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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [248:43]
John Treleaven (tenor) … Tristan
Christine Brewer (soprano) … Isolde
Peter Rose (bass) … King Marke
Boaz Daniel (baritone) … Kurwenal
Jared Holt (tenor) … Melot
Dagmar Pecková (mezzo) … Brangaene
Eugene Ginty (tenor) … Shepherd
Mark Le Brocq (tenor) … Young Sailor
Jonathan Lemalu (baritone) … Helmsman
Apollo Voices
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec. live, concert, Barbican Hall, London, 12 December 2002 (Act One), 5 and 19 February 2003 (Acts Two and Three)
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62964-2 [4 CDs: 56:45 + 60:10 + 51:50 + 79:58]


"After dinner, in the presence of the children, R. plays from the second act of Tristan. Whether I am getting more and more receptive or pathologically sensitive, I don't know, but I can hardly endure certain powerful impressions ..." (Cosima Wagner - diary entry for 24 January 1869).

If anyone repeats the chestnut that there are no heroic Wagner sopranos to match past greats then insist they listen to Christine Brewer on this live recording based on broadcasts from London's Barbican Hall. This is documentary evidence that Brewer must be discussed in the same bracket as Eileen Farrell, Rita Hunter, Traubel and even Flagstad.

Brewer's majestic command, response to text and natural dramatic flair are miraculous. The 'front' of her voice is focused so that words are clear, as you would hear from a lyric soprano. Behind that there is a rich resonance, almost like a sound chamber that refracts the most extraordinary colours, including gorgeous burnished metals, and imparts all the dramatic soprano power required. Brewer's tone is more beautiful, indeed warmer, than Nilsson's penetrating timbre.

Can any soprano today sing the Liebestod so well? Brewer’s phrasing is perfectly natural and it is thrilling to hear her soar on the orchestral swell, high on the note, as if pushing up through some unseen barrier and into the skies. Brewer's colours and security here don't so much supersede Stemme on the recent Papano EMI recording, as blow her out of the water.

Incredibly, this is the first time Brewer sang a note of Isolde on stage. Whilst some patching sessions were needed before this performance was released commercially, none was required for her.

John Treleaven is a fine Tristan who may not have the most beautiful heldentenor on record but does beautiful things with it. I was most struck by the injected dark inwardness of "O sink hernieder … ", almost as if sung by a different voice to the previous lines. Also, sample the lines beginning "So starben wir, um ungetrennt …" where Treleaven moulds and colours with otherworldly intensity, holding the words as if he could not bear to let them go. A national newspaper review noted that Treleavan tires a little towards the end of Act III, but isn't this the point dramatically?

Two other singers need special mention. Pecková's earthy, vibrant mezzo is a superb contrast to her mistress's sovereign radiance. Note the slightly hysterical desperation Pecková brings to the crisis that ends Act I. Peter Rose's King Marke is blessed with a deep well of sound, dark and cool.

Runnicles’ conducting holds many insights such as ratcheting tension towards thunderous timps for the drinking of the love potion. Also try the gathering rhythmic force as worrying strings give way to biting brass, which never unduly overpower, as Isolde regrets sheltering Tristan (CD1, track 5). Brewer here brilliantly captures Isolde’s turmoil of grief and fury.

The Act II duet is surprisingly gentle so that the final crisis comes too suddenly. Compare with Furtwängler and Goodall who build the duet in more powerful, grander steps that really take the music airborne and generate conflagration. In the final moments of the duet Flagstad for Furtwängler hits "one consciousness" forte. Then the violins surge forward in plunge in a frankly sexual metaphor. Goodall begins the duet from "O sink hernieder … " extremely tenderly, building over the next twenty minutes almost overwhelming waves of sound. His Isolde Linda Esther Gray sings "one consciousness" with searing power, her voice reminding me of a flaming sword held aloft in an English National Opera Tristan I saw years ago. Like Furtwängler, Goodall's violins surge outward at this moment, plunging with the lovers’ abandonment.

Runnicles' Act II crisis is compromised by distant strings and the woodwind are not clear enough. The Act I coda also lacks sheer volume. I wonder to what extent the BBC multi-miking is responsible? Listen to Goodall's 25 year old Decca recording to hear how powerful, even violent, the orchestra can sound. The BBC engineers do however make the Barbican acoustic sound warmer than the LSO Live recordings. Applause is retained at the end of each act.

Warner Classics include a libretto and essay. Surprisingly, there are no biographies of the artists. The CDs are in cardboard sleeves, which I dislike as I worry they will be scuffed when slid in/out. The cover artwork includes corny Pre-Raphaelite imagery: yuk. If only the designers looked instead to ancient Celtic art, say, at the British Museum.

Furtwängler on EMI super-budget priced CDs remains an essential purchase. And try to find his 1947 live Berlin Staatsoper excerpts where the orchestral sound is less muddy and Furtwängler is utterly incandescent.

Despite Brewer, Pecková, Rose and the fine BBCSO, this new Tristan und Isolde gives way to the Goodall set. The Decca recording has more detail and range and the Mitchinson/Gray team is impressive. This is entirely subjective, and may seem perverse after my praise for the great Isoldes, but Gray is closer in my mind to the young Celtic sorceress. Gray's legato phrasing, colouring and living dramatic response bring Isolde before this listener. Even Gray's slight strain at the "world- breath" crescendo of the Liebestod seems more dramatically real: this is not a superstar soprano cleaving through symphonic sound but a young woman overwhelmed as she faces transfiguration.

Goodall outclasses even Furtwängler in Tristan. Wagner’s music flows and breathes with intimacy, passion and cosmic vision. The inner pulse and huge arches of sound, even at slower tempi, seem to transcend time itself. It is Goodall who reminds the listener most of the radical, dangerousness and eroticism that Cosima most probably sensed.

David Harbin



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