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Wagner tristan C210123
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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Tristan: Peter Seiffert (tenor); Isolde: Nina Stemme (soprano); König Marke: Stephen Milling (bass); Kurwenal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher (baritone); Brangäne: Janina Baechle (mezzo-soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, June 2013, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria
No libretto
ORFEO C210123 [3 CDs: 224]

Tristan und Isolde is my favourite opera. I have spent more time listening to various recordings of it than any other and chose some of my favourites in my survey of 2018 – and I found listening to this newly issued live recording from 2013 a profoundly depressing experience.

The sound is dim, removed and lacking depth, recorded at too low a level with a fair amount of ambient noise; turning up the volume seems to make little difference and it is so lacking in impact that as a result, for example, the baleful, melancholy Prelude to Act III makes insufficient impact and the cor anglais remains resolutely remote.

The cast consists of a once-fine tenor who by this stage of his career – nearly sixty – had lost all the velvet in his voice and is visibly labouring, a soprano whose persistent wobble I find maddening and otherwise a roster of indifferent supporting singers unknown to me, apart from the usually estimable Stephen Milling as King Mark. From Stemme’s first shrieks the tone is set and it is not long after Seiffert’s first entry that you hear him start to yell; the strained bleat in his tone during what should be the rousing conclusion to Act I is painful. The love duet is marred by his very nasal crooning, and neither he nor Stemme is helped there by their conductor, who so often seems reluctant to build and hold climaxes but instead pushes on. Seiffert struggles manfully through the punishing marathon of Act III but I have no desire to listen again to his straining, shouting and wobbling.

Stemme has a few good, full, round notes in her voice around A flat but so much of the time the pulse obtrudes, right the way through to the Liebestod. That issue with her voice is inherent; it was already perceptible in her 2004 studio recording with Domingo for EMI and by this stage the flaw is much more apparent - and she seems to do something very strange at 3:23, track 4, in the Love Duet where suddenly a top C is momentarily sounded – most peculiar.

Janina Baechle’s Brangäne is strangely anonymous and her tone also spreads and pulses in her long lines; one longs for the effulgence of Christa Ludwig. Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal is similarly loose and unsteady in tonal emission – his prolonged, flapping top E on “Mein Tristan” as Tristan awakens and another top F at 7:40 in track 3 are simply horrible. Stephen Milling delivers a solid, rather laboured and pedestrian Mark of no special distinction when one has predecessors such as - going back many years - Ivar Andresen, Kipnis, Frantz, Talvela, Sotin, Howell and Moll ringing in one’s ears and frankly Milling’s Mark falls into the most obvious trap of sounding a bit of an old bore.

Welser-Möst’s conducting is perfunctory. The Prelude sounds rushed and he has a penchant for clipping phrases as if he were conducting Telemann and afraid to let the music breathe. He completely fails to find the mystery and menace in the sequence of chords heralding Tristan’s first approach to Isolde (CD 1, track 6); it is extraordinarily prosaic and not helped by the remote sound picture.

I am baffled that anyone thought this was worth issuing nearly a decade after the performance, given the quality of so many alternatives.

Ralph Moore
Other cast
Melot: Eijiro Kai (bass); Ein Hirt: Carlos Osuna (tenor); Ein Steuermann: Markus Pelz (tenor); Ein Seemann: Jinxu Xiahou (tenor)

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