Leonard Bernstein: Tristan und Isolde in Munich on Blu-ray

For two of the last century’s greatest artists that they shouldn’t have
collaborated more often is perhaps unusual – though Bernstein didn’t
conduct opera as often as he might have. Bernstein’s own ambivalence
towards Wagner – “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees” – meant he
would never conduct at Bayreuth either, even though he had suggested that
he would indeed lead a new production of Tristan und Isolde there
in 1972 (that never materialised, and Carlos Kleiber conducted the next
Bayreuth Tristan in 1974).

Bernstein would conduct Tristan und Isolde, of course, in Munich.
That performance, recorded live an act at a time over several months, would
unlikely have been to Nilsson’s tastes. Indeed, in the over three decades
since it was made this is a recording of Tristan that has sharply
divided critical opinion – and continues to do so. For some, the extremely
slow tempi, especially for the first two acts, which are among the longest
on record, make this performance dramatically weak, even incoherent; for
others, that very slowness reveals power and sumptuousness in equal
measure. It begins with a Prelude of astonishing breadth – but Bernstein’s
is by no means as unique as one might think. Fritz Reiner, in a live
performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the 1957/58 season of
concerts, is as breathtakingly expansive as Bernstein is. What both
Bernstein and Reiner amply demonstrate – where a conductor like Carlos
Kleiber sometimes doesn’t – is that this music is organic; the pauses and
bar rests are part of the music, not distinctly separate from it. When Karl
Bˆhm commented that Bernstein dared to conduct Tristan as Wagner
wrote it he wasn’t being altogether facetious, nor uncomplimentary – though
Bˆhm rarely took his own advice. The one compelling reason to listen to
Bernstein’s performance is almost symmetrically similar to the reason why
one should listen to Toscanini’s 1930’s Wagner: What might be excessive
control of the music to some ears, is revelatory to others.

This is not to say that Bernstein’s Tristan is not beset by problems
because it obviously is. The major disadvantage is that this is not a
single performance of the opera. It doesn’t lack drama – far from it – but
it’s drama that’s not consistent with our assumptions about opera in the
theatre. An audio recording by itself can rarely give us a picture of a
live event; film, on the other hand, is entirely impressionistic. If some
find Bernstein’s Tristan antithetical to this opera’s drama and
intensity there’s more than enough ammunition here to help justify those
claims. Compare it to, for example, the great Bˆhm/Nilsson/Vickers Tristan from Orange in 1973 and Bernstein’s Tristan can
be seen as an exercise in stasis: The singers rarely move, there is no
staging to speak of; the music and the voices build everything into an
evolving drama. And the orchestra is the fulcrum from which almost
everything is built up. In one sense, this is a Tristan
semi-staged, though even that is a generous description – that alludes to
the theatricality of some Pinter or Beckett; it’s microscopic, even
absurdly, interventionist in an opera that ideally requires the opposite.

The film of this Tristan is revealing in one sense in that it lets
us see the conductor – and Bernstein looks on the verge of a nervous
breakdown after Act I – but in no sense does this at all seem obvious from
the Philips audio recording. The physical exhaustion is so palpable it now
perhaps seems inevitable the opera was performed this way. But when you
listen to Act I Bernstein’s symphonic way with the score, with swelling and
wildly vivid chords, with waves of sound almost breaching the limits of
Wagner’s scoring, the scale seems more imposing than usual, too.
Bernstein’s Tristan is rather similar to standing in front of
Gericault’s Raft of Medusa at The Louvre: A shipwreck of a
performance almost certainly, but you’re drawn into its psychological and
disturbing complexities in the way that great visual art often engulfs you.
It’s little more than an exercise in power, however: This is the art of
control, deliberately indulgent as no other performance of Tristan

One of the glories of these concerts was the translucent, and languid,
playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I think it’s always
seemed unlikely that such disciplined, detailed and unfailingly beautiful
playing could have ever been achieved from either an orchestra pit, or over
the period of a single performance. Bernstein’s attention to detail is
microscopic – the phrasing is often so precise, the bar rests so eternal,
the emphasis on sound so important that this Tristan is often
pulled in two distinct, and opposing, directions. The passion that
Bernstein gets is so symphonic that he’s forgotten about the voices.

And those voices are not at all even. Hildegard Behrens’s Isolde is on the
light side, more fragrant and fragile than one would ideally like. The
voice rather lacks backbone, notably in the bottom register, but it’s a
good match for her Tristan, sung by Peter Hofmann. Behrens would, in a few
years or so, become a fine Isolde – but here she is rather constrained by
the slowness of the music to give us an Isolde that is dreamy rather than
dramatic, reflective rather than vituperative. Hofmann’s Tristan was never
comparable to the best on record, or in the opera house – and he doesn’t
really, unlike his Isolde, seem to benefit from the single-act concept;
indeed, one might argue he’s actually hindered by it, especially in Act
III. Hofmann never really feels a convincing Tristan because the scope of
Tristan’s full tragedy is rarely allowed to develop. True, there are no
wiry moments, no rough edges to Hofmann’s Tristan – though his tone, rather
than feeling refreshed between each act struggles to achieve any depth. His
long monologues in Act III are often uneven, and there is little in the
sense of molten intensity. Bernstein picks up speed in Act III – a notably
faceless prelude beginning it – but even so when Behrens and Hofmann sing
together, such as in the Liebesnacht, the effect really isn’t as

There are some advantages from a sound perspective to this Blu-ray version
of Tristan und Isolde. The Philips CDs emphasise the orchestral
balance in the BRSO’s favour even more starkly than is the case here. If
the audio of the performances suggest that Bernstein had immersed his
singers under great waves of sound, the film somewhat corrects that
impression. It’s entirely possible what Philips were doing with their sound
editing was inserting dramatic effect to counter-balance the neutrality of
Bernstein’s dreamier approach to the score. But this filtering was often
unevenly done. The Act III prelude, for example, is extremely lightweight,
as is Isolde’s Liebestod which just sounds thin and strained –
but, on the other hand, the endings to Act I and Act II are thundered out
with such force they sound like sledgehammers by comparison. The sound on
film is much more natural – though, of course, it does nothing to improve
the deficiencies of the performance itself.

This is unquestionably an important document of Bernstein’s legacy as an
opera conductor, though it’s inevitably a deeply flawed one. If there is
one reason to buy the Blu-ray of this performance it’s that the shift in
sound perspective gives us a quite different view of these concerts.
Visually, it’s not especially interesting to look at – it’s as static as
the performance is through its long stretches. I’ve always loved this Tristan for the playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
and that will never change – this is a near flawless orchestral
performance, one of depth and sumptuousness that is unrivalled elsewhere,
even by Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic or Kleiber’s Dresden Staatskapelle.
The impact they have on film is remarkable – and this is probably as close
as Bernstein intended it to sound. It’s magnificent but frustrating in
equal measure.

Marc Bridle

image_description=C Major 746034 [Blu-Ray]
product_title= Tristan – Peter Hofmann, Isolde – Hildegard Behrens, Brang‰ne – Yvonne Minton, Kurwenal – Bernd Weikl, Kˆnig Marke – Hans Sotin, Chor und Sinfonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

NTSC, PCM Stereo – region Code A,B and C. Running time: 291 minutes.

Recorded live at Herkulessaal, Munich – 13th January, 27th April, 10th November 1981.
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=C Major 746034 [Blu-Ray]