Since Thielemann's live Tristan and EMI's studio version with Placido Domingo both received decidedly mixed reviews, I thought it would be interesting to consider the leading available choices for this great opera. By some accounts, all are so uneven that there is no clear winner, but at least you can consider which elements of the work are most important to you and make your selection that way.
Condcutor: If all that mattered were the conductor, the situation would be golden. Wilhelm Furtwangler heads the list in 1952 with his much-acclaimed mono set on EMI, but at almost exactly the same time Karajan was conducting a live performance at Bayreuth, now issued in good broadcast mono by Orfeo, that gives Furtwangler a serious rival -- I prefer it, in fact. Twenty years later, this time in stereo, Karajan was magnificent with the Berlin Phil. in a studio set for EMI, despite some engineering quirks. Finally, there is Carlos Kleiber's dstreamlined modern view on DG. These four sets give us a conductor-dominated perspective of a score whose orchestral part alone would cause it to rank as a pinnacle of Western music. They encompass such diverse musical intelligence, insight, and virtuosity that I couldn't imagine wanting more. Other notable Wagner conductors -- Bohm, Solti, Knappertsbusch, and now (I suppose) Thielemann -- have also had their say in the modern era and have gained a clutch of enthusiastic fans, although I am not among them. Antonio Pappano, conducting on the EMI set with Domingo, gives a fresh reading with lots of virtues, although he seems consciously to steer away from Wagner style, perhaps too much so. Thielemann's great flaw is inconsistency; he is apt to go slack and lose focus, yet there are many moments of skill and beauty.
Orchestra: I wouldn't pick a favorite Tristan based upon the orcheswtra alone, but three glorious ensembles have recorded the work in top form: the Philharmonia for Furtwangler (not captured in the best mono sound, however), the Berlin Phil. for Karajan, the Vienna Phil. for Thirelemann, and the Bayreuth Festival Orch. for the eearlier Karajan, Bohm, and Barenboim (in case you consider him a major Wagner conductor -- I don't, but there's no doubt that the orchestra plays very well for him in a live performance on Teldec). In the opera house I don't think the Covent Garden orchestra could remotely keep up, but on Domingo's EMI recording they sound quite beautiful.
Tristan: For fifty years the long shadow of Melchior was so deep that every future Tristan was considered a make-do. However, Melchior made no commerical recording of the role, and those that exist from radio air-checks are a strain to listen to. Today only the old-timers mention Melchior's name, opening up the field for musical singers who have almost but not quite enough voice to rank as heldentenors. Windgassen gives an exemplary account for Bohm on DG, even though his leathery voice wasn't beautiful and he tires badly before the end -- the musicality is undoubtedly there. Even better is Domingo for Pappano on EMI, a studio effort that finds the aging superstar in tremendous voice, delivering one of his best Wagner roles. The thrilling high notes and bright tone are a huge plus. At the same level I would put Ramon Vinay singing for Karajan in his Bayreuth rendition. Vinay traveled back and forth between heroic tenor and baritone, giving tremendous animal magnetism and visceral impact to his portrayals. Both he and Domingo come from a Spanish-Italian tradition, so neither can be classed as a true German singer, yet they make convincing, moving Tristans. Siegfried Jerusalem, another intelligent artist, lags behind them on the Barenboim set becasue the role is three sizes too large for him rather than one or two; the same goes for Thomas Moser under Thielemann on DG -- obvious vocal strain makes both too hard to listen to. At the back of the pack comes Rene Kollo for Kleiber -- he is so overparted that you feel like you're watching a marathon runner trying to cross the finish line before he collapses from exhaustion. On Furtwangler's set Suthaus has a dry voice with medium heft, and the conductor's slow tempos quickly wear him out. I'm not sure why his dull Tristan has become a silk purse in the eyes of modern critics. If only the better-voiced and more musical Set Svanholm had stepped in to take his place.
The best news among Tirstans is that two tenors come as close as possible to being a match for Melchior, after conceding that no one ever will completely. The first, Jon Vickers, gives a risky, committed, emotionally intense performance on Karajan's stereo account. If no one else in the modern era had sung the role on disc, I would be satisfied, pace those critics who find Vickers too personal, even eccentric in his decidedly non-German approach. Sheer power, intelligence, and vocal gleam make up for whatever lack of authenticity one detects. The other "real" Tristan is Ben Heppner, who may fall a fraction short of being a heldentenor (he's more naturally suited to Walther in Meistesinger and the title role in Lohengrin), but who overcomes sall objections through sheer beuaty of voice, thrilling high notes, and emotional intenisty. Sadly, his Tristan can only be heard on a DVD of a live Met performance under James Levine. One hopes that a record company will capture him on disc before he gets too old -- I believe Sony BMG has announced plans of the sort.
Isolde: Conventional wisdom has it that two singers have owned the role, Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. That seems to leave little room for other dramatic sopranos, yet the case isn't quite so simple. It may offend true believers, but Flagstad sounds matronly and unexciting in her famous stuido recording under Furtwangler, and although she sings with great authority, I for one don't hear much dramatic diversity -- she keeps pouring out the same steady, huge sound without telling us much about Isolde's emotional changes. Brigit Nilsson, criticized in her day for the same reason, strikes me as a fierce Isolde in her live Bayreuth account under Bohm, yet nothing overshadows the fact that her assumption was stupendous. The gleaming voice conveys enormous intenisty and power, and the character stands before you in all her rage, passion, and eventual transcendence. To me, it's unthinkable to say you know the opera unless you have heard Nilsson. For a younger, somewhat softer version, she is the Isolde for Solti on Decca, too, caught a few years earlier. I find both portrayals incomparable.
Things get muddled after the big two. On Karajan's mono set we have Martha Modl, a powerful, intensely dramatic Isolde whose great flaw is that her voice was striking rahter than beautiful -- it's almost curdled at times -- yet for anyone who can listen beyond beauty of tone, Modl is very satisfying and a real risk-taker. On Karajan's stereo set the role goes to Helga Dernesch, a great Karajan discovery whose voice was supposedly ruined by taking on Brunnhilde and Isolde too early -- or perhaps she was never destined to be a true Wagnerian soprano, a hindrane that didn't stop Hildegard Behrens (heard to distressing effect on Bernstein's star-crossed version for Philips), Deborah Voigt (for Thielemann), Margaret Price (for Kleiber), Nina Stemme (for Pappano) or Waltraud Meier (for Barenboim), who isn't even a soprano.
Among all these contenders who don't quite fit the role, Dernesch comes closest. She had the misfortune to walk in Nilsson's shadow (not only here but as Karajan's Brunnhilde in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung on DG). I have never understood the criticism of her Isolde, which strikes me as beautiful, dramatic, and intense. Critics invariably praise Margasret Price, on the other hand, whose lyric soprano suited Mozart in youth and later grew into Verdi (sort of), but to me her Isolde is purely a gimmick of the microphone. Yes, she's youthful and fresh, but there's no real Isolde there in terms of stature and authority. Nina Stemme could turn into a convincing Isolde with time -- the young Sweish soprano shows great promise -- but she was out of her depth on the Domingo set, where her agreeable vocalism is undercut by dramatic blandness. Meier is too obviously a make-do, pinching out her high noes and hanging on for dear life the rest of the time, which brings us to Voigt. Her ventures into Wagner make sense in vocal terms, and she has the courage to do the role of Isolde live for Thielemann, exposing herself to cruel demands and inevitable exhaustion.
The probelm with Voigt is that, like Behrens, she possesses only half a Wagner voicce -- the gleaming top -- and where Behrens made up for lack of vocal weight through thrilling characterization, Voigt is a dull singing actress. She pushes the notes with sufficient intensity, yet you never feel Isolde's emotional power -- at every moment a soprano with a big, beautiful voice is just pouring out sound. Make the voice twice as large and you get Jane Eaglen, the dominant Wagner soprano of the day. Her strength lies in her top notes, too, but she can give a credible rendition of the entire role. Eaglen succeeds through sheer power, being able to carry over the orchestra without benefit of enhancement from the engineers. In the opera house she can be vocally stunning, but Eaglen isn't much for acting, so her portrayal on the same Met DVD as Heppner lacks dramatic interest. (I don't believe she will be paired with Heppner on his proposed recording, but there are resonable sounding pirate versions of their partnership from the Chicago Lyric Opera, easily fuond online. Be prepared for distortion and odd blanaces; clearly someone sneaked a portable tape recorder into the house)
I've tried to give a fair assessment of the Tristan recordings that impress me personally. In the end, of course, each listener must decide which elements of this vast opera are most critical. Since I put conducting first and foremost, followed by dramatic believability, my preferred sets are as follows:
Karajan -- EMI (stereo)
Karajan -- Orfeo (mono)
Bohm -- DG
Pappano -- EMI
Furtwangler -- EMI
C. Kleiber -- DG
Demoting Furtwangler from his legendary status is enough to earn a hail of disdain at Amazon, but for overall enjoyment my top three versions are the ones I have returned to for several decades.
P.S. -- for yars the Met has suppressed live recordings from its stage, but under the new management, many have suddenly appeared online at Real Rhapsody. They include a Dec., 1999 Tristan under James Levine with Hepner and Eaglen as the leads. It's a formidable performance, one of the very best since the Nilsson era. Unfortunately, Heppner's voice gives out three times in the final act, to painful effect. He and Eaglen are in fine voice otherwise, at least as good as in than on their DVD issue.