Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [227.09]
Torsten Kerl (tenor) - Tristan; Anja Kampe (soprano) - Isolde; Andzej Dobber (baritone) - Kurwenal; Sarah Connolly (mezzo) - Brangaene; Georg Zeppenfeld (bass) - King Marke; Trevor Scheunemann (baritone) - Melot; Peter Gijsbertsen (tenor) - Young sailor; Andrew Kennedy (tenor) - Shepherd; Richard Mosley-Evans (baritone) - Steersman;
Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, August 2009
GLYNDEBOURNE GF0CD 019-09 [3 CDs: 79.45 + 70.10 + 77.14]
Last year I reviewed a DVD of this Glyndebourne production, originally staged in 2003 by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, reissued as part of Opus Arte’s mammoth Wagner Edition. This set of CDs features an entirely new set of performers from that earlier Glyndebourne version. Unfortunately it also retains one feature of the original issue about which I complained bitterly: the dreadful cut in the opening section of the Love Duet in Act Two. To save readers having to plough through the whole of my extremely lengthy previous review, I will repeat here what I said on that occasion: “The dichotomy between darkness and night, of which Wagner makes so much in the text, is rendered totally nonsensical because of the cut that is made in the first half of the duet. Now this cut was standard practice in many theatres until the 1960s (it helped the two leading singers to keep their voices fresh) but it has since become discredited, and quite rightly so. The discussion between the two lovers - how the daylight blinded them to their mutual attraction, and how their love could only blossom in the world of night - is central to the whole of the plot as it develops: their reference to the realm of night as a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Tristan’s continual agonies in the realm of light in the Third Act.”
At the time of the earlier review I expressed amazement than producer Nikolaus Lehnhoff and conductor Jiri Bĕlohlávek had allowed the cut to be made. I am even more astonished that it should have continued to be perpetrated when this recording was made by Vladimir Jurowski six years later. The booklet note quotes a review from the Sunday Telegraph of the stage production where the unattributed critic states that Jurowski “shaped the Act II Love Duet as a beautiful arc.” Well, it is easier to obtain such an arc (I suppose) when ten minutes of music or so has been cut; but it is extraordinary that the critic concerned should have overlooked the fact of the truncation when making his comments.
The cut does have the dubious advantage of allowing each of the three Acts to be contained complete on a single CD, although this may also be due to Jurowski’s sometimes eccentrically fast speeds. Actually he indulges himself in extremes of speed throughout, both faster and slower than usual. This has the unexpected side-effect of making the faster passages seem faster than ever and sometimes seems to leave both singers and players sounding positively breathless with some of the string playing decidedly hustled. It is exciting, but it is unconventional. The durations of each Act are indeed very close to those of Karl Böhm’s controversial Bayreuth performances, and a mile removed from Leonard Bernstein’s or Reginald Goodall’s approaches. Jurowski makes some rather odd choices: when the music of the Liebestod makes its initial appearance in the Love Duet (CD 2, track 8), it is taken very slowly, only to speed up after a few bars - a procedure for which I can find no justification in the score. When the music returns at the end (CD 3, track 11) Jurowski finds a different solution, which could be viewed as a valid response to the changed dramatic situation - the Liebestod is, after all, the consummation of the Love Duet, not an imitation of it. On the other hand, passages such as the flute arpeggios which illustrate Tristan’s vision of the fluttering flag on Isolde’s approaching ship, which Cecil Forsyth cites so approvingly in his Orchestration but which are almost invariably covered by the rest of the orchestra in other performances, come through loud and clear in a manner which makes Forsyth’s enthusiasm entirely understandable (CD 3, track 5, 11.00).
Comparison of the singing with the earlier Glyndebourne recording is a matter of swings and roundabouts. On the DVD Nina Stemme produced an Isolde both heroic and womanly, a beautifully judged lyrical performance which still managed to raise the roof at climaxes. Here Anja Kampe is more purely lyrical, and passages such as the end of the Narration clearly tax her to the limit especially at Jurowski’s swift speed. In the Second Act she sounds more fully inside the role, and she tackles her high Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet fearlessly. Just before this point, however, her instruction to Brangaene to keep watch lacks a sense of command - she might almost be asking her to check whether the napkins are properly folded - which goes against the imperious nature of Wagner’s lines (CD 2, track 2, 12.56). Some Isoldes can sound tired by the time of their return at the end of the last Act, but there is no evidence of that here.
Torsten Ralf here is a more conventionally tenor Tristan than the baritonal-sounding Robert Gambill in the original production. His voice is also slightly under-powered at climaxes - notably just before the lovers drink the supposed poison - but nevertheless manages to cut through the turbulent orchestration. During the Love Duet, the low-lying passage “O sink hernieder” finds him rather more baritonal in sound, with a tendency to sit on the flat side of the note which becomes really worrying in the later section beginning “Unsrer Liebe?” where his tuning becomes very suspect indeed. For some reason he is much surer in intonation in the Third Act; were the recordings taken from different performances?. He rises to his hysterical outpourings with real involvement and dramatic fire. Nor does he lack lyricism in his contemplative “Wie so selig” (CD 3, track 7).
Sarah Connolly is a superb Brangaene, as one would expect, not at all overpowered by the Wagnerian orchestra. It is a shame that her big solo from the watchtower in the Second Act is phrased with such delicacy that it is sometimes almost inaudible from offstage; this despite the diaphanous playing of the orchestra - CD 2, track 5. Andrzej Dobber as Kurwenal sounds very young by the side of his master in Act One, and his responses to the Shepherd at the beginning of Act Three are rather matter-of-fact. One misses the inwardness of singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Eberhard Waechter here. In a line like “Schreckliche Zauber!” he resorts to a sort of Bayreuth bark which disturbs the musical line (CD 3, track 6, 11.03).
George Zeppenfeld is a tower of strength as the betrayed King, with a real richness of tone and beautiful sound. This is immeasurably superior singing to his King Henry in the Bayreuth Lohengrin three years later, where one suspects he may have been suffering from the appalling characterisation imposed on him by the producer. It is not unknown for the part of Melot to be taken by a baritone - Bernd Weikl did it for Karajan’s later recording - but Wagner did specify the part for a tenor. It has become almost a custom for this small role to be assigned to an up-and-coming heldentenor as a vehicle on which to cut his teeth. Trevor Scheunemann certainly sounds very baritonal indeed. It is hard to believe that the role could not have been more appropriately cast. The smaller roles - Shepherd, Steersman and Young Sailor are well taken, although again the unaccompanied solo for the latter from offstage discloses some slightly suspect tuning. Andrew Kennedy doesn’t really get the ultimate sense of desolation which can be wrung out of a line like “Öd und leer das Meer” (CD 3, track 3, 3.01).
The audience is very well-behaved indeed. There is one unfortunate cough during the passage where Isolde and Brangaene are discussing the merits of their relative potions during Act One, but none of the hacking that interrupted Böhm’s live Bayreuth performance which I reviewed recently. The applause at the end of each Act is edited down to a sensible half a minute or so; oddly enough the DVD recording of the original cast cut out the applause altogether. The recorded balance is generally very good, with the singers only occasionally caught off-mike. The orchestra comes through well with plenty of detail audible. The production, like many of these new Glyndebourne sets, is handsomely packaged with plenty of photographs, text and English translation. There are synopses in English, French and German. I am afraid that the miscellaneous drawbacks noted in this review can hardly lead to an endorsement for this set over the many excellent recordings in the current catalogue except for those who want a souvenir of the Glyndebourne performances or these particular singers. One would certainly have enjoyed this performance immensely in the opera house, but for home listening without the benefit of the stage presence one might look elsewhere.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Tristan und Isolde

One would certainly have enjoyed this performance immensely in the opera house, but for home listening without the benefit of the stage presence one might look elsewhere.

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