Tristan - John Mitchinson
Isolde - Linda Esther Grey
Konig Marke - Gwynne Howell
Kurwenal - Phillip Joll
Brangane - Anne Wilkens
Melot - Nicholas Folwell
A Shepherd - Arthur Davies
A Steersman - Geoffrey Moses
A Young Sailor - John Harris
Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Conductor - Sir Reginald Goodall
Recorded in 1980-81, Sir Reginald Goodall’s take on Richard Wagner’s masterpiece Tristan und Isolde is epic in scope and grandeur. Captured in classic Decca sound, this is a monumental reading deserved of more attention, unfortunately currently difficult to obtain.
The cast largely reflects the live performances it’s based on and all benefit from the added advantage of stage experience not to mention scrupulous coaching by Goodall himself, who demands, and receives, exceptional performances by his singers and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera.
Linda Esther Grey would have to be one of the best Isoldes on disc. She has a voice of the perfect size, coupled with an exceptionally beautiful tone. Grey has a similar sound to that of Helga Dernesch for Karajan, but in my opinion is far less shrill in her approach to high notes and has a more full-bodied middle range than Dernesch. She has more of an insight to the character as well, her projection of Isolde’s inner turmoil in Act One changes like sunlight through clouds aided with finely used portamento.
In Act One she captures the violence and anger of the Narration and Curse with great conviction, hurling out a final curse with a strong chest voice, this is one Isolde not to mess with. In Act Two she is all restless impatience prior to extinguishing the torch and then beguiling temptress in O sink herneider, with a rapturous limpid quality to her delivery which is most exquisite. Her top notes are strong and clear, helped by a reasonably rapid vibrato.
The Liebestod is definitely the highlight it should be, Grey and Goodall working well together to build to a rapturous climax that fades slowly into a glowing metamorphosis. This is the crowning achievement of what was unfortunately a career cut tragically short in it’s prime, I for one am extremely grateful Linda Esther Grey made this recording, her performance gains depth with every listen.
As Tristan, John Mitchinson is a masculine hero, with a full, beefy tone. He has a very attractive golden tone to his voice which is used to gorgeous effect in the love duet. In the extended set pieces of Act Three he is mesmerising, and he uses his vibrato well to convey Tristan’s physical and emotional pain. It’s great to hear this music sung with such passion, beauty and conviction, while yet maintaining the stamina required to sing it.
Tristan’s delirium is superbly captured and Mitchinson is sympathetically aided by Goodall to provide a compelling interpretation. His vibrato tends to be on the large side, especially next to Grey, but she is an intelligent enough artist to be able to modulate and blend naturally with him in their Act Two ecstasy. While many aficianado’s may prefer a lighter tone to their Tristan, John Mitchinson puts forward a great case for a darker hued hero.
As Brangane, Anne Wilkens has an attractive voice, though relatively light for the role. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between her and Isolde in moments of Act One, so similar are they vocally. This is my one quibble of this set, though by no means confined to this recording only.
Wilkens is dynamic however, and gives a beautifully spun Einsam wachend in der Nacht. Her breath control here enables her to spin out the long phrases Goodall so lovingly caresses. It is one of the most lovely moments of the entire recording, as it should be. Her scream at the interruption of the lover’s tryst dramatically breaks the magic of the love music and heralds in the brutality of the real world with the appearance of King Mark with laser-like precision.
As King Mark, Gwynne Howell brings a pathos and gravity to the role on par with his more illustrious rivals on other sets. He has an even range and is quite at home in the lower tessitura where a large part of this role lies. Howell is compelling in his long Act Two monologue and his sense of sadness in Act Three after all has been revealed to him is moving.
Phillip Joll delivers a rather dry performance of Kurwenal, and is rough around the edges in Act One’s Herr Morold zog zu meere her, but grows in sympathy in Act Three. His desperate cry of Rette dich, Tristan in Act Two breaks the calm very well.
The smaller roles are strongly sung, with Nicholas Folwell as the scheming Melot, the Shepherd by Arthur Davies and the Steerman by Geoffrey Moses, though I would have preferred a less rough, younger sound from the Young Sailor of John Harris in Westerwerts schweift der blick.
Goodall is well known for his slow tempos in Wagner, here they serve him well without losing any sense of line or dramatic tension, more so than in his complete Ring Cycle. I find his speeds reflect perfectly a sense of urgency when required, and certainly much dramatic thrust, listen to the beginning of the love duet for example, Tristan’s entrance is breathtaking.
O sink hernieder is one of the most finely wrought recordings ever done, building up to a thrilling peak then subsiding wondrously, aided in particular by Grey ecstatic tone. So sturben wir with its sensual throb so electrically charged in Goodalls hands is musical eroticism at its best and one can hear why this was considered so scandalous in its time.
His preludes are spacious in Acts One and Three, and suitably on edge for Act Two. The Act Three prelude is one of the saddest performances on disc with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera rising to Goodall’s demands beautifully, the pianissimi are gorgeous and they are perfectly in time and tune. The cor anglais solo is heart wrenching at such a slow tempo.
The Chorus of the Welsh National Opera contribute to a very well executed, jubilant finale to Act One. The sense of confusion experienced by the new lovers set against the tumult of reaching their destination of Cornwall is excellent heralded by detailed trumpet fanfares.
Goodall’s interpretation is closest to that of Karajan’s for EMI, recorded nearly a decade earlier, captured in similar spacious sound. As classic as Karajan’s set is with the immortal Tristan of Jon Vickers, Goodall is just as good in my mind. It stands up to repeated listening and gains in depth, interpretation-wise each time, notably in its attention to textual detail.
The overt sense of eroticism is more overwhelming with Goodall than any other conductor, Act Two unfolding like the petals of some exotic flower that blooms and releases it’s heady perfume only under the moonlight on that one special summer’s night.
All of the major recordings of Tristan have different aspects that single them out from the others, but as a overall concept, this one by Sir Reginald Goodall is hard to beat. Aided by a radiant Isolde and atmospheric, vintage Decca recording values, this is an interpretation to return to often and revel in its many treasures.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5.