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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [212'12]
Wolfgang Millgram (tenor) Tristan; Hedwig Fassbender (soprano) Isolde; Lennart Forsén (bass) King Marke; Gunnar Lundberg (baritone) Kurwenal; Magnus Kyhle (tenor) Melot; Martina Dike (mezzo) Brangaene; Ulrik Qvale (tenor) Shepherd and Young Sailor; John Erik Eleby (baritone) Helmsman;
Royal Swedish Opera Male Chorus and Orchestra/Leif Segerstam.
rec. Konserthuset, Stockholm, 14-19 June 2004.
NAXOS 8.660152/4 [3 CDs: 63'41 + 78'25 + 70'07]
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From the same stable as the generally acceptable Don Carlos (Naxos 8.660096/8), and very much like that set, this Tristan offers some interesting moments without seriously challenging any of the accepted great accounts on disc.

Segerstam in Wagner was an unknown quantity for me, and he emerges as a conductor who favours fast speeds but who, unlike Böhm, does not penetrate the depths of the score. Instead Segerstam seems interested in the drama of the moment, so losing the eternal trajectory of the score. Timelessness, so necessary in the Act 2 love duet, is simply not his thing.

This is a studio recording, and despite Segerstam's wish for drama it often sounds so. All this is not to imply an unmusical baton at the helm the Prelude opens with a nice sense of suspense and rises naturally to its climax at 8'34. The Sailor, Ulrik Qvale, is on the literal side but at least this avoids narcissism. Segerstam's approach reaps dividends when Isolde, Hedwig Fassbender, cries out for air ('Luft, Luft' ...) but as for moments of magic we have to wait until her 'Er sah mich in die Augen' before any trace of Wagnerian spine-shiver is hinted at. And there is a distinct interpretative sag as Kurwenal relates Isolde's words to Tristan.

Ironically, at the end of Act 1 - the most obviously dramatic moment so far ... try Bernstein/Philips for an edge of the seat experience - Segerstam, despite his best efforts, just fails to bring off the events musically. From Scene 4 he appears to change tack to a more lyric than dramatic approach, an interpretative reversal that leaves this reviewer puzzled.

The ladies are the strongest aspect of Act 1. Fassbender is a strong yet youthful Isolde; she has the measure of the part and it is only when she invokes the Dark Arts that one questions her authority. Fassbender's high register verges at times on the magnificent, her tones sometimes clarion in nature. Her Brangaene, Martina Dike, is equally strong of voice but perhaps more resolute of part.

Wolfgang Millgram paints a portrait of a youngish Tristan - appropriate for his Isolde, of course. If only Kurwenal (Gunnar Lundberg) had more vocal depth ...

Act 2 finds Segerstam muffing the big opening chord, in itself so full of potential anguish, here rather damp and literal. Some awkward orchestral playing thereafter hardly helps. Too often, literal orchestral contributions scupper the highly-charged atmosphere of this Act.

And Segerstam once more interrupts Wagner's flow. He opts for a very fast entry speed for Tristan's entry (no bad thing in itself), then comes to a complete stop soon thereafter (CD2, track 7 around 2 minutes in). 'O sink hernieder' needs to take a trip to the perfumery department, though, that much is for sure.

Perhaps it is Brangaene's Warning that is the high point of this act. Dike proves conclusively that her voice is positively lovely. The low point is the big interruption (CD2 track 13), that makes only a small impact here - I remember hearing Goodall at the Coliseum and nearly flying out of my seat! Melot (Magnus Kyhle) is acceptable, nothing more. Marke (Forsén) is the best of the men in this act, projecting palpably desolate disbelief.

Act 3 continues the desolation well - orchestrally, now - and its opening is blessed with a simply excellent cor anglais player. Grey half-colours dominate the orchestration, but literalism returns soon from both Millgram and Segerstam. Some tension does persist, though, and the brass have a field day.

If Tristan's chances of vocal greatness are eschewed for a relatively safe reading, Fassbender's Transfiguration is resplendent. Good dynamic awareness from all concerned gives this final section flow and shape. Too late to save this set, of course, but good to have Fassbender's clear talent resounding in the ear after the music stops.

Investigate by all means the price makes this a real possibility. But this is a Tristan that will not leave anyone emotionally drained. At its worst, Segerstam's handling of the score can be heard as demeaning Wagner's greatness. But I have heard worse.


Colin Clarke

see also review by Goran Forsling



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