I admit that "Tristan und Isolde" was NOT an opera I came to enjoy quickly. In fact, it bored me beyond belief. Partly because the first recording I ever heard of it was the very long drawn out one by Bernstein with fairly unpleasing singers. Later when I hear Margaret Price in the role, I warmed to the opera, then was converted to it with the EMI recording of Flagstad. That recording really gripped me. And unlike many, I didn't find near as many flaws with the singing as I could find with the Bernstein recording. Then I found this one. Now I can figure out what all the fuss was about when people went to hear/see this opera in the theatre back in the "golden ages of singing." Of course, I didn't live then, so everything was a mass of "opinions from the papers" of the day. I am so glad that brilliant technical masters are remastering these old recordings of live performances so we can see what all the fuss really was about from this time of superb Wagner singing. No longer are these incredible performances just "words on the page." My mother and grandmother saw Flagstad often, and with Melchior, and I remember them telling me how glorious the sound of their voices was, that each was not just full of volume (loud as we would say today) but a wash of sound that rolled like a tidal wave over the orchestra and was never strained. Of course, I played this recording to my mother and her fine ear told me that though I was certainly hearing a great likeness of the sound, the real thrill of the voices was not captured. She put it bluntly: "Just as large voices today don't record well, and cannot be reflected with all their qualities, large voices of that day are only reflections of the grandeur that was truly theirs."
Still, the recording is awesome. The singing is fabulous even to the smaller roles. One singer I had never heard of and that was the Brangane (Sabine Kalter). I was amazed at the quality of her voice, and the standard of her singing. She not only matched Flagstad, she held her own in an important but not showy role.
The score has been cut, but that was common at the time, and actually Wagner himself authorized those cuts (and even more, if he could have persuaded the great Dramatic Colorature of his day, Therese Tietjens to sing it). In my view, the opera really doesn't improve without the cuts, it is just longer.
The orchestra is playing truly well in this performance. It has been mentioned it isn't as good as the orchestra in this or that recording. Still, the playing is excellent, and again, we must stop comparing it to the sound of modern recordings. Those were studio recordings, this is live; those recordings had the microphones placed at an advantage for orchestral balance, this recording doesn't. The tempi are quicker than often heard these days (is that telling us something of that time frame verses ours where everything is scrutinized to death for detail ignoring the whole) yet I find the feeling and drama are never lost.
Melchior's sound to me sometimes sounds "weird." I don't know how to describe it. The upper register is not strained, but seems at odds with the rest of his voice. No breaks, but not blended. That, according to my mother, is simply the limitations of the recording equipment of the day. His upper range was strong and clarion, nearly trumpet-like and filled the theatre with a very strong "ring." Yet, the warmth of the baritonal lower ranger was strongly present in that upper range. That, according to her remembrance, is what we are missing in his recordings. The "ring" sort of comes through, but the warmer balance doesn't always record.
In spite of all that, this is by far the most exciting recording of "Tristan und Isolde" I have ever heard. I am actually really thrilled by the opera and because of the great singing, and orchestral excitement I hear. It is well worth the money (even if it were much more expensive). I wonder why more and more old recordings are being released, especially live performances. I hope it isn't just because there are no royalties to the artist to pay. I think it is because we can now remaster these recordings and bring to life the greatest of the great performances of these wonderful operas. Perhaps it is to bring sanity to our conductors and performers so they finally learn what real opera is all about. Whatever the reason, I am glad they are doing it.