The curious things about accepted wisdom is that sometimes it’s correct. Take the case of Herbert von Karajan, a conductor whose early work is often considered more powerful and spontaneous (and less self-indulgent) than the stuff on his later recordings. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in his 1952 live Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth, a bracing account with Ramon Vinay and Martha Mödl that in almost every way surpasses his widely praised 1972 studio version with Jon Vickers and Helga Dernesch.  

Widely circulated on pirate recordings before it was issued on a sanctioned Orfeo set, the performance is now available on United Classics in fine mono sound that captures the textural nuances and arresting interplay between the singers and the pit. While in no way a perfect performance, it’s a wholly involving account filled with intelligent singing that should rank in the top tier of historical Wagner recordings.

Karajan is in good company. The same summer, his archrival Wilhelm Furtwängler cut a studio recording for EMI with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus that many still consider the definitive Tristan. Karl Böhm committed another great Bayreuth production to disc in 1966 with Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson in the title roles. Accounts by Fritz Reiner, Hans Knappertsbusch and Carlos Kleiber also vie for space on many collectors’ shelves.

The strength of Karajan’s reading lies in the urgent sense of forward motion evident from the yearning opening chords of the prelude and in the subtle, unforced way he builds to the giant musical climaxes in sections such as the Act 2 love duet. The Bayreuth orchestra, less refined than his Berlin Philharmonic would sound, throbs with energy in the hot spots while remaining ever attentive to the score’s frequent mood changes and the aching harmonic suspensions.

If Furtwängler overwhelms with phrasing and forcefulness and Böhm excels with his transparent textures and theatricality, Karajan distills a certain somber gravity that captures the tragic way the title characters’ passions collide with ethical restrictions. In contrast, his 1972 account comes off as plodding and mannered, even accounting for the limitations of the studio setting.

Vinay is an intuitive singing actor whose burnished baritenor lends a particularly noble quality to Tristan. Stronger in the conversational than purely lyrical passages, he manages to sound convincingly anguished during the Act 3 fever monologue without veering into staginess. He rich tone throughout the long phrases of the love duet is augmented with vocal colorings that convey inner thoughts over the surging orchestral accompaniment. The close miking brings out quite a bit of detail in sections where the protagonists’ lines almost overlap against the thick, chromatic orchestration.

Vinay has a near-perfect partner in Mödl, who starts off a little rough but settles in in time to deliver a powerful account of Isolde’s Act 1 narrative and curse. A high mezzo who gamely took on formidable dramatic soprano parts, her top notes are effortful and occasionally wobble but somehow make the tormented Irish princess more believable and dramatically probing. The full-blooded exchanges with Vinay at the end of Act 2 are not the subtlest on record but ring with dark splendor. The Liebestod also is top notch, though after four hours there’s a noticeable bit of caution on the high notes.

The supporting cast boasts Hans Hotter, then at his peak, whose imposing presence and keen attention to the text make Kurwenal more prominent and compassionate than is usually the case. Ludwig Weber, near the tail end of his career, is a distinguished King Marke, while the accomplished Wagner villain Hermann Uhde is a satisfyingly malicious Melot. Ira Malaniuk’s Brangane is a bit anemic in this company, not making much of an impression except in her offstage warnings during the love duet. The rest of the cast includes Gerhard Stolze as the shepherd, Werner Faulhaber as the helmsman and Gerhard Unger as the young sailor.

The remastered Bavarian Radio recording is  quite fine, with little surface noise and minimal distortion on the high notes and during orchestral tuttis. Playing underneath Bayreuth’s hooded pit, Karajan’s instrumentalists don’t sound quite as distant as they do on poorer transfers of this performance but still have a slightly bland timbre. The chorus sounds strong.

Some conductors seek to clarify Tristan while others drive the music to the extremes of passion. Karajan and company in just more than 229 minutes deliver a brisk, honest and visceral take, providing an important memento of Wieland Wagner’s post-war Bayreuth and a golden era of Wagner singing.