Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

The big draw here is Max Lorenz. He was a tenor with as much an
interesting, if somewhat controversial, back-story as he had a divisive
reputation. As a singer, he would draw opinions that were equal to those
that would be laid upon Treptow or Suthaus after him. Lorenz was perhaps
the first great tenor to follow in the Wagnerian footsteps of Melchior but
for those who found him mercurial, particularly live, were just as many who
found him to have a technique that was less than flawless and this only got
worse, especially during the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. But
Lorenz’s career was relatively long for a Wagnerian tenor and before this
Hamburg Tristan were superb electrical recordings which show a
singer, if not always equal to Melchior, then close to him. But perhaps if
these earliest recordings sometimes towered slightly above ones by Melchior
it was because Lorenz didn’t pander to making this music about the singer
as Melchior was sometimes prone to do; with Lorenz it was always about
Wagner.

There are at least three other available complete (usually cut) recordings
of Tristan with Lorenz apart from this Hamburg one. Only one is
later. The earliest is with Erich Kleiber and is live from Buenos Ares in
September 1938. The sound is poor, and Lorenz is frequently occluded under
a mesh of distortion, but the stamina and power of his Tristan is quite
something. He is equalled by Konetzni’s Isolde and Janssen’s Kurwenal and
Kleiber despite often sounding spacious and monumental at times drives the
score with electrifying energy. It’s typical Kleiber. What we do hear of
Lorenz is entirely characteristic of this Heldentenor – that big voice,
brawny even, the tight lines and clean top notes. There isn’t too much
evidence of the lazy phrasing, and blurring of text, that would sometimes
become a hallmark of a few of his performances later on.

The one similarity – the only one – that this 1949 Hamburg and the 1943
Berlin recording with Robert Heger share is that both are radio recordings
made in quite exceptional sound for the period. There we really don’t hear
much in common afterwards. In 1943 we have one of the very greatest
recordings of Tristan on record; in 1949 we have something that
doesn’t bear comparison. And here, I think, we come to unearthing why there
are so many issues with this recording.

Partly the problem is simply this recording comes from the immediate period
in post-war Germany. Compared with the pre-war years, or even the years
during the war, the Hamburg recording reflects a paucity of Wagner in
German music. If not exactly unfamiliar with the music, many Wagner singers
faced exceptional demands in singing the roles in Germany, especially live.
If Max Lorenz sounds more familiar with his Tristan here (which of course
he should) it’s because he had sung the role so widely during the war and
internationally in the post-war years; on the other hand, his Isolde, Paula
Baumann, seems far less secure, and even inappropriately cast. More
problematically, their conductor, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt wanders aimlessly
through this Tristan and in doing so drags it out to quite
inordinate lengths – a prologue to Knappertsbusch, or a throwback to
Toscanini it’s almost impossible to tell, though one suspects he has the
gift of neither. One almost loses interest during the Prelude, death in
itself – and then we have Baumann’s Isolde who seems hardly credible; there
is the limitation of her upper register which constantly sounds exhausted,
its size is slight, which is magnified even more by the relatively high
quality of the recording. Much of Baumann’s Isolde interferes with the
Wagnerian structure of the opera – and Margarete Klose’s superb Brang‰ne
exposes too many weaknesses. Klose often suggests this is an Isolde
entirely unworthy of her faithfulness which is a killer.

Lorenz himself is certainly better preserved on recordings made either side
of this one. On the Heger he is overwhelmingly self-confident in being able
to project the heroic and his Act III is both visionary and dramatic.
Lorenz can sometimes be a frustrating tenor, however – as he is in the
wonderful extracts from the 1943 Furtw‰ngler recordings of Tristan
from Vienna. These Act II and Act III excerpts are in one sense
exasperating, in another revelatory. His hysteria and madness are almost
unrivalled on disc and at times his tone is just majestic; on the other
hand, he can push the voice to such hardness and inflexibility he often
sounds just hoarse. Come to 1951, when Lorenz was almost at the end of his
career, and he sung Tristan in Milan under the mercurial baton of
Victor De Sabata (a frequent collaborator with Lorenz) and we have a
performance that is electrifying. There are unquestionable faults in
Lorenz’s voice by 1951 but the performance is exceptional.

Which I suppose does bring us to the major problem of why this Hamburg Tristan is what it is: Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. His expansive and
meandering conducting, which seems on a trajectory to nowhere, is a sharp
contrast to what Lorenz experienced with Kleiber, Furtw‰ngler, Heger and De
Sabata. It is not as if Kleiber nor Heger were not without their expansive
moments; they just knew what to do with them. It almost seems irrelevant
that Lorenz’s Tristan of 1949 could have found the tenor in better health –
he had just recovered from a heavy cold and returned from a demanding tour.
Neither would have much improved Schmidt-Isserstedt’s conducting nor
Baumann’s Isolde, however.

Are there any redeeming qualities to this Tristan then? In
general, most Max Lorenz recordings are worth hearing – even a somewhat
bizarre performance of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ from 1957,
sung, in German, in the heaviest possible accent. Lorenz is in fragile form
in this recording, though he has an endurance and resilience which saves
this Tristan from complete disaster. But, he is unquestionably
better heard as Tristan elsewhere. Listeners are better directed towards
the magnificent Robert Heger recording (in excellent sound for 1943) or, if
you can tolerate the abysmal sound, the Milan performance with De Sabata.

This Lorenz/Hamburg Tristan is available as a newly reissued
download. The Kleiber (1938), Heger (1943) and De Sabata (1951) are also
available as downloads.

Marc Bridle


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product_title=Tristan und Isolde
product_by=Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, NDR Sinfonieorchester, NDR Chor, Max Lorenz (tenor), Paula Baumann (soprano), Margarete Klose (mezzo-soprano), Carl Kronenberg (baritone), Theo Herrmann (bass), Peter Markwort (tenor), Walter Geisler (tenor), Gustav Neidlinger (bass-baritone), Kurt Marschner (tenor)
product_id=Walhall Eternity Series [3:48:10]
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