17 Sep 2020

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

The big draw here is Max Lorenz. He was a tenor with as much an interesting, if somewhat controversial, back-story as he had a divisive reputation. As a singer, he would draw opinions that were equal to those that would be laid upon Treptow or Suthaus after him. Lorenz was perhaps the first great tenor to follow in the Wagnerian footsteps of Melchior but for those who found him mercurial, particularly live, were just as many who found him to have a technique that was less than flawless and this only got worse, especially during the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. But Lorenz’s career was relatively long for a Wagnerian tenor and before this Hamburg Tristan were superb electrical recordings which show a singer, if not always equal to Melchior, then close to him. But perhaps if these earliest recordings sometimes towered slightly above ones by Melchior it was because Lorenz didn’t pander to making this music about the singer as Melchior was sometimes prone to do; with Lorenz it was always about Wagner.

There are at least three other available complete (usually cut) recordings of Tristan with Lorenz apart from this Hamburg one. Only one is later. The earliest is with Erich Kleiber and is live from Buenos Ares in September 1938. The sound is poor, and Lorenz is frequently occluded under a mesh of distortion, but the stamina and power of his Tristan is quite something. He is equalled by Konetzni’s Isolde and Janssen’s Kurwenal and Kleiber despite often sounding spacious and monumental at times drives the score with electrifying energy. It’s typical Kleiber. What we do hear of Lorenz is entirely characteristic of this Heldentenor - that big voice, brawny even, the tight lines and clean top notes. There isn’t too much evidence of the lazy phrasing, and blurring of text, that would sometimes become a hallmark of a few of his performances later on.

The one similarity - the only one - that this 1949 Hamburg and the 1943 Berlin recording with Robert Heger share is that both are radio recordings made in quite exceptional sound for the period. There we really don’t hear much in common afterwards. In 1943 we have one of the very greatest recordings of Tristan on record; in 1949 we have something that doesn’t bear comparison. And here, I think, we come to unearthing why there are so many issues with this recording.

Partly the problem is simply this recording comes from the immediate period in post-war Germany. Compared with the pre-war years, or even the years during the war, the Hamburg recording reflects a paucity of Wagner in German music. If not exactly unfamiliar with the music, many Wagner singers faced exceptional demands in singing the roles in Germany, especially live. If Max Lorenz sounds more familiar with his Tristan here (which of course he should) it’s because he had sung the role so widely during the war and internationally in the post-war years; on the other hand, his Isolde, Paula Baumann, seems far less secure, and even inappropriately cast. More problematically, their conductor, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt wanders aimlessly through this Tristan and in doing so drags it out to quite inordinate lengths - a prologue to Knappertsbusch, or a throwback to Toscanini it’s almost impossible to tell, though one suspects he has the gift of neither. One almost loses interest during the Prelude, death in itself - and then we have Baumann’s Isolde who seems hardly credible; there is the limitation of her upper register which constantly sounds exhausted, its size is slight, which is magnified even more by the relatively high quality of the recording. Much of Baumann’s Isolde interferes with the Wagnerian structure of the opera - and Margarete Klose’s superb Brangäne exposes too many weaknesses. Klose often suggests this is an Isolde entirely unworthy of her faithfulness which is a killer.

Lorenz himself is certainly better preserved on recordings made either side of this one. On the Heger he is overwhelmingly self-confident in being able to project the heroic and his Act III is both visionary and dramatic. Lorenz can sometimes be a frustrating tenor, however - as he is in the wonderful extracts from the 1943 Furtwängler recordings of Tristan from Vienna. These Act II and Act III excerpts are in one sense exasperating, in another revelatory. His hysteria and madness are almost unrivalled on disc and at times his tone is just majestic; on the other hand, he can push the voice to such hardness and inflexibility he often sounds just hoarse. Come to 1951, when Lorenz was almost at the end of his career, and he sung Tristan in Milan under the mercurial baton of Victor De Sabata (a frequent collaborator with Lorenz) and we have a performance that is electrifying. There are unquestionable faults in Lorenz’s voice by 1951 but the performance is exceptional.

Which I suppose does bring us to the major problem of why this Hamburg Tristan is what it is: Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. His expansive and meandering conducting, which seems on a trajectory to nowhere, is a sharp contrast to what Lorenz experienced with Kleiber, Furtwängler, Heger and De Sabata. It is not as if Kleiber nor Heger were not without their expansive moments; they just knew what to do with them. It almost seems irrelevant that Lorenz’s Tristan of 1949 could have found the tenor in better health - he had just recovered from a heavy cold and returned from a demanding tour. Neither would have much improved Schmidt-Isserstedt’s conducting nor Baumann’s Isolde, however.

Are there any redeeming qualities to this Tristan then? In general, most Max Lorenz recordings are worth hearing - even a somewhat bizarre performance of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ from 1957, sung, in German, in the heaviest possible accent. Lorenz is in fragile form in this recording, though he has an endurance and resilience which saves this Tristan from complete disaster. But, he is unquestionably better heard as Tristan elsewhere. Listeners are better directed towards the magnificent Robert Heger recording (in excellent sound for 1943) or, if you can tolerate the abysmal sound, the Milan performance with De Sabata.

This Lorenz/Hamburg Tristan is available as a newly reissued download. The Kleiber (1938), Heger (1943) and De Sabata (1951) are also available as downloads.

Marc Bridle