Opera recordings rarely become legendary any more — there are too many options, too much history, too many niggling perfectionists. But in 1952, this scorching and sublime interpretation — Wilhelm Furtwängler's first complete opera recording and the first studio version of Tristan und Isolde — could still acquire scriptural status. For one thing, it documents the richness of a musical life that predated and somehow survived World War II. In her late 50s, Kirsten Flagstad could no longer manage the high C's in Act II (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf supplied them instead), but her Isolde combines rapturous fragility with fearsomeness. Ludwig Suthaus may have sung more brightly in earlier days, but you need only listen to his explosive cry of "Isolde!" in Act II to hear that even in decline he loomed above the top of everyone else's game.
Furtwängler died two years after making this recording, and he does not always demand the highest technical polish from the Philharmonia Orchestra, but what he does deliver is an irreproducible sense of dramatic clarity and psychological nuance. In the Act III Prelude, he draws ferocious depths of sound out of the low strings and the blinding finale contains within it all the exhaustion and exhilaration of the opera's emotional journey. Mature artists at the apex of their wisdom made this recording, and they had the good fortune of doing so before producers insisted on expunging technical glitches with tyrannical perfectionism.