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
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.
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
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
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.