Notes and Editorial Reviews
Tristan und Isolde
Marek Janowski, cond; Nina Stemme (
); Michelle Breedt (
); Stephen Gould (
); Arttu Kataja (
); Johan Reuter (
); Timothy Fallon (
); Kwangchul Youn (
); Berlin R S O & Ch
PENTATONE 5186404 (3 SACDs, 224:59
Text and Translation) Live: Berlin 3/27/2012
I have been so critical of other recent Wagner recordings I’ve reviewed that it is an absolute pleasure to say to you: Run out and buy this
I could leave the review at that—anything else I say is bound to be superfluous to the listening experience—but I simply must say
you should run out and buy it. The reason is that this is the most “alive,” dramatic, excitingly sung and conducted performance of the opera since the late Karl Böhm did it at the Orange Festival back in July 1973 with Birgit Nilsson, Ruth Hesse, Jon Vickers, and Thomas Stewart in the cast. It’s nearly that good in performance quality, and the sonics are immeasurably better since Böhm performed it outdoors and a steady breeze blew across the microphones as it was being recorded.
First, there is Janowski. I’ve liked some of the things he’s done in the past, disliked others, but here he gives us a
very much in the Böhm-Reiner mold, meaning a brisk performance that does not overlook details in the score or underplay the music’s emotional power. Those who prefer the beautiful, otherworldly sound that Furtwängler created may not enjoy this as much (I always felt that Flagstad and especially Suthaus sounded mercilessly earthbound in their singing, nice as their voices were). Here, Janowski has a cast that is “with him” every step of the way, headed by the indomitable Nina Stemme as Isolde. Her voice is not to everyone’s taste: it has the same kind of vibrato, and even a little of the timbre, one heard in Astrid Varnay during her prime, and if anything Stimme is even more dramatic than Varnay. At times the drama of her interpretation matches that of Martha Mödl, and like her she sometimes sacrifices steadiness of voice for dramatic punch. South African contralto Michelle Breedt has a most unusual voice for Brangäne nowadays, in that it has a flicker-vibrato. Her voice sounds very similar in quality to the great Margarete Klose. Tenor Stephen Gould sounds young, lyrical and passionate, all qualities that make for a great Tristan. There is no one he really compares to except perhaps Rudolf Laubenthal, a tenor I always thought got the short end of the critical stick once Lauritz Melchior came along. Gould sings one really strained high note at the end of the
love duet (in act I, after they drink the joy juice), but other than that he’s fine. Johan Reuter, the Kurwenal, has a voice that is simultaneously bright and dark, something like Herbert Janssen in his peak years. It’s a great sound for the role. And yes, in case you were wondering, you get the complete love duet here, all 38 minutes of it, not the usual 29 or so. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn has a slow vibrato, although truthfully not much more wobbly than Emanuel List in the 1936 Flagstad performance, and his timbre is richer and blacker than List’s. He also manages to sing King Marke’s long monologue with much of the sensitivity and drama of Alexander Kipnis.
Despite having been recorded in concert, without stage movement, this performance still grabs one’s attention with its dramatic impetus, as much as Toscanini’s concert performances of Verdi operas did back in the 1940s and early ’50s. You can never substitute for the excitement in a live performance, and this recording certainly provides that in spades. One great example: listen to the third act. I’ve personally never heard
sung this dramatically; it completely rivets you to the speakers and doesn’t let go.
I must also compliment PentaTone for the layout and content of the booklet. Set in what appears to be a font similar to Trebuchet MS in 9-point, each line is spaced at 1.5 which provides a good amount of white space and thus relieves eye strain. The liner notes focus on the music and the things that make it innovative rather than giving one yet another facile history of the opera’s composition.
So, there are your reasons for owning this recording—on top of which, like the cherry on the icing on the cake, it’s in hybrid multichannel SACD sound for those with the equipment to play it thus, but even in “ordinary” stereo it is a tremendous listening experience. Thus again I exhort you to acquire it. Even with Flagstad’s abridged 1936 performance or the Nilsson-Vickers on your shelf, this may become the
you end up playing most often.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley