Site review by Castor October 12, 2012
|This issue marks the half-way point in PentaTone's ambitious, and so far spectacularly successful, project to record and issue on SACD the ten mature Wagner Operas taken from concert performances conducted by Marek Janowski. All ten are to be completed by the end of 2013, the Wagner Centenary year. The public performance from which this recording derives took place in the Philharmonie, Berlin on March 27, 2012.
Few, if any, musical works have had so much written about them over the past century as 'Tristan und Isolde'. It is widely accepted that this is a work that changed the course of Western music, and 147 years after its premier, it still carries a huge amount of psychological, psychoanalytical and emotional baggage for both listeners and performers alike. There are also formidable technical and musical challenges that must be overcome before a successful staging of this masterpiece is achieved. Attending an imaginatively planned production of 'Tristan und Isolde' in the opera house can be an overwhelming experience for the receptive listener. Paradoxically, however, this work's comparatively static nature means that more than any of Wagner's other operas it lends itself ideally to a concert performance where one can become totally immersed in the drama without the distractions of any perverse directorial excesses that are all too common these days - particularly in Europe. The advent of the gramophone record CD, DVD and now Blu-ray means that Wagnerites have an unprecedented choice of recordings of the opera with or without visuals.
No single recording of this opera could possibly satisfy all tastes because, like most great music, it lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations. Choice of conductor, vocal (and acting) abilities of the singers and sound quality all play their part in determining one's reaction to a particular recorded version, but among the many competing rivals on disc there are three radically different accounts, each of which for different reasons deserve special consideration. The opera's first complete recording from 1952 by Wilhelm Furtwängler has unsurprisingly and quite justifiably attained iconic status, while Karl Böhm's urgent, live Bayreuth account from 1966 with an incomparable cast headed by Birgit Nilsson set a new standard of excellence. Finally, Carlos Kleiber's visionary 1980/82 studio account with Margaret Price as arguably the most beautiful sounding Isolde ever – though she never sang the role on stage – is for many an unmissable achievement. I now have no hesitation in placing this new recording by Marek Janowski firmly amongst that august company.
Janowski directs an incandescent reading of the score combining an athletic forward thrust with a melting tenderness as the music requires. This performance grips the listener from the first note of the Prelude, and throughout the three acts Janowski's conducting - born of a lifetime's experience of Wagner's operas - demonstrates a wholly convincing understanding of the music's trajectory.
As evident from the four operas of this PentaTone series already released, Janowski's penchant for swift tempi is manifest, but surprisingly in each of the three acts he is a couple of minutes slower than Karl Böhm on his celebrated, if for some too hasty, Bayreuth version from 1966 referred to above. Purely for comparison timings are:
Janowski Act I 76'45” Act II 75'39” Act III 72'.35”
Böhm Act I 75'18” Act II 72'29” Act III 71'.27”
Janowski is most fortunate to have assembled such a distinguished cast for this performance, one that includes two of the finest and most experienced Wagnerian singers of the current generation - both of whom are currently at the peak of their vocal capabilities - to sing the roles of the opera's eponymous hero and heroine. The American Heldentenor Stephen Gould possesses a voice of immense power, but one that he uses with great artistry and sensitivity. Though it has a definite baritonal quality, he negotiates the higher reaches of the role with ease. He is appropriately authoritative in Act 1, tender and caressing in the Act 2 love duet and sings the wounded Tristan's delirious outbursts and ravings in Act 3 with impressively controlled passion. Nina Stemme has established herself as the Isolde of our time and her assumption of the role can already be heard on a much acclaimed studio recording (EMI) and also seen on a DVD filmed at Glyndebourne. Her gleaming top register and warm middle range make her a very feminine yet formidable Isolde whose voice possesses both the steely edge required for Isolde's Act 1 narration and the creamy richness essential for the languorous expanses of Act 2. Her final 'Liebestod' is radiant and sublime.
The youthful sounding Brangäne of Michelle Breedt will not necessarily commend itself to those used to a weightier mezzo in this role such as Christa Ludwig (for Böhm) or Majana Lipovsek (for Barenboim). Breedt's voice is lighter than many Brangänes on record and in a few places it is difficult to distinguish her singing from that of her mistress. However, she characterises the turmoil of the troubled Brangäne with absolute conviction, her identification with the part being in no doubt, and she sings most beautifully. The Danish baritone Johan Reuter is a fine Kurwenal. His firm and well projected voice conveys the character's loyalty and strength with conviction. Kwangchul Youn, Bayreuth's current Gurnemanz, is a reliable, if not especially distinctive König Marke lacking the absolute rock steadiness of Martti Talvela (Böhm) or Kurt Moll (Kleiber). The remaining smaller roles are well cast especially that of the young sailor sung most ardently, if maybe a touch too forcefully, by Timothy Fallon.
The members of the Rundfunkchor, Berlin, stalwarts of these Janowski Wagner recordings, have comparatively little to do in 'Tristan und Isolde', but as Tristan's crew in Act 1 they sing their off-stage parts with typically splendid attack and lusty enthusiasm.
Apart from the excellent cast what marks out this recording as quite exceptional is the playing of the Berlin Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester. From the first bar of the Prelude they produce sounds of glowing luminosity, whilst the flexibility and responsiveness of their playing throughout the opera is quite miraculous. The string tone is rich but never cloying, the brass weighty and the winds characterful. Try the Prelude to Act 3 to experience the warmth and depth of tone this orchestra can deliver on this recording.
The sound quality on these three SACDs is the equal or possibly even exceeds that of the earlier issues in this cycle. The clarity of every section of the orchestra is astonishing, yet the singers are never subsumed even by the loudest orchestral climaxes. Wagner's masterly use of varying perspectives is imaginatively realised by the recording team. The off-stage horns in the Prelude to Act 2 and the voice of Brangäne as she keeps watch over the lovers are ideally distanced behind the orchestra, whilst in the multi-channel mix the brass heralding the arrival of König Marke at the end of Act 1 emerge from the surround speakers to thrilling effect.
Thanks to Marek Janowski's inspiring direction, the singers' commitment and the peerless sound quality, this recording sets a new benchmark for Tristan und Isolde in the 21st century and undoubtedly it is one that all Wagnerites will wish to investigate.
Unreservedly and enthusiastically recommended.
Copyright © 2012 Graham Williams and SA-CD.net