This is one of the great T&I recordings, perhaps the best since stereo came into use over a half-century ago. Tracked in a mere 10 days in December 1971 and January ’72, it is sonically beautiful, but every agonizing twist of the drama is driven home powerfully (the Act III Prelude is devastating in its chilling despair). Karajan’s technically impeccable Berliners play with characteristic sheen, and he shapes every phrase meticulously. While his tempos are languorously sensual, he never bogs down; it’s rivetingly expressive. The soundscape is realistic but defined with absolute clarity and thrillingly wide-ranging dynamics.
Tenor Jon Vickers, at his absolute peak, acts superbly in delivering one of the greatest, most dramatically sensitive Tristans on record. Although soprano Helga Dernesch, has all the notes and a plenty big enough voice for Isolde, aside from quiet passages, she sticks to one basic sound; Wagner’s music acts for her; she fits into the overall dramatic arc. BrangÃ¤ne, sung by mezzo Christa Ludwig, offers much more expression (their voices are too similar, but when following the libretto, this isn’t a problem). Bass Karl Ridderbusch is a gentle, sympathetic Marke. Other roles are filled well. This belongs in every opera collection.