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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1868) [241.00]
Waltraud Meier (mezzo) - Isolde: Jon Fredric West (tenor) - Tristan: Marjana Lipovsek (mezzo) - Brangäne: Bernd Weikl (baritone) - Kurwenal: Kurt Moll (bass) - King Marke: Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor) - Melot: Kevin Conners (tenor) - Shepherd: Ulrich Ress (tenor) - Young sailor: Hans Willbrink (baritone) - Steersman
Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. National Theatre, Munich, 1998
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo, DD 2.0
Picture Format: 16:9
DVD Format: DVD 9 & DVD 5 / NTSC
Subtitle Languages: German (Original Language), English, French, Dutch, Japanese, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100057 DVD [161.00 + 80.00]

One wonders what King Ludwig, who sponsored the first performance of Tristan in this very theatre, really thought of the music that he heard in 1868. His enthusiasm for Wagner really stemmed from the scores for Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The opening chord of the new work - branching out into realms of atonality - must presumably have startled him as much as it mystified its first audience (including Berlioz) when Wagner performed the Prelude in a Paris concert some five years earlier. Zubin Mehta, who conducts here, certainly relishes the music. In the days before he cast himself in the role of director for mega-media tenor circuses, he was a conductor to be reckoned with. His interpretation here brings decided memories of Solti’s hyper-heated traversal of the score on disc some twenty years earlier. There are other things here which underline that parallel: the recorded balance gives full weight to the orchestra, often at the expense of the voices who are subsumed within the waves of sound emanating from the pit. Some of the singers, as in Solti’s recording, do not emerge from the contest unscathed.
Waltraud Meier was the nonpareil among Kundrys for many years, and her Isolde has some of the same attributes. She is a riveting actress, clearly relishing every word of the text; but she is better in anger than in romance. Her voice lacks the sense of femininity that one finds with singers such as Helga Dernesch or (more recently) Nina Stemme, and which she has subsequently demonstrated in her performances of Sieglinde. She has no trouble with the top notes, although they clearly tax her to the limit of her resources; but she has to take a breath in the middle of her expansive line just before she extinguishes the torch. Her top Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet are flicked at rather than delivered with full voice. She remains fresh-toned throughout, and even though the Liebestod in front of a drop curtain finds her in severe danger of being overwhelmed by the orchestra she never quite succumbs. She is rightly given the biggest ovation of all at the end.
A further parallel with Solti’s recording is to be found in Jon Frederick West’s Tristan, who has more than a passing similarity to Solti’s Fritz Uhl: a voice working at the very limits of its strength, and despite intelligent use sounding a size too small for the role. He is also rather a dramatic cipher, keeping his eyes firmly glued on the prompt box and the conductor even during the most romantic of his entanglements with Isolde. In the final Act he generally manages to make himself heard clearly over the orchestra, although sometimes he has to resort to a species of Sprechstimme in order to do so.
Marjana Lipovsek is a properly involved Brangäne, and she and Meier make a good dramatic impact during Act One but she too is overwhelmed in places by Mehta’s boiling delivery of the orchestral score. Most unfortunately her delivery of her Warning during the Love Duet is unsteady and plaintive in tone, which cannot have been helped by the producer’s bringing her onto the stage to place nightlights around the lovers like some over-eager gooseberry. During her second interruption she is properly kept offstage, but then has to force her voice to be audible over the orchestra.
Bernd Weikl’s Kurwenal, on the other hand, simply seems out of sorts, with a voice that sounds woolly and aged in the wrong sort of way. He was singing much better than this in other recordings at the time, and one suspects he may have been ill. As it is he doesn’t really wring our heartstrings in Act Three in the way a Kurwenal in top form can. Kurt Moll is a fine King Mark, but in the final scene he also sounds undesirably grey of tone. The other members of the cast are fine, but nothing special; Claes H Ahnsjö is a very lightweight Melot.
The production by Peter Konwitschny at first generally adheres pretty closely to Wagner’s stage directions - no appearance of King Mark at the end of Act One, for example - but when it departs from them it does not do so effectively. The young sailor at the beginning is present on stage; and at the end of Act One the lovers are entangled with each other long before they drink what they imagine is the poison which will loosen their constraints in the face of anticipated death. This leaves them with very little to do during the long orchestral passage after they have drunk the potion. At the end of Act One, by the way, the final offstage chord on the trumpets is cut off very abruptly - presumably to avoid the audience reaction, which is edited out; was there booing interspersed with the applause? The wounding of Tristan by Melot at the end of Act Two is rather botched, and it is far from clear what actually happens here. Before that Tristan and Isolde have sat on each side of King Mark while they exchange their vows to follow each other, which seems rather like unnecessarily rubbing salt into the wound.
However in Act Three the departures from Wagner’s original scenario are more obtrusive, and much less convincing. We appear to be situated in a hospital room with a large functional central heating radiator, and Tristan has been provided with a slide projector on which he seems to be viewing his childhood holiday photographs. The shepherd is kept offstage during the opening scene, which robs his short dialogue with Kurwenal of any sense of pathos. Later two cor anglais players in ordinary concert dress wander onto the scene as Tristan describes the death of his parents. Tristan comes forward, takes the cor anglais from one of them to examine it, then hands it back and the two of them walk off again. What this is meant to signify God only knows.
In his booklet note Konwitschny says that he wanted to avoid the view of Tristan as a tragedy - although surely nobody would regard Isolde’s ecstatic Verklärung (to employ Wagner’s own description of the Liebestod) as a tragic ending? His solution is simply nonsensical. As Isolde sings her lament over the dead Tristan the latter comes back to life, and the two of them wander off to the front of the stage, remaining to watch callously as their friends slaughter each other in a battle to occupy the hospital room. They then draw a curtain over the scene and Isolde stands in front of this to sing her Liebestod directly to Tristan. After that they move off to the side of the stage together, as the drop curtain parts to show King Mark and Brangäne standing in contemplation of a pair of coffins. I’m not sure how this is less tragic than Wagner’s original, but it fights every inch of the way against his transfigured music at the close.
The set designs really do nothing for Konwitschny’s concept. The primary colours throughout are simply horrible. Act One is set on the deck of a cruise liner, with Isolde and Brangäne seated on sun-loungers sipping cocktails - the young sailor brings them refills. Tristan is discovered shaving in his cabin, and when he appears later on deck to visit Isolde, he still has shaving foam on his chin - presumably to enable him to offer her a razor with which to cut his throat. In Act Two Isolde’s torch looks like a gaudy Christmas decoration; and Tristan drags on a violently coloured yellow sofa for his encounter with Isolde, which looks absolutely ridiculous. I have already discussed the travesty that is Act Three in the preceding paragraphs.
The video production by Brian Large is a model of showing us what we need to see, and manages on occasion to minimise what we would rather not see. One only wishes that his successors in the production of operas for DVD were similarly circumspect. The subtitles in English derive from William Mann’s translation originally made for Covent Garden in 1968; I have discussed their deficiencies in earlier reviews, and can only repeat what I said then: “The translation itself is at once too literal and too free in tone - Der Welt-Atems wehendem All simply does not have the proper transcendent atmosphere when it is rendered as The cosmic breath’s gusty totality.” To describe Isolde as a “spruce colleen” is no more apt as a description of Waltraud Meier than it was of Gwyneth Jones.
When it was originally released back in 1999, this was only the second representation of Tristan und Isolde on video; it had been preceded by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Bayreuth production. It also appeared at some later date as a cover-mounted DVD on a periodical magazine, and now re-emerges in a new release. It was not universally well received as a production on its first appearance, and the musical performance was not regarded as sufficiently good to redeem it. In the intervening years versions of Tristan on DVD and film have proliferated, so it would need to be exceptionally good to justify its continuance in the catalogue. The Glyndebourne production from 2004 is streets ahead of this, despite the obnoxious and inexcusable cut in the Love Duet, and Nina Stemme has a much more natural Isolde voice than does Meier here. Meier herself is heard to better advantage in Barenboim’s CD set, as is Weikl in Bernstein’s. Even Ponnelle’s Bayreuth staging, with its equally wrong-headed treatment of the final scene, is better than this; and for sheer beauty of set design there is no comparison.
No, unless you are a Wagner completist who wants copies of every available production, it would be better to look almost anywhere else for a Tristan DVD. Apart from a booklet note on the origins of the work, a brief memorandum by the producer, and a synopsis, there are no extras. 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Tristan und Isolde

Previous review: Frank Cadenhead