Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Tristan und Isolde Covent Garden 1937

Flagstad and Melchior on stage in Act 1 of Tristan
In the summers of 1936 and 1937 EMI engineers made numerous recordings of live performances at Covent Garden using twin turntables so as to capture complete operas. Very little of what was recorded was issued commercially at the time, though some of it has subsequently appeared either on LP or on CD. The very last recordings made were two complete recordings of Tristan und Isolde conducted by Thomas Beecham on June 18th and June 22nd as Technical Tests 6547 and 6548. The subsequent history of these recordings is complex and it seems likely that neither now exist complete. In 1992 when EMI themselves issued a CD of a Beecham Tristan from 1937 it became apparent that they no longer had a complete copy of the original discs since more than half of what they issued came from the Reiner recording from 1936. Yet there have been several issues of a ‘complete’ Beecham Tristan from 1937, most recently on various small ‘pirate’ labels all of which have disappointing over-processed sound, and clearly a complete Beecham Tristan can be compiled from the surviving elements of the two performances. One possible explanation for the lack of a ‘proper’ remastering by a skilled engineer is that the two performances used different Kurwenals and Branganes, another is that the original discs (beyond what EMI have) quite probably no longer survive and working from an inferior LP source could be discouraging. Personally I would still like someone to have a go! 
This is what seems to survive:
Act 1 – 68 minutes from June 18th performance, final 6 minutes from June 22nd performance. The transition from one performance to the other is skilfully done and this edit exists on all issues of act 1 suggesting it was done by EMI engineers back in 1937 perhaps to compensate for a broken or damaged disc. The only way to tell is that the Kurwenal for the final five minutes is Schoffler not Janssen. I have split the files by date but if you want to hear a musically complete act 1 then just play the 22nd June act end after the 18th June file.
Act 2 – both the 18th and 22nd June recordings of act 2 are complete – the 18th is taken from the EMI masters that still exist.
Act 3 – first 10 minutes from the June 18th performance, from the EMI masters, and a complete recording from June 22nd.
For this upload of the two incomplete performances I have used the EMI master transfers where they exist, the others come from LP issues that, to my ears at least, sound better than currently available CD issues that vary between the muffled and the ‘frying pan’. The LPs have quieter and cleaner surfaces than the CD issues and while not as quiet as the EMI masters and rough around the edges at times they are more than listenable to. I have uploaded them as flac files rather than as mp3 in this instance.
As to the performances, I think these perhaps capture Flagstad and Melchior at their finest. Beecham seems to get more out of these singers than either Reiner (his tempi are certainly quicker), or Bodansky (who conducted the contemporary Met performances). Rarely has the music been sung better and I don’t think the two principals have ever been so well matched.

Conductor Thomas Beecham
June 18th and 22nd 1937
Orchestra - London Philharmonic Orchestra
Chorus - Covent Garden

Tristan - Lauritz Melchior
Isolde - Kirsten Flagstad
Brangaene - Margarete Klose (18th) / Karin Branzell (22nd)
Marke - Sven Nilsson
Kurwenal - Herbert Janssen (18th) / Paul Schoffler (22nd)
Melot - Booth Hitchin
Hirt - Octave Dua
Steuerman - Leslie Horsman
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns - Parry Jones


  1. Thank you for sharing this great performance. Any chance of also posting mp3 files?


  2. Many thanks for your efforts and skill in providing an opportunity to hear these peformances in such an authentic manner