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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Stuart Skelton (tenor) – Tristan, Gun-Brit Barkmin (soprano) – Isolde, Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano) – Brangäne, Boaz Daniel (baritone) – Kurwenal, Ain Anger (bass) – King Marke, Angus Wood (tenor) – Melot, Paul O’Neill (tenor) – Young Sailor, Shepherd, Andrew Foote (baritone) – Steersman
St George’s Cathedral Consort
West Australian Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Asher Fisch
rec. live, 16 & 19 August 2018, Perth Concert Hall, Australia
ABC CLASSICS 4818518 [3 CDs: 222.01]

On many occasions in the past I have argued in these pages that, whatever the loss in dramatic engagement and verisimilitude, the mature works of Wagner are better served on disc by purpose-made studio recordings. In the first place, the ability to edit the performance means that slips in execution, almost inevitable in scores of this complexity, can be corrected without troubling the listener, as such slips become more and more annoying with repetition, in a manner that can be readily excused in the heat of a live performance. In the second place, audience and stage noise can be avoided – a matter of considerable concern in the many very quiet passages of music. Finally, and probably most crucially of all, the strain imposed on both singers and instrumentalists by the sheer length of the music dramas can be obviated and we can enjoy – for example – a Siegfried and Brünnhilde both in fresh voice for their love duet in a manner that simply cannot be achieved in a theatrical context.

However, listening to this new set of Tristan und Isolde, taken from what are described as live concert performances, I feel almost condemned to eat my words. In the first place, there are no obvious errors at all to be heard in the performances, and in the second, the audience are noticeable for their total lack of any interruption, coughing or shuffling – not even applause at the end of Acts, until a furious burst of acclamation (following a respectful pause) at the very end. Finally, the two principal soloists, confronted with roles that are notorious for the demands they place upon the stamina of singers, sound as fresh at the end of Act Three as they did at the beginning of Act One - but then I noted that the booklet informs us that the recording was made on two separate dates, three days apart, and these discs are therefore taken from two distinct concert performances which may in turn have been subjected to patching sessions under studio conditions – not quite a purely single ‘live’ performance, then, and probably all the better for that.

Some major singers in the past – Margaret Price, Plácido Domingo – who have essayed the principal roles in Tristan und Isolde have done so purely under studio conditions and one can well appreciate why they have been reluctant to undertake the same parts on stage. The part of the male hero in particular is of surpassing difficulty; he has not a great deal to do in Act One until the very end, when he is suddenly launched without much chance to warm up into an impassioned duet. Then in Act Two he has extended passages of quiet lyrical singing, only to be plunged in Act Three into an extended delirium of despair finally culminating in a febrile rejoicing which only (to the singer’s relief) ends with his expiry in Isolde’s arms. It is not at all surprising that many tenors over the years have sought to make cuts in the role, particularly in Acts Two and Three. Such was certainly the practice of Lauritz Melchior, probably the most perfectly fitted of voices for the role whatever his physical shortcomings. In the post-war era Jon Vickers frequently made a quarter-hour cut in the Second Act love duet – obnoxious because it leaves a massive hole in the symbolic argument about Love and Death, Day and Night – but even then he often had to resort to shouting towards the end of Act Three (although his studio recording with Karajan is a model of rectitude in this regard). In the next generation, René Kollo similarly had increasing resort to a vocal line which departed wildly from Wagner’s instructions, as can be heard in live performances on DVD; afterwards Siegfried Jerusalem and Ben Heppner managed to restore some greater degree of faithfulness to the notes in the score. Even so, nothing had prepared me for the superb assumption of the role here by Stuart Skelton; even in the most frenetic passages of Act Three he adheres precisely to the score, and in so doing demonstrates conclusively that the composer knew exactly what he was doing to obtain the maximum dramatic effect without any need for over-acting. His delivery of the lyrical passages in Act Two has a honeyed centre and warmth that is a joy to encounter, and although I balked initially at the rapid pace he adopted in Act Three for the quieter section beginning Wie so selig I found myself convinced by the manner in which he moulded the motion of the melodic line into a quiet effusion of love at the end of its tether.

The concert performances, mounted in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the orchestra, were to have featured Eva-Maria Westbroek as Isolde but she fell ill a few weeks before the due-date, and was replaced by Gun-Brit Barkmin, singing Isolde only for the second time. I encountered this singer for the first time earlier this year when she assumed the role of Brünnhilde for the Naxos Ring cycle from Hong Kong, and when I noted that there were places where she seemed to run out of voice. As Isolde she presents a very young-sounding Irish princess - but is there any reason she should be a mature woman? Her reactions certainly seem to be those of a spirited young girl, and in the parallel Irish version of the same legend Gráinne is specifically described as a young maiden. I was concerned at the beginning of the Liebestod when Barkmin seemed to be drifting slightly sharp, and Asher Fisch took the music at a slightly faster speed than might have been comfortable for her. At the climax, however, as the speed broadened out, she allows her voice to merge into the surge of the orchestra in a manner that exactly mirrors Wagner’s text at this point – sinking below billows of ecstasy – rather than the sheer display of heroic force that we sometimes encounter. Like her Tristan, she never allows herself to be tempted into pushing her tone for the sake of greater emphasis. As I observed when reviewing her Naxos Ring, this is a voice of very great potential which needs to be nurtured and not pushed too far or too fast.

Ekaterina Gubanova as her maid has plenty of experience in her role, and still sounds fresh and concerned in Act One – a pleasant change from some Brangänes who can sound as if they aspire to take on the role of the mistress. Boaz Daniel also presents us with an unusually youthful Kurwenal, not quite the old retainer of Wagner’s text; but he shades his voice beautifully in his concern for his master in Act Three, and after all he does have to be young enough for Tristan to credibly bequeath all his worldly goods to him. The Estonian bass Ain Anger is also a young singer, but he conveys all the grief of the world in his Act Two monologue. Nor do any of those taking smaller roles let the side down, and their biographies included in the booklet testify to their experience in major roles in other operas. This is casting in depth and from strength.

There is, however, one point at which the performance falls short, and that is in the contribution of the male chorus. I know they do not have much to do (just some offstage junketing in Act One) but they sound far too respectable for a crew of rough sailors, and they have also a most unfortunate tendency to sit on the flat side of higher notes. The booklet quotes reviewers who comment favourably on the abilities of the two bodies of choristers involved, but I would hazard a guess that the exigencies of operatic performance have not formed a regular part of their repertoire.

Nor, I presume, have mature Wagnerian music drama formed a regular item in the fare of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra but you would never guess - from the very beginning they are inspired by Asher Fisch to produce a performance that seethes, bubbles and soothes by turns; at no point does one feel any lack of Wagnerian weight, and the conductor pulls no punches in delivering the full impetus of Romantic passion which suffuse this score. The trombone punches in Tristan’s Act Three delirium, which can feel like quick jabs to the solar plexus in some performances, carry a real sense of violence, and the ripping string chords that end Act Two as the mortally wounded Tristan sinks to the ground have the whole weight of the world on their shoulders. Those are just two instances and there are many more places where the performance draws attention to passages often overlooked. This is assisted by the recorded sound, which takes full advantage of the presence of the orchestra on an open stage rather than in an orchestra pit to bring forward passages of counterpoint that can be submerged, like the fluttering flutes as Tristan imagines that he can see the flag of Isolde’s ship approaching.

The balance of the recording is also superbly judged, with the offstage hunting horns at the beginning of Act Two at just the right distance and the tricky exchanges between onstage and offstage characters during the fight following Tristan’s death managed in a manner that makes Wagner’s abrupt kaleidoscopic switching between full orchestra and tremolo strings sound almost natural. The offstage wooden trumpet as Isolde’s ship is sighted in Act Three is in just the right perspective. Praise, too, is due for the layout on disc; Fisher’s rapid speeds (not as extreme as those of Karl Böhm) mean that each of the Acts can be contained on a single CD, without any need to break the continuity of the music.

There are two booklets, containing not only the usual introductory notes and synopsis (brief but informative) but also the complete text with an English translation by Lionel Salter which manages to convey most of the meaning of Wagner’s often tangled prose. However, the printed text omits all the stage directions, which will constitute a real problem for listeners unfamiliar with the work confronted with lengthy passages of orchestra depicting events that cannot be seen or understood - and there will be some listeners who fall into that category. Otherwise, the presentation is all that could be desired, with an atmospheric cover illustration. Indeed, this whole set is far more than simply a celebration of an orchestral jubilee, or a souvenir of a concert; it is a very real contender to be one of the great recordings of Tristan und Isolde on disc.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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