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Lucerne Festival 2004: Strauss, Four Last Songs, Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Act II), Renée Fleming (sop), Violeta Urmana (sop), John Treleaven (tenor), Mihoko Fujimara (mezzo), René Pape (bass), Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (dir.), Concert Hall, Lucerne Culture and Congress Center (KKL), Lucerne, Switzerland, 13th August 2004 (MB)



Lucerne’s Summer Festival is like no other; so much so, that giving up the sweltering humidity of London, its thundery tempests and lackluster concert programming for the purity of the Swiss air was not a difficult choice. Incredible ambience, lush scenery, in the shadow of the Alps, and a wonderful concert hall, as noticeable for its startling, translucent acoustic as for its burgundy and anthracite interior, sets this festival apart from almost any other in the world, with the probable exceptions of Salzburg and Aspen. Principally, of course, it is a celebration of great music making, under great conductors and orchestras, a legacy that continues today as it did some 60 years ago; but that is only part of its musical attraction. It is also a Mecca for some of the most eminent of today’s contemporary composers (this year Sir Harrison Birtwistle is its composer-in-residence.) It offers one of the best blends of the familiar and the unknown during a summer often best considered a holiday for critics and audiences alike. And the music making is incomparable, at least based on the concert I went to on 13th August.


Last years Festival opened with a concert under Claudio Abbado and the reborn Lucerne Festival Orchestra; this years opened with the same forces. Wagner was common to both – in 2003, Wotan’s Farewell from Walkürie, this year Act II from Tristan und Isolde. What links both is a level of exceptional music making that goes way beyond the usual. The opulence that the orchestra brought to Strauss’ Four Last Songs, for example, was allied with superb delineation of textures, and it was likewise for the Tristan. Aided in part by the glorious acoustic of the KKL Concert Hall I have rarely heard such effortlessly beautiful orchestral playing.


But this is not any orchestra. Its corporate body is largely made up of members of the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra (themselves, at sometime or another, members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.) But it is the section leaders which gives this orchestra its uncommon glow. The flautist Emmanuel Pahud, the oboist Albrecht Mayer, the clarinetist Sabine Meyer lead the woodwind sections; Kolja Blacher, Natalia Gutman and the players of the Hagen Quartet lead the string sections. Often placing such great soloists within an orchestra has little musical effect (and sometimes a detrimental one) but it is Abbado’s achievement that he is able to make each and every player listen to one another as if they are playing chamber music (or, indeed, opera, since Abbado is one of the few conductors to achieve similar levels of distinction in that medium too.) Last years La mer, soon to be released by DG (00289 477 5082), and the later performance of Mahler’s Resurrection (also included on the discs), amply demonstrates what these qualities are: the unanimity and singularity of tone colour; the blending and inwardness of textures; the inner details of orchestration and that impressive single body of sound that rises so vividly from the players. The Mahler had conveyed some different qualities – the unbroken line, the unremitting savagery of the playing as if some whirlwind had broken through the orchestra and an uncommon precision. Hearing this year’s concert live brought added benefits, notably a palpable sense of tension augmented with extraordinary levels of concentration that neither a radio broadcast nor a CD quite seem able to recreate.


The soprano Renée Fleming is not perhaps the most natural Straussian, at least for the Four Last Songs. She has coped better with the very different demands of Strauss’ operas – she is a fine countess in Der Rosenkavalier – but the very nature of these songs, with their inward emotions and extreme dynamic demands, are not entirely natural ground for Fleming’s slightly more dramatic vocal strengths. The voice has innate beauties, of course (notably an impressive ability to float seamless streams of affecting portamento), but at times Fleming can appear uncomfortable in this music.


One did not, however, expect any problems to arise so early. They did almost immediately during the course of the first song, Frühling. Loss of tonal weight marred the first line ‘In dämmrigen Grüften’ and this was only compensated for by a beautifully shaped second line that soared majestically. September showed a Fleming constant – her tendency towards lazy diction – with ‘Der Garten’ seemingly emerging as ‘Der Gartren’ (though she quite clearly got it right on ‘Gartentraum’ at the close of the second stanza.) Outstandingly done was the final line of the song – I have rarely heard any soprano attach such colour and dynamic shape to the long-breathed phrase ‘…Augen zu’. It emerged with such unusual brush-strokes of the voice that it compelled admiration.


Beim Schlafengehen – so notable for the perfectly phrased violin solo of Kolja Blacher – proved a disappointment for the soprano. Quite literally, ‘wollen in Schlumer senken’ had Fleming sinking her final note, and the long held final note of ‘…zu leben’ wavered and quivered. That wobble in the upper range manifested itself throughout Im Abendrot, and despite the fact she ended the song on the most hushed of pianissimos the performance did not recover sufficiently to eliminate the faults elsewhere. Technically, these were not examples of Fleming at her best and musically there was a drought of emotionality and spirituality. A great performance at least needs those qualities even if the technique is deficient.


Yet, the miracle of Strauss’ Four Last Songs lies in the symbiotic relationship between the orchestra and the voice. If Fleming’s melodic line was at times shattered the orchestra’s was not. Time and time again – whether it be in an oboe solo, a violin solo or the wonderful horn solo that closes Im Abendrot – it was the Lucerne Festival Orchestra which gave this performance the poetic narration it needed.


Act II of Tristan, in contrast, was a formidable achievement. At turns violent, heroic and poetic it was a performance that was more notable for the carefully constructed orchestral balances that are Abbado’s hallmark rather than for the singing (although that had moments of exceptional insight too.) It might perhaps have been a more revealing concert had we been able to hear Abbado and his orchestra in Act I also – for whilst his conducting of Act II brought with it some extraordinarily revealing nuances – the night sounds of the woodwind, for example – how much greater those sounds would have been within the context of the revolutionary writing of Act I. Yet, the opening of the act – with the ‘prelude’ played more as an interlude – also brought with it string playing of picturesque beauty – how often do you genuinely hear the violins echo the wind in performances, or the hunting horns grow eerily distant as their notes are replicated in the clarinets? Here it had a transfigured clarity of expression, rather as if one was looking at a mysteriously dark canvas, with its melting shadows and heavy spaces of darkness glowing by match-light.


Throughout, there was a sense that this was a performance which sought to meld the vocal and the orchestral into a single whole. As Isolde beseeches Brangane (sung most beautifully by Mihoko Fujimara) to extinguish the torch Abbado got the woodwind – recalling the horn calls of the opening – to surreptitiously increase volume to accompany the vocalisation. Likewise, the sustained breathlessness of Isolde’s rapturous singing was invoked within the orchestra by the rapid exchanges between violins and ‘cellos and the bleating woodwind. Throughout, it was always the balance between textures that impressed so when Isolde finally has the torch extinguished the climax at which that moment happens in the orchestra had an overwhelming sense of light flooding the implied darkness. Tristan’s entrance, meanwhile, with rampant low basses accompanying it, concludes with the lover’s embracing – a moment that – marked fff in the score (a rare marking for Wagner in this opera) – never seemed to overshadow the musical significance of the torch being extinguished.


Violetta Urmana (in a wonderful transition from mezzo to soprano) and John Treleaven (replacing Robert Gambill) were both superb, even if some may find Treleaven’s voice slightly on the rough side. His first cry of ‘Isolde’ had superb weight to it, just as Urmana’s first cry of ‘Tristan’ had searing passion to it. Indeed, their first dialogue together was one of high emotion; ‘Endlich! Endlich!/An meiner Brust!’ had inexorable drive, but, ‘Dies deine Augen/Dies dein Mund’ was marked by an easing of the tempi thus increasing the tension dramatically. Urmana had no difficulty breaching her two top Cs in the ensuing passage as their love is triumphantly established, and Abbado had no difficulty controlling the fortepiano markings, the crescendo in the woodwind and brass and bustling string figurations controlled with the tightest of dynamics.


The great dialogue which begins their searing admission of love may have been a highpoint of this performance but it is the fragmentation of their dialogue that defines the very greatness of the singers for this act. Both Tristan and Isolde are subject to differing contrasts of mood, with him recalling his search for honour and fame and she the fluctuating emotions of hatred, suffering and love. Both Urmana and Treleaven coped admirably with the inherent contrasts in their vocal writing (and how wonderfully Treleaven accomplished seamless singing of the notoriously difficult ‘der Welten-Ehren-tages-Sonne’ phrase) as Urmana unwound a torrent of spellbindingly lyrical singing (I don’t think I have ever heard a more beautifully sung ‘O sink hernieder/Nacht der Liebe’ than the one sang here by Urmana, the contrast with Treleaven made all the more apparent by his off-key singing of ‘Nacht’, the only noticeable error in an other wise beautiful display of legato singing.) Both singers magically conveyed the sense of night enveloping them as they sought release from mortality.


Again, however, one was as spellbound by the orchestral playing (especially from the oboe and horn) as one was by the singing. How beautifully Albrecht Mayer evoked the image of Isolde in his radiant and tonally burnished playing during the first duo. Perhaps even more resplendent was his phrasing after ‘Barg im Busen’, the sonority meticulous in its beauty. How wonderfully the harps shaped their intertwining melodies.


The love duet itself (culminating in the Liebestod ‘So stürben wir’) was perhaps more notable for Urmana’s sensitivity to phrasing than Treleaven’s (at time his tone bordered on the hectoring) but both brought a searing intensity to their singing that made their love an unambivalent entity. The climactic surge as both singers – Urmana especially – wound themselves into a magnificent trance-like stream of never-ending ecstasy had considerable passion to it, replicated utterly from within the orchestra. Rarely have I ever heard this passage so completely destructed as Abbado did here with his orchestra unleashing bass chords as if from beneath the earth itself. The contrast between the heavenliness of the love duet and the urbaneness of the ensuing hunt, and the entrance of Melot and King Mark, was as stark as I have ever heard it done.


And here we perhaps got the most transfigured singing and playing of the evening. King Mark’s long dialogue – sung here by René Pape - was a mesmerizing affair, with Pape giving an example of disciplined legato phrasing that was never bettered throughout the performance. The way he shaded his voice to reflect the playing of the bass clarinet in his plaintive tribute to Tristan’s former love, or with the ‘cellos and the violins in his tribute to Isolde conveyed a very private sense of inwardness that Abbado and his orchestra were more than able to match. The wondrous sound from the lower strings seemed a mirror of Pape’s own voice (notable also on a wonderfully toned bass clarinet) and both singer and orchestra were palpably at one in their subtle understanding of Wagner’s dynamics.


Perhaps it was because of the sheer dramatic scope of Pape’s incandescent solo, that Treleaven responded to it with singing of pure natural emotion: he was resplendent, no more, no less, in his determination and solemnity to lead himself and Isolde into death (Wohin nun Tristan scheidet/willst du, Isolde’.) Abbado’s tempestuous reiteration of King Mark’s theme – with magnificent crescendos on trumpets and a stunning decrescendo on horns – was such a contrast to it that the act’s final D minor chord had an overwhelming sense of power to it that crushed everything before it. It crowned a quite extraordinary achievement of certainly one the greatest performances of Act II of Tristan this reviewer has heard either in the opera house or on record.


Marc Bridle



Further listening


Strauss, Four Last Songs: Jessye Norman, Leipzig Guwandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur (Philips)


Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (Act II): Suthaus, Schlüter, Frick, Klose, Staatsoperkapelle Berlin, Wilhelm Furtwängler, 3rd October 1947 (Radio Years)

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