The Liebestod

Phil went to the Staatsoper’s Tristan and Isolde last night and it got me thinking about Wagner (a shitty bastard if ever there was one, but quite a musician) and all the Liebestod’s I’ve heard and loved this lifetime. This particular outpouring (one of the most beautiful death scenes ever written) comes, as you know, at the end of a five hour opera. The snag with this opera, though, is that everything interesting has already happened before the curtain rises. Typical Wagner!

The recording I remember owning, which I never once listened to from beginning to end in one go (five hours is a big commitment), was the 1966 live Bayreuth recording with Brigit Nilsson singing the Liebestod. The woman was a force of nature. I have never seen or heard a singer with a more secure technique or such absolute confidence. It doesn’t even occur to her that she might not rise to the many technical and emotional challenges of the piece. Amazing stuff, really.

In my teens, the great Hildegard Behrens was flavour of the month amongst the Wagnerians (I was more interested in the Italians myself) and the only other really great Wagnerian soprano I knew of at that time was Kirsten Flagstad. Most of the Wagnerian spoofs comedians indulged in—back in the heady days when popular culture had the wit to lampoon high culture without worrying about whether or not they were alienating their audience, which these days are assumed to be dimwitted and lowbrow—tended to home in on Flagstad’s and Nilsson’s looks and delivery. A shame really, they were extrordinary singers in so many ways.

Just the idea of posting a recording of Wagner’s music is itself a painful contradiction for Wagnerians (an obsessive and often touchy breed). Although I’m sure Richard himself would not only have embraced today’s new technologies, but have pushed the envelope to the limit, I doubt he’d ever be thrilled by the idea that all the layers of luscious sound he created is so often mashed and filtered through very inadequate speakers. But needs must, and I really don’t care that much about Richard Wagner’s sensibilities.

My offering today is a very bizarre confection. Maria Callas—not a noted Wagnerian, but hired by some madman to sing Isolde and Brünnhilde in her early 20s, if memory serves—recorded the Liebestod in Italian, and amazingly the recording still exists. So although I feel sure I’ve played it for Phil at some time over the past couple of decades, as his memory is even lousier than mine, I’ve decided to play it for him again, to celebrate the loss of his Wagnerian virginity, and hope you too enjoy listening. 

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