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Titanic Records

Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Tristan und Isolde

Marc Deaton (tenor) – Tristan; Susan Marie Pierson (soprano) – Isolde; Gwendolyn Jones (mezzo) – Brangäne; David Malis (baritone) – Kurwenal; Ethan Herschenfeld (bass) – Marke; Timothy Jon Sarris (tenor) – Seemann/Melot/Ein Hirt; Peter Yanakov (baritone) – Ein Steuermann
Bulgarian Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Glen Cortese
Recorded live at the National Palace of Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria, February 8, 2004
TITANIC TI-261 [4 CDs: 63:09 + 59:78 + 30:17 + 72:33]


There has been a spate of Tristans on CD the last few years. Most of the well-known studio-made sets or "official" live recordings from Bayreuth are available but there are also hoards of old or elderly live recordings, often pirated and in murky sound.

Now, here comes a brand new one, recorded just a little more than a year ago. "Live" it is but this was planned and Titanic’s PR department has been busy plugging it. Recorded at a concert performance, not a staged one, it has good sound, good balance between orchestra and voices and very little extraneous noise. Some footsteps can be heard but there are hardly any signs of an audience, not until after the final chords of Isolde’s Liebestod, when there is some applause and some enthusiastic "bravos", quickly faded down.

The Bulgarian Festival Orchestra, which I suppose is a pick-up ensemble, play well with smooth string tone and some impressive brass playing. There are moments of tentative ensemble – not surprising in so long a work, and one which probably was unknown to most of the members of the orchestra but not more than you can hear in any live opera recording. This was Sofia’s first performance ever of Tristan und Isolde.

The conductor, Glen Cortese, is clearly one to watch. He has a firm grip of the music and manages the prelude, with its myriad of dynamic markings, very well. The constant ebb and flow of the music - illustrating the gentle rippling of the waves of the smooth waters between Ireland and Cornwall as opposed to Wagner’s description of the wild North Sea in "The Flying Dutchman" overture – is finely executed. All through the opera he keeps things moving, a bit on the fast side but not extremely so. He also whips up the tension in the more dramatic scenes and underlines the ecstasy in the love scenes. At the same time he has a nice feeling for the softer, chamber music like passages, where he is well served by his instrumentalists, not least the woodwind.

So far so good then, but opera is also singing. Here I have to raise objections to the current performance. Of course this, of all operas, is really testing, especially for the protagonists, requiring superhuman stamina and leather-lungs. Singing heavy parts like these year after year inevitably affects the voice negatively, often resulting in a widening of vibrato which may end up in an uncontrolled wobble. The singers on this recording are all fairly young but all of them are, to a smaller or greater extent, afflicted by vibrato. Of course we are used to it and a controlled vibrato is even a necessary ingredient in romantic opera. However there is a limit, different from listener to listener, when that vibrato becomes an irritant.

We notice it on the very first voice we hear, that of the Sailor, sung by baritone-turned-tenor Timothy Jon Sarris, who also triples as Melot and the Shepherd, but these are minor parts and we don’t really bother. But when Isolde appears, sung by Susan Marie Pierson, we do bother. This dramatic soprano, American like the rest of the cast, has a big, rounded and basically beautiful voice that can ride a big orchestra without being drowned even in big tuttis. But she has this persistent vibrato. I heard her as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in Helsinki a couple of years before this recording was made, thought she was a good actor and that she had a fine voice but was a little worried about this vibrato, or rather "beat", in the voice on high sustained notes. "Maybe she shouldn’t sing too many Brünnhildes every year", I remember saying to my wife. But obviously she has, for what was then limited to the top notes and in forte, now is prominent all through her register and even when she sings mezzoforte – and it is annoying. There is no denying the beauty of the sounds she produces. There is no denying her ability to express sincerity, sorrow, anger, ecstasy. She can scale down her voice at crucial moments: Isolde’s Liebestod is sung inwardly and softly, starting pianissimo and from there building the long arc that again ends very softly. And here she controls her vibrato and keeps it well within what to my ears is acceptable. And this last impression is, luckily, what remains in the memory.

Gwendolyn Jones, as Brangäne, has a strong, well-defined mezzo with brilliant top-notes which contrast well with Isolde’s more rounded sounds. She gives a thrilling performance of the confidante and the big first-act duet between the two ladies is undoubtedly intense. She, too, has her moments of unduly wide vibration but mostly she tames them quite well.

Kurwenal is sung by David Malis, winner of BBC’s ‘Singer of the World’ Competition in 1985. His is a bright and clear high baritone with lots of power, he characterizes well and overall he is perhaps the most accomplished singer in this cast.

When Tristan appears his first sounds come as something of a shock, because this was not what I had expected. Reviews of the actual concert where this was recorded spoke of Marc Deaton’s "sonorous dramatic sound" and "vocal beauty". Seeing as well as hearing sometimes can give a different impression from just hearing. What I hear in these first phrases is a rather colourless, greyish, decidedly old-sounding tenor with, again, a prominent vibrato. But, wait a little, go on listening! You soon get used to his sound, his vibrato becomes more controlled and soon you realize that there is a brilliant mind behind this voice. Here is a singer who has thought himself into the part he is creating. Both he and Miss Pierson, and possibly the rest of the cast, are new to their roles, and sometimes it shows, when he muddles his words and when he discolours some vowels. But he has a fine legato, he can produce the thinnest of pianissimos without crooning and he has lots of power. There is real Heldentenor-ring in this voice and when the two lovers build up the ecstasy at the end of act one, and even more in the love-duet of act two, we feel that we can almost touch their lust, remembering Ingmar Bergman’s describing this music drama as "a five-hour-long sexual intercourse".

King Marke’s role is not very long, but a sonorous, well-rounded bass of the calibre of Martti Talvela or Kurt Moll or Matti Salminen can still make a mark in the part. Ethan Herschenfeld, I am afraid, is nowhere near that level of excellence. His first notes reveal a shaky voice which actually sounds a generation older than Marke is supposed to be. It is depressing to read that he made his debut as recently as 1998. He improves though and the end of his monologue (CD 3 track 4) from "Die kein Himmel erlöst ..." is deeply moving as an impersonation but not as singing per se.

What is impressive is to hear the two main protagonists singing their demanding parts without tiring, without having to resort to barking, which can be the case in many live performances.

Taken as a whole this performance has several good things to offer and I’m glad I got the opportunity to hear it, but it can hardly compete with some of the established recordings in the catalogue. It comes at full, or nearly full, price (Amazon Price is $57.98). There are no texts or translations, no artist portraits, not even a synopsis, just a short article about Wagner and Tristan by Robert T Glass in minuscule print (white on blue of course). For much less than that you can get my favourite Tristan (DG), recorded live at Bayreuth in the mid-1960s, Karl Böhm conducting and an unbeatable cast: Birgit Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, Wolfgang Windgassen, Eberhard Waechter, Martti Talvela and Peter Schreier in the small part of The Sailor, all of them on top form. For even less, Furtwängler’s 1952 recording can be had in the Naxos transfer.

Göran Forsling

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