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Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde / Jurowski, Kerl, Kampe, Dobber, Connolly

Wagner / Kampe / London Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 09/24/2013 
Label:  Glyndebourne Festival Opera   Catalog #: 019-09  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Peter GijsbertsenGeorg ZeppenfeldSarah ConnollyTorsten Kerl,   ... 
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic OrchestraGlyndebourne Festival Chorus
Number of Discs: 3 
Length: 3 Hours 47 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Recorded live at Glyndebourne Festival 2009.

3 CD set including libretto and synopsis, 227 minutes.

This somewhat frustrating recording of a live Glyndebourne performance of Tristan und Isolde is, I am bound to say, the most consistently well-sung performance of the opera since the highly truncated 1936 Covent Garden performance with Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Sabina Kalter, Herbert Janssen, and Ludwig Weber (conductor Fritz Reiner). I will go into the various glories of the singing in a moment, but I hasten to add that the microphone placement often defeats the performance. This is now the fourth Glyndebourne live opera performance I’ve reviewed Read more (Britten’s Peter Grimes and Midsummer Night’s Dream in previous issues of Fanfare, Rossini’s Cenerentola in this issue), and the problems are fairly constant in each, though worst of all in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: distant microphone placement. Of course, I can’t see where they place the mikes in the theater, but it sounds to me as if it’s in front of the orchestra by two or three rows, close enough to catch most (but not all) of the orchestral sound but often too far from the singers. It wasn’t too bad in Cenerentola and Peter Grimes, but in an opera like this one, where the singers are not only dramatic protagonists but also perform the function of soloists within the orchestra (which was, of course, one of Wagner’s great innovations and one reason why his operas are always so fascinating to me), this is very frustrating. Thus, to my ears at least, this recording is as frustrating as the famous Orange Festival outdoor concert performance with Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers (Karl Böhm conducting). In fact, in a certain sense it may be worse, because the engineers of that ill-fated Nilsson-Vickers performance didn’t have much of a choice—they couldn’t stop the winds from blowing across the microphones, muffling the sound—whereas in the controlled environment of an indoor theater, there really is no excuse for this. Particularly now, in the digital age, I can’t think of any other live performance given at any major opera house in the world—not the Mariinsky, not Paris or Covent Garden, the Met, Dallas, San Francisco, Lyons, Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, etc.—that has as poor microphone placement as Glyndebourne. Really and truly, their engineers should be ashamed of themselves. The sound here is just as poor as in the act 2 of Götterdämmerung, conducted by Furtwängler and featuring Frida Leider and Lauritz Melchior, from Covent Garden back in 1938.

And in this case I would probably not have come down so hard on them if it weren’t for the fact that this really is a helluva performance otherwise. Anja Kampe, though not quite on the same level dramatically as Nina Stemme, can give the Swedish soprano a run for her money as Isolde. Indeed, Kampe is a more consistent vocalist than latter-day Stemme; the voice never teeters on the brink of tremolo, never spreads under pressure, and as a review in The Observer stated, the voice is “forceful, pinging the center of every note, never squally, always lyrical.” But like Nilsson, her interpretation is just generically dramatic. She never quite reaches the heights of interpretation that such great artists as Leider, Martha Mödl, or Stemme (in my personal opinion, the three greatest Isoldes on record) did. This is not a knock on her; some singers just don’t “feel” the character as deeply as others; and there is, as I say, no question that this is the best-sung Isolde since Flagstad in 1936.

Torsten Kerl, whose singing in a Rienzi DVD so impressed me a while back, gives an equally good performance here as Tristan. I am not going to pretend that he comes within the same zip code as the Melchior of 1936—there isn’t a tenor who does, not even Vickers—but he is at least as good as Windgassen’s commercial recording (also with Nilsson), not as heavy and leaden-sounding as Ludwig Suthaus, and more consistently steady and “pinging” up top than René Kollo (with Margaret Price and Carlos Kleiber) or Stephen Gould (with Stemme and Janowski). But, again, he is just adequate here as a vocal actor; both Melchior and Gould surpass him in nuanced expression. His best acting comes in the act 3 scenes with Kurwenal, and it is just good with a small g. Melchior, particularly in 1936, was extremely moving and realistic-sounding as the wounded Tristan. Also, as a high tenor with a high voice placement, he is particularly challenged by the low tessitura of “O sink’ herneider.” Yes, he reaches the notes, but just barely, and doesn’t sound either comfortable or seductive. But—and I continue to stress this—sheerly as a vocal performance of the role, he is excellent. I should mention, however, that unlike the Stemme-Gould recording, this one uses the standard edition of the love duet, not the full 36-minute score.

As the cast emerges, character by character, the singing continues to impress. Dobber is both a solid voice and a superb actor as Kurwenal (in fact, I find his voice more beautiful by far than Herbert Janssen, the Kurwenal of the 1936 performance), and bass Georg Zeppenfeld is a better singer than both Ludwig Weber (1936) and Kwangchul Youn (with Stemme-Janowski), though not quite in the same league with the best King Markes, Alexander Kipnis and René Pape. Sarah Connolly is as excellent a Brangäne as was Kalter in 1936, in fact better than Ruth Hesse in the Nilsson-Vickers performance, and as one goes through the performance all of the singers of smaller roles impress you, particularly the meltingly lovely voice of tenor Andrew Kennedy as the Shepherd. Jurowski’s conducting also lies somewhat on the surface, as is so often the case with young conductors nowadays. This is not to say he is entirely glib—on the contrary, he has a good sense of drama and knows when to “sing” lyrically and when to bring out the drama—but you have to turn to Furtwängler, Böhm, or Janowski for truly great conducting that brings out details you don’t notice in everyone else’s performances.

The bottom line, then, is that this performance gives lie to the claim (made generally by archival record collectors) that you can’t stage a first-rate cast of any Wagnerian opera nowadays, that the glory days all belong to a dim past (“they just don’t make ‘em like Flagstad, Varnay, or Nilsson anymore….Whatever happened to Vickers and James King?….No Heldentenor is any good since Melchior retired….” Etc., etc.). This recording, from a purely vocal perspective, is as good in its own way as the 1936 Covent Garden version. But the new nasty copyright laws in the U.S. prohibit people from acquiring recordings that are nearly 100 years old because they’re afraid it will cut into their profits on the Beatles and Elvis Presley, so unless you already own the old Naxos Historical issue of that performance, legally you can’t buy it any more. Yet the fact remains that two of the best recordings of this complex and difficult opera are latter-day productions. I’m sure that any serious listener will want the Stemme-Gould-Janowski version for its completeness, its greater dramatic impact and its more nuanced conducting, but if you want to just hear the opera sung gloriously from start to finish, you’ll want this one too. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about the bizarre sonics.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

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Works on This Recording

Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Peter Gijsbertsen (Tenor), Georg Zeppenfeld (Bass), Sarah Connolly (Mezzo Soprano),
Torsten Kerl (Tenor), Anja Kampe (Soprano), Andrzej Dobber (Baritone),
Andrew Kennedy (Tenor), Richard Mosley-Evans (Tenor), Trevor Scheunemann (Baritone)
Conductor:  Vladimir Jurowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857-1859; Germany 

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