Owning fourteen Tristans, I feel this is the best overall performance that I own of this opera. This includes three recordings of Melchior/Flagstad, two with Nilsson/Vickers, Bohm's classic release, the 1952 Furtwangler performance, ones with Melchior/Traubel, Solti, Carlos Kleiber, Knappertsbusch, and the stereo Karajan. While there are individual aspects of those other recordings (particularly Vickers's Tristan, Furtwangler's and Kna's conducting, and Nilsson's Isolde), this one hangs together as an organic whole in which the sum of its (incredible) parts amounts to a fantastic whole.
After enduring the Opera d'Oro release, I read rave reviews of this performance and pointing me to better transfers. Since I couldn't bear to listen to that release, I decided to buy this one (even though I had a problem with paying a second time for the same performance) from Amazon in England.
MAN!! What a difference!!! The incredible edge that Modl can have on her voice sounds like screeching or fingernails on a chalkboard on the Opera d'Oro release. On this release, she sounds MUCH better. While I can't say that she will ever be my favorite soprano, she has an incredible intensity that is overpowering and which you could cut with light saber - an intensity that exceeds Flagstad's and even Nilsson's performances (to say nothing of the rest of the pack). It's true she doesn't always make it up to the high 'A's (particularly towards the end of the love duet) but this is a small cavil in that the entire performance almost literally sweeps you off of your feet. Much like Callas, she could pack an incredible interpretive wallop! Isolde's Curse in the first act just about jumps out of the speakers at you. WOW!!
Her Tristan is the incredible Raymond Vinay, a grossly underrated tenor who is able to match both her intensity and vocal presence over a full Wagnerian orchestra. After growing up with a number of malnourished heldentenors doing this role (since there were no Melchior transfers like now and Vickers had not yet done the role until I had graduated from college, we had to make due with the leathery Windgassen who, while expressive, did not have the voice for Tristan), Vinay is the real thing and is a true match for Modl. His ravings in Act 3, while not rising to the interpretive genius of Vickers performance - particularly in the Opera d'Oro recording Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (then again, nobody else does either - not even Melchior), are dramatically intense. Further, Vinay brings an almost boundless stamina to the performance that is unbelievable.
It should be noted that this is the only performance containing two vocal adults that is not disfigured with cuts (Melchior was infamous for doing making cuts and both Nilsson/Vickers performances have cuts). Not only do they bring great gifts to their roles, they work incredibly well together. I can't recall ever hearing such an incredibly committed and passionate love duet as this pair. This performance will almost literally blow you away in its intensity. Yes, Vickers does well with the later Karajan. However, that performance's Isolde doesn't have the voice to carry off Isolde and Karajan's Mantovani-like limp wash of sound completely eviscerates the passion. It's hard to believe that the person who conducted this current performance is the same one who came out with that travesty.
Of the others, all do well. As a big Hans Hotter fan, I am in love with his performance here. Here is a truly noble Kurwenal who expresses all of the character's anguish and fears with a nobility that only a Wotan could bring to the role. Ira Malaniuk sings well, particularly during Brangaene's Watch passage in Act II. Her singing - along with wonderful rich and intense orchestral support from Karajan - will bring you goose bumps!! Ludwig Weber does a good job as Marke and the rest of the cast.
I have saved Karajan until the end because he is the element that makes this whole thing work as a whole - and raises this to a level of greatness maybe matched, but never exceeded by the competition. He has a wonderful sense both of line and of structure. He can move the tempo when necessary but it never feels rushed. At other points, he is able to take time - as in the Prelude to Act 3 - to let the music breathe without dragging. Throughout, he elicits an incredible orchestral sound that can literally overwhelm you even with the 1952 sound (again the Bayreuth acoustic provides a wonderful acoustic ambiance). The performance has a passion, an urgency, and an almost overwhelming drive that will seem to make other Tristan's pale by comparison - even Bohm's.
Maybe it's just the dramatic improvement from the Opera d'Oro release, but I find the sound of this release to be quite good (keeping in mind that it WAS taped at a live performance in 1952). The orchestra sound is both rich and vital and provides an incredible ambiance of richness, detail, and passion that adds to the already incredible singing done by the principals.
Except for the lack of a libretto (which is a small thing, given the incredible budget price of this release), this would be an ideal first recording of the work and belongs in ANY Wagnerian's collection as an example of how great opera should be performed! Buy this! You WON'T be sorry!!