"Tristan Und Isolde" is a huge and powerful score, one that for many is simply "too much" to handle. It has a kind of "black magic" that no other opera has, and it's not an easy score to get a handle on. The music as a whole is, to say the very least, overwhelming. It took me years and years to really "get into it", and I've heard many recordings of it. That said, I find it very much like a narcotic that I must have. Small wonder that Wagner, when writing it, himself said that "this Tristan is driving me mad". Whatever the case, this EMI monophonic recording stands as one of the great recordings of the century, and for good reason. Furtwangler's way with the score is extraordinary. It's as though he sees a supernatural mysticism in the music, and is determined to make it seem as though it takes a life of it's own, which it certainly does here. He is helped enormously by the immortal Kirsten Flagstad, whose vocal power and authority is itself pretty overwhelming. She was 57 years old when she recorded this Isolde, and the voice is not that of a young woman, but rather one that is full of authority and power. This power works well in Act I, and in the opening of Act II, yet amazingly enough, she can voice the sheer lyricism and tenderness for the love duet. Those two infamous high C's (which were supplied by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) are of no concern whatsoever and I cannot understand why they created such a fuss. EMI could have left them out altogether --- they are of very short duration, and are not important (Helen Traubel, who sang countless Isoldes at the Met after Flagstad's departure, never sang these two top notes!), especially in the light of Flagstad's monumental voice as a whole. And what a voice it was! The middle and lower range had by this time taken on an autumnal beauty that must be experienced rather than described. Ludwig Suthaus' Tristan, while perhaps not on his partner's lofty level, is nevertheless excellent on his own terms. His singing is secure, lyrical when necessary, and certainly powerful enough when he needs to be, especially in Act III. Together, he and Flagstad sing an unforgettable Love Duet. Blanche Thebom
was an American mezzo of great promise, and her youthful Brangane provides a good contrast with Flagstad's mature Isolde. Moreover, her singing of the Warning in the middle of the Love Duet casts a unique spell of it's own. The rest of the supporting cast, especially the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are all acceptable. But one treasures this wonderful set for the combination of Flagstad and Furtwangler, and it is a combination that has yet to be surpassed. Personally, this recording, as great as it is, should be complemented by the Karl Bohm version, which is completely different, though in it's way, every bit as effective. One final thought --- with the Isoldes of Flagstad and Nilsson, both of whom still stand as the two greatest dramatic sopranos of the Twentieth Century, brave and courageous is the soprano who risks being compared with either of them!