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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865) [3:30:57]
Juyeon Song (soprano), Isolde; Roy Cornelius Smith (tenor), Tristan; Tamaro Gallo (mezzo-soprano), Brangäne; John Paul Huckle (bass), King Marke; Brian Davis (baritone), Kurwenal; Alexander Kaimbacher (tenor), Melot, Hirt, A young sailor, the Shepherd; Siarhei Zubkevich (tenor), A steersman
Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert Reimer
rec. 31 August – 1 September 2019, EMANACJE International Music Festival, Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland
NAVONA NV6321 [3 CDs: 210:59]

Reviewing etiquette, respect for artists who put themselves forward in the service of music and common human decency all conspire to compromise my objectivity in assessing this recording but I struggle to comprehend why it was released by the small, specialist label Navona Records as I cannot imagine that it will generate much in the way of sales given its quality against the strength and depth of the competition – but I hope I’m wrong. As it has only just been issued I did not include it in my survey of recordings over two years ago, but even if it had been available, I would not have been able to endorse it.

It is a recording underwritten by the Claude Heater Foundation. If that name sounds familiar, he was a Met baritone who is best known for his Melot in the famous 1966 performances at Bayreuth. After his retirement, he took up teaching and the soprano here was one of his students. He died earlier this year so this issue acts as a kind of memorial to him – but whether it does him honour is questionable.

At nine-and-a-half minutes, the overture is the antithesis of Bernstein’s and the sound of the orchestra is lean and wiry – no plush, upholstered “Karajan-sound” here. This is no bad thing if you like your Tristan to be more propulsive like Böhm’s but to me it simply sounds rushed and rather perfunctory; the same is true of the hurried Liebestod a mere three-and-a-half hours later. Otherwise, there is no denying that Reimer’s urgent manner pushes the drama along excitingly and he secures passable playing from what can hardly have been a top band and who are clearly not accustomed to playing this music. His preference for swift tempi pays dividends at the start of Act 2, for example; nonetheless, some key orchestral passages, such as the ominous choral progression just before Tristan dares to accede to Isolde’s summons on board ship in the First Act, are seriously under-powered.

The next voice we hear is the strong, rather nasal tenor of the Young Sailor sung by Alexander Kaimbacher, who economically sings no fewer than four of the supporting roles, leaving only the Steersman to another singer. Neither the Isolde nor the Brangaene has much velvet in her voice; both tend towards a beat or wobble and their shared harshness of tone sometimes makes them sound oddly similar. Gallo is often sour-voiced and very matronly, making one long for Ludwig, especially at the beginning of Act 2, where she makes some really ugly sounds. According to one online reviewer, Korean soprano Juyeon Song is “an interesting interpreter, better in fact than either Flagstad or Nilsson, great as their voices were” – a bold claim which is hardly backed up by what may be heard here. She has some big, hooty top notes, is unafraid to try to use her lower register and enunciates the text feelingly but she hasn’t the rapt steadiness to deliver “Er sah mir in die Augen” as it should be and her intonation is wavery in that passage. She shirks the top A on “Nun hör, wie ein Held/Eide hält!”, of which Nielsen makes such a climactic point; the subsequent top Bs, shortly after, on “mit ihr gab er es preis!” and “mir lacht das Abenteuer!" are more sustained but turn shaky. She hasn’t really the sustained power of a true hochdramatische soprano in the middle regions of her voice; legato is weak, her intensity flags and her delivery is pinched and gusty. Time and again moments of high drama pass by, so “für tiefstes Weh, für höchstes Leid” goes for little and the overwhelming import and significance of the drinking of the Love Potion passes tamely. She is painfully flat in the Act 2 Love Duet “O sink hernieder” where again, intonation is a problem - and is in general throughout. The lack of body in the middle of her voice is particularly egregious in the Liebestod which is wobbly and unsteady – frankly, a bit painful rather than being the vehicle whereby the listener is elevated to heights of ecstasy. Her final note on “Lust” pretty much sums up the problem.

I find Roy Cornelius Smith’s Tristan to be similarly under-powered and lacking in both distinction and tonal beauty, his tenor having a husky, plaintive note to it and lacking centre and penetration. He tends to lunge and heave at phrases. The challenges of the Act 2 “Telegramme Duet” defeat both singers and he alternately croons and forces in the Love Duet. Like all but the greatest tenors who essay this killer of a role, he tires badly – a weakness not helped by the fact that apparently the poor singers sometimes had to rehearse, record and perform all on the same day. Nonetheless, he comes into his best form in Act 3 and there are extended passages in his delirium when he copes really well; oddly, his fatigue shows more via a beat when he sings softly, such as in his vision of Isolde’s approaching ship, which is lumpily delivered, without the rapt restraint it requires. This makes me fear that he is over-working his voice to maintain volume in the most strenuous passages – though of course there is always the get-out that Tristan should sound mortally wounded and perhaps comparisons with the likes of Melchior and Vickers are unfair. Just getting through this role as well he does deserves credit as a major achievement but when Tristan’s Act 3 ravings form the highpoint of a performance, that indicates the problems elsewhere.

No vocal balm or relief is forthcoming from John Paul Huckle, whose bass is sorely afflicted by a dreadful wobble. It always astonishes me that any young singer is encouraged or even allowed to pursue a career on the operatic stage when it must be obvious that his voice is afflicted by a pathological technical defect. Listening to him labour through his long lament makes it seem as tedious as its critics claim – yet when I listen to Martti Talvela or Gwynne Howell sing it, I experience no such ennui. Thankfully, Alexander Kaimbacher brings a nice, firm, resonant baritone to his wholly apt and convincing portrayal of a young, virile, Kurwenal, more like Tristan’s contemporary rather than the devoted uncle some make him out to be. His is the tonally purest, best produced and most satisfyingly Wagnerian voice here, in fact; he sings key phrases like “es kann nicht mehr lang säumen” with great control and tenderness.

Recording in a spacious venue has resulted in the sound being rather reverberant but not excessively so. This comes in a slimline, cardboard digipack and thus has no libretto – but the German text and English translation can easily be found online. Given its manifest weaknesses compared with established classic recordings this cannot be recommended.

Ralph Moore

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