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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Thomas Moser (tenor) Tristan; Deborah Voigt (soprano) Isolde; Petra Lang (mezzo) Brangäne; Robert Holl (bass) King Mark; Peter Weber (baritone) Kurwenal; Markus Nieminen (baritone) Melot; Michael Roider (tenor) Shepherd; In-Sung Sim (baritone) Steersman; John Dickie (tenor) Young Sailor
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Christian Thielemann.
Live rec. from the Vienna State Opera, May 2003. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 974-2 [3CDs 235’03: 80’03 + 79’48 + 75’12]

Brand new Tristans from major record companies are hardly thick on the ground these days, so it was with the greatest interest that I listened to DG’s offering.

Deborah Voigt has, of course, been in the headlines recently, so a chance to appraise her artistry as opposed to commenting on her girth is welcome. And any addition to Thielemann’s discography helps to add another piece to the jigsaw.

The Prelude to Act I is given in crystalline digital sound. Interpretatively, though, it takes a while to get going, with Thielemann content to luxuriate in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra’s velvety string sound. A natural reaction, perhaps, but there should surely be a rawness of emotion underpinning the unfolding? Thielemann is happy to career towards the climax, though. Perhaps only Bernstein on Philips and Böhm on DG, in their different but equally valid ways, unearthed the emotive truth? Or is that to under-sell the famous Philharmonia/Furtwängler? (take your pick of the transfers, EMI or Naxos).

Indeed, the largest impression taken from the Prelude is the excellence of the recording team (from Austrian Radio, not DG: Wolfgang Sturm, Producer; Josef Schütz, Balance Engineer. Credit where credit’s due). So no surprise that the Young Sailor, John Dickie, rather full of vibrato yet capable of turning a phrase effectively, is correctly and convincingly distanced. This distancing is important, so that the orchestra’s re-entry can act as a wrench back to the reality of the ship and Isolde’s torment. Indeed, the sudden immediacy of the well-disciplined orchestra accomplishes exactly this.

Deborah Voigt begins well, strong and flustered as the part demands. In contrast, Petra Lang is not as confident initially as I had hoped - having encountered and raved about Lang on Seen & Heard part of MusicWeb a few year ago: But as the music progresses, two things become apparent: Lang is consistently more imaginative and convincing in her way with the words she sings than is Voigt; and she has a greater understanding of the ongoing drama.

Voigt’s ‘Fürcht der Herrin, ich, Isolde!’ carries virtually none of the requisite haughty grandeur - go to Flagstad with Furtwängler to hear a truly imposing lady! and to Furtwängler for a more rhythmically vital account of the ensuing connecting passage to Kurwenal’s entrance, for that matter. Similarly, the crucial phrase ‘Er sah mir in die Augen’ is superficially despatched. Voigt can do imposing anger verging on the hysterical, it is true (try ‘Rache! Tod! Tod uns beiden!’ in the third scene), but on the occasions in Act I when she seems to actually enter into her part, Thielemann scuppers things by letting the tension sag. If only he weren’t so narcissistic. He conducts consistently as if he is in love with his orchestra and the more luxuriant of Wagner’s chosen sonorities not to mention his own interpretation, all at the expense of Wagnerian truth.

Thomas Moser seems a little under a Heldentenor - more a tenor with aspirations towards Heldentenor status. The orchestral passage that announces and accompanies his entrance is once again under-powered, the cumulative repetitions not leading to a dramatically effective space. And Moser’s first line (‘Begehrt, Herrin, was ihr wünscht’) is under-powered, hardly the most promising of starts. This coupled with Thielemann’s ongoing affair with the moment rather than the larger picture leads to a lack of emotive tension, much less underlying sexual tension, in this crucial confrontation. The most successful moment comes later when at least Moser gives the silences their full due. The male chorus’ effectiveness towards the close of the act (‘Heil, König Marke, heil’) is compromised by the orchestra very obviously toning it own and thereby losing emotive impetus. At least later the orchestra asserts itself. The chorus is, of course, in the process of entering at this point, yet they sound curiously backward even when marked to be fully present on-stage. The exhilarating abandon of Bernstein in these final paragraphs is almost entirely absent.

Peter Weber is an under-powered Kurwenal in Act I; a trait he confirms in Act III (see below).

Without doubt you will hear orchestral detail that will surprise you, so acute is Thielemann’s ear for balance, so eagle his eye on the score. But swept away?. I doubt it.

Act II continues the trend of sterling recording and orchestral detail married to literalism. Each act gets its own CD, and its own colour, for that matter. A surprise comes in the rapidly repeated wind chords, which are ever so slightly slow and off-the-ball. Again, it is Brangäne who is more inside her part (Lang hits high notes bang in the middle, too) and by now the edge to Isolde’s voice was grating. But there is a vital under-selling by Thielemann - the passage around Tristan’s ‘Der Missgunst, die mir Ehren und Ruhm begann zu schweren’ actually sounds sub-Tristan, even maybe Holländerisch!

In compensation, Thielemann prepares the famous ‘O sink hernieder’ section carefully and effectively. The two principals raise their game accordingly, so that this becomes one of the highlights of the set. Only some extraneous stage noise during Brangäne’s Warning (‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’) detracts slightly, a pity given Lang’s silken lines (she impresses again towards the close of this scene).

Thielemann whips up the excitement of this übersex so that the coital interrupt makes its mark even if Weber’s Kurwenal reasserts his weaknesses with his entreaty, ‘Rette dich, Tristan’. All of this is hurtling the listener towards King Marke’s great scene: ‘Tatest du wirklich’. Robert Holl is well-equipped vocally, of that there is no doubt, but he holds not a candle to the greatest interpreters of this role. He is no portrait of disillusionment; but still manages to put in the shade Tristan’s final ‘Wehr dich Melot’, an unbearably literal cry.

The Prelude to Act Three is richly toned, if not overtly doom-laden; once again, later, one is left admiring the cor anglais solos rather than being touched by their import. The Shepherd (Michael Roider) is appealing of voice - a pity that Kurwenal’s answer ‘Erwachte er ..’) is barely audible, and that Kurwenal’s excitement at Tristan’s awakening is barely projected. It was later in this act that something became clear: the voices are almost incidental to the orchestral activity and the close placement of the instruments contributes to this impression; at least until near Isolde’s entrance, when some head of steam is generated. The edge in Voigt’s voice’s detracts from her initial mourning. Expressive weight is instead left until Marke’s ‘Tod den alles!’ (not separately tracked, strangely), for which Holl seems to reach inside himself to produce the goods. Wagner wrote the Verklärung as Isolde’s climax as well as that of the music-drama, a moment in which all worldly considerations become secondary. This passage creeps in very well, very sensitively, yet the climax is hardly cataclysmic and it is certainly hard to revel in Voigt’s voice. To cap it all, Voigt’s final slur fails. There is no other word - the tone sours, the tuning goes and there is no trace of any ‘floating’.

A sonic spectacular, then, with moments of illumination with lots of space between them and a general feeling of the live experience. This is particularly the case, he says cynically, when one can hear bits of scenery being moved,/falling down etc. Not a performance to usurp any of the classic accounts of this endlessly fascinating work, but one that will certainly provide food for thought.

Colin Clarke

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