piece's wit and charm -- but that's basically the same lesson that was illustratred last night by Valery Gergiev's too-fast performance of the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Lohengrin.


You've already been introduced up top to the "Tristan chord." It's hard to understate how shocking this was to the musical world when it was first heard publicly (in 1865 -- the opera was basically written in 1856-59, as Wagner turned to "more practical" projects while he was stuck in composing The Ring, at the start of Act IiI of Siegfried). It's a chord that incorporates the interval of the tritone, which was considered a horror in classical harmony, and more importantly, it's a chord that doesn't naturally resolve in any direction. We dealt very simply with the concept of harmonic "resolution" back when we were listening to the Largo of Dvořák's New World Symphony -- it's the natural direction in which the ear expects a particular harmony to move. It's the basis of all "tonal" music.

Only the Tristan chord has no natural outlet, and that was Wagner's point. The first and most obvious audacity of Tristan is that it doesn't resolve harmonically, over its 3½-to-4-hour length, until the very end of the Liebestod, the Love-Death sung by Isolde over the body of the expired Tristan. The opera became a test of Wagner's ability to maintain an intense level of musical and dramatic activity while never allowing it to be resolved. Most immediately, this a graphic musical representation of desire, of yearning, and as the Act II love scene between Tristan and Isolde makes clear, while this desire and yearning include the spiritual, they are also emphatically and unambiguously carnal.

I think we got a good sampling of this in the above performance of the Tristan Prelude, which by the way is from a 1972 Rome Radio broadcast concert performance of the complete opera with the RAI Rome Orchestra conducted by, of all people, Zubin Mehta! The performance, from February 1, 1972, features Birgit Nilsson and Helge Brilioth in the title roles and a solid supporting cast. It has been issued by Myto in excellent stereo sound.

Now, as I mention occasionally, under normal circumstances I hate to waste your time or mine with bad performances. But in this case, if I'm going to have any shot at describing what I mean by musical motion that's generated from inside the music, we're rather obviously going to have to resort to performances that I think fail to do so. Let me say that, especially if you're new to this music, the differences may not be immediately apparent, but I think as you listen you'll gradually come to hear that not only are they there, but they're really not all that subtle.

One further note: From here on in, none of our performances of the Tristan Act I Prelude are going to end in the middle of nowhere the way the Mehta one above does. Again, this is a prelude rather than overture, and as such it wasn't mean to have an "end," but flows directly into the opening scene, which in this case is aboard the ship on which the brave knight Tristan is escorting the young Irish lass Isolde, much against her will, from Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle, King Marke. The first thing we hear after the end of the Prelude is the voice of a young sailor who is singing, as operatic sailors, and probably even some real-life sailors, are wont to do. Wagner has written the Sailor a most extraordinary little song, but we shouldn't forget -- as a lot of conductors seem to -- that it's a work song, just as surely as, say, "I've Been Working on the Railroad," and not a lullaby or a recitation or a recital offering.

Unfortunately for the Sailor, or I suppose really for Isolde, the song coincidentally concerns an "Irish maiden" (not all that coincidental when you consider that the ship has just sailed from Ireland) in a situation that sounds to her like a cruel mockery of her own captivity, and she explodes with rage, requiring comforting and orientation from her trusted companion Brangäne. I mention this because in most of our recordings you'll have the opportunity to hear this, since in order to include the sailor's song I had to include a CD track that goes farther into Act I.

Don't forget that you have options her. In your listening you can take in just the first track, which ends at the end of the Prelude, or you can continue on and stop after the sailor's song, or you can run the table and make the acquaintance of the ladies. As long as we were doing it, it seemed a shame not to offer you these options.
I'm only going to give you the (translated) text for the Sailor's song. For the continuation of the scene, you can find a German-English libretto at (If you want to open it in a separate window, you can simply paste the URL in.)

Sailor's Song

Westward strays the eye,
eastward flies the ship.
Fresh blows the wind
My Irish maiden,
where do you linger?
Is it the breath of your sighs
that fills our sails?
Blow, blow, o wind!
Woe, ah woe, my child!
Irish maiden,
you wild, winsome maiden!

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and opening of Act I

Rolando Villazón (t), Young Sailor; Nina Stemme (s), Isolde; Mihoko Fujimara (ms), Brangäne; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 2004 - Jan. 2005

John Dickie (t), Young Sailor; Deborah Voigt (s), Isolde; Petra Lang (ms), Brangäne; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Christian Thielemann, cond. DG, recorded live, May 2003

We start with two performances I just don't buy.

In the Pappano-conducted EMI recording (which by the way features Plácido Domingo as Tristan, a peformance that in more astutely supportive hands might have added up to something), we're in trouble almost from the get-go. Pappano's kind of OK as long as the music is rising in pitch and volume, but maybe because he doesn't seem to have any idea how to secure real intensity from his players, the line crumbles when it goes lower in pitch and volume, and so already the famous first phrase limps to an end, and by the time of the full-orchestra rest, the Prelude has ground to a halt. And this pattern keeps repeating, pretty much wrecking any chance of building to any kind of musical or emotional point. Oh, the piece is still recognizable, and to people who don't expect to be truly engaged by the music, this is apparently enough, and never mind that the guts and purpose have been drained out.

Telling note: Rolando Villazóon's pretty little tenor might be a fine voice for the Sailor, but he seems to be singing it as a conservatory graduation recital piece. Things seem to pick up at Isolde's explosive entrance, but it's an illusion; fast and loud Pappano can do, and the music will make some effect, but the rest is a blur.

The Thielemann-DG recording is a trickier case, as is so often the case for me with Thielemann. It's hard to point to anything that's actively wrong. The elements seem to be in place, and you can listen for a while kidding yourself that he deserves praise for his admirable restraint, for underplaying rather than indulging in cheap expressive theatrics, until eventually you realize that there really isn't any expression -- he's not underplaying the music so much as simply not playing it. It doesn't doesn't go anywhere, doesn't really happen. At the end of the Prelude, we're exactly where we were when we started, with the sensation that nothing has really happened except that it's ten later.

For another while you can point fingers elsewhere, like -- in the case of this 2003 live Tristan from the Vienna State Opera -- the mediocre-or-worse cast. (Deborah Voigt sounds very ragged as Isolde, and the very idea of Thomas Moser as Tristan seems silly. Of course, as happens any time you put something like this in the form of a challenge, the international standard seems to have dropped even lower. The performance I heard Ben Heppner give at the Met some years ago was in fact worse -- Moser, despite his vocal nonpresence, doesn't stop the music from happening -- and then there's John Treleaven, and somebody named Wolfgang Millgram . . . but enough.) But that doesn't account for the overriding reality that the music just doesn't move except in grinding-it-out, one-damned-note-after-another fashion.

When I bought the Thielemann recording, even after listening to it all the way through several times I still couldn't remember much of anything about it. Again, not much seems to be actively wrong, apart from the cast (admittedly a sizable "apart from"), but nothing registers, nothing sticks. Eventually I had to acknowledge fact that the different colors of the CDsrs -- red for Act I, blue for Act II, green for Act III -- represent a larger emotional statement than anything I've been able to glean by listening to the performance.

Rudolf Schock (t), Young Sailor; Kirsten Flagstad (s), Isolde; Blanche Thebom (ms), Brangäne; Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. EMI, recorded 1952

Anton Dermota (t), Young Sailor; Birgit Nilsson (s), Isolde; Hilde Rössl-Majdan (ms), Brangäne; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live performance, Apr. 30, 1959

Now we come to two performances, conducted by credentialed Wagnerians, that are on a distinctly higher level but that I still don't buy.

The first will be controversial, since I appear to be the only person on the planet who gets hardly any message from the famous 1952 Furtwängler-EMI Tristan. It's a recording that certainly should have been made. Furtwängler's various Ring recordings bear ample witness to his genius as a Wagner conductor, and under fascinatingly different circumstances: the complete 1950 La Scala cycle under actual live theater conditions, the 1953 Rome Radio cycle under the more reflective, controlled circumstances of one-act-at-a-time in-studio performance. Then finally in 1954 he got to record Die Walküre under studio conditions with a great orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic. (This was meant to be the start of a complete commercial Ring cycle, but Furtwängler went and died.) What's more, even as late as 1952 Kirsten Flagstad retained nearly all the essential components of a great Isolde. Both she and the Tristan, Ludwig Suthaus had had a productive history with Furtwänger. And yet nobody really delivers.

Above all, the performance for me lacks the very kind of musical momentum and continuity that's the hallmark of an engaged Furwängler performance. There exists a Furtwängler-conducted 1947 Berlin broadcast performance containing most of Acts II and III which sounds hardly anything like this performance (and in which, by the way, Suthaus -- admittedly in much lovelier voice -- sings something close to a great Tristan. Now of course it's nobody's faut that the Suthaus of 1952 didn't sound like that of 1947. But the 1952 performance also lacks the commitment and specificity of the 1947.

I attribute the problem, based on a host of similarly drained-of-life recordings, to producer Walter Legge, who produced a slew of "legendary" opera recordings with famous performers who similarly wound up bearing only the most superficial outward resemblances to their normal performing selves. Legge seems to have thought that, by controlling the casting and the rehearsals as well as the recording sessions, he could "improve" the performances of those famous performers he engaged -- cleanse their work of all that messy stuff that happens, as it were, between the notes. This, I would argue, is the stuff that gives life to a performance.

(A lot of performers refused to work with Legge. Furtwängler himself didn't like or trust him, and apparently accepted him as producer of the Tristan only because he was, in Flagstad's relatively recent association with EMI, "her" producer. When there was extra session time available and a recording of Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer was scheduled with the Tristan Kurwenal, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Furtwängler apparently insisted on waiting till his EMI producer, Lawrance Collingwood, could be present. Later Otto Klemperer, after the experience of recording Fidelio with Legge in charge, refused to do the planned Magic Flute with Legge if he was present at the rehearsals. His remaining EMI recordings were made with other producers.)

The Karajan La Scala performance for me presents a more sophisticated version of the problem with the Thielemann recording: It moves long smoothly and assuredly, but without -- for me -- any awareness of occasion, of stuff happening. In this respect it seems to me very much like Karajan's 1952 Bayreuth Tristan (his last Bayreuth Festival engagement), and for that matter his eventual EMI commercial recording, with such an interesting-looking cast. Over the years I've gone back to the EMI recording hoping to find a mindset that enables me to get into it. That actually has happened for me with Karajan's Dresden Meistersinger recording, but after 35-plus years of hoping to "crack" the Tristan, I'm not holding my breath. People who admire these performances tend to praise them as "seamless," but seamlessness isn't a quality I associate with life as we live it, and I'm not sure it's an especially admirable quality in art as we experience it.

I've chosen Karajan's 1959 La Scala performance, by the way, rather than the 1952 Bayreuth one or the 1972 commercial recording, for three reasons: (1) Fewer readers are likely to have heard it. (2) It's the only one I have on CD. (3) As we continue on into Act I -- and down below into Act III -- we have something like ideal tenors, in Anton Dermota (Sailor) and Murray Dickie (Shepherd). Good as they are, though, I can't help thinking that they would both have been twice as good with a conductor with a more inquiring feeling for what makes this music move.

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod

But enough of the failed or unsatisfactory peformances. Here are a couple I quite like, both using the frequent concert format linking the end of the Prelude directly to Isolde's "Love-Death." (This format can be used either with or without a singer to sing the Liebestod.)
Isolde's Liebestod

How softly and gently
he smiles,
how sweetly
his eyes open -
can you see, my friends,
do you not see it?
How he glows
ever brighter,
raising himself high
amidst the stars?
Do you not see it?
How his heart
swells with courage,
gushing full and majestic
in his breast?
How in tender bliss
sweet breath
gently wafts
from his lips -
Friends! Look!
Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear
this melody
so wondrously
and gently
sounding from within him,
in bliss lamenting,
gently reconciling,
piercing me,
soaring aloft,
its sweet echoes
resounding about me?
Are they gentle
aerial waves
ringing out clearly,
surging around me?
Are they billows
of blissful fragrance?
As they seethe
and roar about me,
shall I breathe,
shall I give ear?
Shall I drink of them,
plunge beneath them?
Breathe my life away
in sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
in the resounding echoes,
in the universal stream
of the world-breath -
to drown,
to founder -
unconscious -
utmost rapture!

Jessye Norman, soprano (in the Liebestod); London Philharmonic Orchestra, Klaus Tennstedt, cond. EMI, recorded December 1987

Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano (in the Liebestod); North German Radio (NDR) Orchestra, Hans Knappertsbusch, cond. Live performance, March 24, 1963

As far as I know, Jessye Norman never actually sang Isolde, which is a shame, because this was an Isolde-caliber voice, and especially well-suited to the Liebestod, which starts so low in the voice that it's actually easier for mezzos than for sopranos. This is a plus for Christa Ludwig, who actually flirted with the role, especially under urging from Herbert von Karajan (who had in fact, as a younger conductor, destroyed her mother's voice by pressing her from her natural dramatic-mezzo range into the dramatic-soprano one).

And the winner is . . .

Peter Schreier (t), Young Sailor; Birgit Nilsson (s), Isolde; Christa Ludwig (ms), Brangäne; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded live, 1966

Here again we have the Act I Prelude and the opening of Act I. Karl Böhm isn't generally considered when the lists of great conductors are drawn up, and except in certain repertory, notably certain (but by no means all) works by Mozart and Richard Strauss, he didn't usually bring strikingly personal qualities to the works he performed. (Another obvious exception is that vibrant, loving disc of Johann Strauss works we sampled in Friday night's preview.) You couldn't ascribe any particular performance "philosophy" to him; he seems actually to have had a rather picky, prickly, pedantic personality.

But he dealt directly with the score in front of him, just trying to find the life of it, and an awful lot of his performances have held up amazingly well. I've been listening to this Tristan recording for 40 years now, and it sounds as fresh as ever to me, and as vividly persuasive. I think it's not insignificant that all the soloists give of their best here -- not just Birgit Nilsson, the Isolde, but Christa Ludwig and Eberhard Wächter, the Brangäne and Kurwenal, who do some of their most eloquent singing on records, and even Wolfgang Windgassen, who still doesn't sound like more than a stand-in for a real Tristan, but at that sounds more believable than in the half-dozen or more other Tristan performances of his I have.


You don't often hear music-lovers naming the Act III Prelude of Tristan as one of their favorite chunks of Wagner. For that matter, you don't often hear much about Act III of Tristan period, except for those final minutes of Isolde's Liebestod. In large part, I think, this is because we've had so few truly adequate Tristans who weren't named Lauritz Melchior, and can take advantage of the remarkable materials Wagner gave him in his dying delirium to help us understand him. I think Wagner certainly wrote lots of music as beautiful as this prelude, but none more beautiful.

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act III

Symphony of the Air, Leopold Stokowski, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded 1960-61

Again, a conductor's ability to draw from his players playing of real purpose and destination is make-or-break. Maybe it's surprising to think of Leopold Stokowski for music that most conductors seem to find so sparse. Stoky had a ball with it, however. And remember, as you listen to the vibrancy and richness of color of the orchestral playing, that the Symphony of the Air was Arturo Toscanini's former NBC Symphony Orchestra. It sure never sounded like this under Toscanini!

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and opening scene of Act III
From her on in, we're going a bit into Act III, to include the lovely little scene between Kurwenal and the Shepherd and the awakening of the unconscious Tristan. Again, you'll find German and English texts at

Erwin Wohlfahrt (t), Shepherd; Eberhard Wächter (b), Kurwenal; Wolfgang Windgassen (t), Tristan; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded live, 1966

Again Böhm rises eloquently to the challenge. In this case I think we have to continue on into the opening of the scene. Maestro Stokowski, unusually for the Act III played as an excerpt (not that it is played that way very often), included the long, haunting English horn solo that's actually part of the opening scene of Act III -- the English horn representing the shepherd in Tristan's native Brittany, to his ancestral home, where his trusty confidant Kurwenal has brought him after he was wounded, very likely mortally, in the duel with Melot that took place between Acts II and III. So it's not just the trusty Kurwenal who's watching over the still-comatose Tristan. The gentle shepherd's deeply felt concern for me sheds another whole light on his identity.

Rudolf Schock (t), Shepherd; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Kurwenal; Ludwig Suthaus (t), Tristan; Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwaenger, cond. EMI, recorded 1952

Ludwig Suthaus (t), Tristan; Staatskapelle Berlin, Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond. Live performance, Oct. 3, 1947

Murray Dickie (t), Shepherd; Gustav Neidlinger (bs-b), Kurwenal; Wolfgang Windgassen (t), Tristan; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Herbert von Karajan, cond. Live performance, Apr. 30, 1959

Unfortunately the Kurwenal-Shepherd scene either was presumably omitted from Furtwängler's 1947 Berlin performance. (After the Act III Prelude, we pick up well after Tristan has awakened, at "Dünkt dich das?") Still, note how completely different the Prelude is, and even more how different the shepherd's English horn solo is. Here it has both rusticity and a mournfulness bordering on pain. I've included the first track of the awakened Tristan so you can hear what Ludwig Suthaus sounded like, and how committedly he performed, only two years earlier in Berlin. As with Act I, in the 1952 studio Tristan it sounds as if the connective tissue has been surgically removed.

And the opening of Act III in the 1959 Karajan-La Scala performance similarly matches the eventlessness of the Act I opening. As I noted, I think it's significant that we've got what should be something like the ideal Shepherd in the Scottish tenor Murray Dickie, a truly brilliant character tenor, but we don't get anything like the vivid chracterization I would have hoped for.


Birgit Nilsson (s), Isolde; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded live, 1966

I don't see how we can leave our quick survey of Tristan without this bit of closure.


We've been so busy that I see there's no time for more blather, so we're just going to do some listening to the start of Wagner's last opera. I would be hard put to think of a piece that depends more completely on an understanding of how the music moves.

Last night we heard Eugen Jochum 's beautiful studio recording of the Prelude and "Good Friday Spell." Since I've got the file handy, let's listen to it again.

WAGNER: Parsifal: Prelude and Good Friday Spell

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, cond. DG, recorded December 1957

And now we're going to hear the Prelude and a bit of the opening scene of Act I in my two favorite recordings, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch and Armin Jordan, and then a live Bayreuth performance conducted by Jochum.
NOTE: You'll find German-English texts for the opening scene of Parsifal at In all three recordings, assuming I've got it right, our excerpt goes up to (but not including) the king, Amfortas's first line, "Recht so, hab' Dank."

WAGNER: Parsifal: Prelude and opening of Act I

Hans Hotter (bs-b), Gurnemanz; Gerd Nienstedt (bs), 2nd Knight; Sona Cervena (s) and Ursula Boese (c), 1st and 2nd Esquires; Irene Dalis (ms), Kundry; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Hans Knappertsbusch, cond. Philips, recorded live, 1962

Robert Lloyd (bs), Gurnemanz; Gilles Cachemaille (b), 2nd Knight; Tamara Herz (s) and Hanna Schaer (ms), 1st and 2nd Esquires; Yvonne Minton (ms), Kundry; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Armin Jordan, cond. Erato, recorded July 1981

Franz Crass (bs), Gurnemanz; Heinz Feldhoff (b), 2nd Knight; Elisabeth Schwarzenberg (s) and Sieglinde Wagner (ms), 1st and 2nd Esquires; Janis Martin (s), Kundry; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, cond. Live performance, July 24, 1971

I think of the Knappertsbusch and Jordan performances as being day-and-night different, but they really aren't (their Act I Preludes time out identically -- the things one learns from CDs!), since by 1962 Knappertsbusch's Parsifal had become a good deal less gradual than in the also-wonderful recording made live by Decca at the first postwar Bayreuth Festival in 1951. Still, in general Kna tends to be noticeably slower than Jordan, whom I think of as a non-ideological musical pragmatist, rather like Böhm.

My one regret about the 1971 Jochum-Bayreuth Parsifal is that the sound is merely okay. (I can't help feeling that Bavarian Radio, which produces the Bayreuth broadcasts, has a significantly better-sounding tape.) It's a really lovely performance, which I'd been hoping would turn up since I heard a tape of it a couple of decades ago. (My recollection is that that tape sounded significantly better.)


Friday: Musical motion, perpetual and otherwise. Music by Dukas (Mickey Mouse stars in the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence from Fantasia), Rossini, and Johann Strauss II.
Saturday: Good Wagner conductors find what inside the music makes it move. Music by Wagner (including the helicopter-attack sequence from Apocalypse Now with the "Ride of the Valkyries") plus Lohengrin and Parsifal excerpts.


The current list is here.

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At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks KenI,

takes me awhile to get through these and great surfing background music.

Wagner being one of my least fav in that very specific niche so far...


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