WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde (abridged)
Nanny Larsen-Todsen (Isolde); Gunnar Graarud (Tristan); Anny Helm (Brangäne); Rudolf Bockelmann (Kurwenal); Ivar Andrésen (King Marke); Joachim Sattler (Melot); Gustav Rodin (Ein Junger Seemann); Hans Beer (Ein Hirt); Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orch/Karl Elmendorff, cond.
Act III (excerpts)
Walter Widdop (Tristan); Göta Ljungberg (Isolde); Howard Fry/Charles Victor/Edward Habich (Kurwenal); Ivar Andrésen (King Marke); Genia Guszalewicz (Brangäne); Kennedy McKenna (Ein Hirt); Marcel Noë; Melot; London Symphony Orch/Albert Coates & Lawrence Collingswood, cond; Berlin State Opera Orch/Leo Blech, cond.
NAXOS 8.110200-02 (3 CDs) (M) (D) (ADD) TT: 58:56 / 70:34 / 79:15
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When you hear this you will not believe it was recorded in August 1928 just a few years after the advent of electrical recording. Recorded in the warm acoustics of Bayreuth's Festival House, we have a near-perfect balance between singers and orchestra, with remarkable natural fidelity. Columbia had the rights to recording at Bayreuth and already had recorded excerpts from Parsifal in 1927, with more sessions in October 1928 to record music from Act III of the same opera. Just before the latter sessions, Columbia decided to record Tristan und Isolde and felt it was too difficult to record during live performances so all sessions were scheduled in the summer when the Festspielhaus was not in use. During August 1928 Columbia made the recording feaured in this superb set, Acts I and II "substantially complete" with some cuts in Act III that apparently were standard during that era "in the interests of conserving the energies of singers and audience alike at the end of a long evening" It was a total of 38 78rpm sides As the two leading Wagnerian singers of the day, Lauritz Melchior and Frida Leider, were under contract to the rival HMV, Columbia chose other fine singers of the time headed by Norwegian tenor Gunnar Graarud (1886-1960) who just a year earlier had started his long association with Bayreuth. Swedish-born soprano Nanny Larsen-Todsen (1884-1982) made her debut in 1906 in Der Freischütz after which she specialized in Wagnerian roles. She appeared in leading opera houses including the Met (1925-1927) where during her first year she sang in a number of performances of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, Fricka in Das Rheingold, Isolde, Kundry and a concert performance of Verdi's Requiem conducted by Tullio Serafin with Giovanni Martinelli as the tenor. Larsen-Todsen has a big, controlled voice and is easily able to sustain the long lines of Isolde; quite a performance indeed. Graarud apparently was in his prime and often resembles Melchior; there could be no higher praise. The remainder of the cast is uniformly strong under Karl Elmendorff's direction, orchestral playing excellent aside from some rather clumsy hunting horns in Act II.

Less than a year before Columbia recorded its "complete" Tristan, HMV recorded a more complete version of Act III made in two different sites (Berlin and London), with two orchestras (London Symphony and Berlin State Opera), Göta Ljungberg as Isolde, Walter Widdop as Tristan, Ivar Andresén as King Marke (which he also sang in the Bayreuth recording) and three different singers as Kurwenal. Producer Ward Marston describes the difficulties of putting all of this together trying to match acoustics, different playback speeds and acoustic environments; he has done a magnificent job. Ljungberg, one of the famous Salomes of her time, is superb as Isolde. You can hear her singing more Wagner and an abbreviated version of the Salome finale on Pearl (REVIEW). The Naxos set does not contain a libretto but it does have a track-by-track description of the action, and as an appendix Ernest Newman's explanation of Tristan, with musical examples, which was included in the European edition of the recording. All-in-all, this is an incredible historic issue and all for less than $20! If you love Tristan you also should investigate the live Metrpolitan Opera broadcast from Feb. 6, 1943 with Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Kerstin Thorborg as Brngane and Alexander Kipnis as King Marke, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting. This, for legal reasons, cannot be purchased in the U.S. but it is obtainable from European sources (Naxos 8.1100008-10).

R.E.B. (July 2003)