Richard Wagner: Isolde’s Liebestod, in Performances by Jessye Norman and Vladimir Horowitz

From a portrait of Wagner by A.F. Pecht, about 1860

From a portrait of Wagner by A.F. Pecht, about 1860

“Liebestod”, which translates as “love-death”, is the title most often given to the final, climactic aria in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, though it is also known by its first line, “Mild und leise” (softly and gently).  One of Wagner’s best known works, the “Liebestod” has been sung and recorded by many of opera’s greatest sopranos, and is also heard in a variety of instrumental arrangements, including one for for orchestra by Wagner himself and one for solo piano by Franz Liszt.

I have included two versions of “Liebestod” in this post.  In the first, we hear it much as Wagner must have imagined it when he wrote it, in a stunning performance by the American soprano Jessye Norman.  In the second, we hear it as it was re-imagined for piano by Liszt, played by the pianist most closely identified with Liszt’s music, Vladimir Horowitz.  Both Norman and Horowitz seem to lose themselves completely in Wagner’s music, and both performances are unforgettable.

In the video that follows, Jessye Norman sings with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  I’m grateful (again) to the ARTS channel for introducing me to this thrilling performance.  I can’t think of another work that combines such dramatic urgency with such utter peace.  After listening to Norman’s “Liebestod”, I feel completely wrung out.

In the next video, we hear the last track of the CD titled “Horowitz: The Last Recording”.  It was recorded on November 1, 1989, just four days before the great man died.  His performance of Liszt’s transcription displays extraordinary delicacy and power.

Harold Schonberg, the longtime music critic of the New York Times, had this to say in his review of “The Last Recording”:

Just as probing and colorful [as the Bach/Liszt prelude that precedes it] is the ”Liebestod,” full of colors, mostly crimson and flame yellow.  Horowitz was always talking and preaching color in piano playing.  This disk gives an idea of what his sense of color was all about, and it was a series of shadings and prismatic effects that no other pianist has been able to duplicate.  Near the end of the ”Liebestod” there is a chordal surge almost terrifying in its intensity.  The 86-year-old pianist suddenly becomes the pianist of the 1930’s and 40’s.

It is fitting that his last disk end with the “Liebestod.”  Goodbye, Volodya.

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 6:11 pm  Comments (1)  
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