Even Bernstein Worshipers Might Lose Patience

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 7

This four-hour-and 25-minute Tristan was recorded over a period of several months (January, April, and November, 1981), one act at a time. It was released by Philips in 1982, in an audio-only format; I was not aware that the semi-staged performances had been videotaped until this arrived, presumably as part of the Bernstein Centennial Celebration, which is overwhelming the music biz at the moment.

The semi-staged part of the show consists of painted backdrops with approaching storm clouds; the soloists are behind the orchestra on what seems like a shallow, raised platform; there is a chair or two. The singers don’t really interact at all–no gaping and miming passion after the drinking of the potion, certainly no rushing about, and happily, I guess, no fake theatrics. As far as drama goes, it’s a tie between the perspiring of the singers and the combination of the Maestro perspiring and looking like he’s having some sort of internal event. It’s fascinating to watch him conduct–especially when he’s dra-a-a-a-g-ing things out: the Prelude takes more than 14 minutes, and the silence after the drinking of the potion can make you think that the orchestra has forgotten to play. It’s almost exhausting.

At 266 minutes’ playing time it is more than 10 minutes slower than Furtwängler’s 1952 recording, 20 minutes slower than Karajan, and 30 minutes slower than Carlos Kleiber, Daniel Barenboim, and Christian Thielemann, who all clock in at 235 minutes, which seems to be something like a middle-of-the-road Tristan. At the other extreme we have the Böhm version, live from Bayreuth 1966, which runs through the emotions in 219 minutes, i.e., finishing more than 45 minutes faster than Bernstein.

It isn’t mannered. It’s something else. Bernstein’s attention never flags, but he seems more engaged with some moments than others. The music before “O sink…” has rarely sounded so otherworldly–magnificent. But the anxious, rushing music that opens the act goes chug-chug-chug when we should be sitting on the edge of our seats, as is our Isolde. There are so many quirks that I want to call this performance spontaneous, but in fact, it’s anything but: it feels as if the singers have been drilled to death.

Hildegard Behrens was a great soprano, a great actress, a great interpreter, without a particularly great voice. Her womanliness is her strong suit, and while the bottom and middle of her voice can be ungainly, here, in 1981, the upper third is still potent–but surely never laser-like like Nilsson’s or fully rounded like Flagstad’s. Or terrifying like Varnay’s or Mödl’s. But her Isolde is successful; we are eventually taken in by her entire arc, from rage to rapture to unbearable disbelief and transfiguration.

Oh, Peter Hofmann! Would that we’d never heard Melchior or Windgassen or Vickers! Intelligent, sincere, with, at many places, a beautiful timbre and wise way with words. He certainly does get through the last act with aplomb–remember, this was done one act at a time–but the voice was never really a Tristan voice (Lohengrin, yes) and he’s hoarse part of the time and looks like he’s about to faint. Sorry–I wanted desperately to be moved. Bernd Weikl has just the right hale-fell-well-met-my-liege voice and way with the text, but he’s stiff as a board. Yvonne Minton is a fine Brangaene and Hans Sotin a noble Marke, but one would be hard-pressed to note any stand-out moments. And the sonics are nothing to bathe in, by the way.

The verdict: When the last chord dies away one feels fulfilled. Two days later one is hungry for Böhm’s tension and great storytelling or Furtwängler’s dark, sensuous spell. Not to mention those singers! I fear that the few video versions of this work are all disappointing in one way or another: Kollo never quite makes it; Johanna Meier is always adequate or better but never involving; a Vickers/Nilsson performance from Orange is in terrible sound, one production has the singers wearing plastic tubing. Waltraud Meier, in two performances, is thrilling and stunning, but her mezzo-soprano never quite sounds comfortable.

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Recording Details:

  • Peter Hofmann (tenor); Hildegard Behrens (soprano); Yvonne Minton (mezzo-soprano); Bernd Weikl (baritone); Hans Sotin (bass)
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein

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