Notes and Editorial Reviews
Alert Wagner collectors actually got a kind of preview of this Tristan, the equivalent of a movie trailer, on a Telarc disc (CD/SACD-60661) released just a month before this Warner set. That recording holds, in addition to Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung and Four Last Songs, Donald Runnicles’s and Christine Brewer’s act I “Prelude and Liebestod” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Those excerpts don’t prepare one for the success of this complete T & I, derived from live performances at London’s Barbican Hall in late 2002 and early 2003. The “Prelude” in Atlanta didn’t generate much tension; in the context of a complete performance, Runnicles takes about a minute and a half longer and the mood is set for four hours of leadership from the podium that never flags in its dramatic impetus. He makes the most of extended passages for orchestra alone—the music accompanying Tristan’s arrival in act II, which conveys the lovers’ desperate desire, or the mournful opening to act III. Runnicles has a superb orchestra to work with; listen to the hunting horns at the outset of act II or the cor anglais solos in the final act.
The main attraction of this Tristan (but certainly not the only one!) is Brewer. Her voice is enormous, never seeming stressed: earthy down low and confident up top. Impressive as her power, stamina, and beauty of tone is, it must be said that Brewer doesn’t always nail the emotional state of the Irish princess—her frustration in act I with a situation she doesn’t have much control over, for instance. When she repeats Brangäne’s words “Wie lenkt’ er sicher den Kiel zu König Markes Land?” her inflection isn’t mocking enough, and Isolde’s Curse is less devastating than others have made it. But Brewer’s very convincing at the start of act II, gloriously heedless of Brangäne’s warnings. Her “Liebestod” manifests a radiant strength.
John Treleaven can’t but seem a bit small playing opposite this leviathan vocal presence. The disparity of their voices is most apparent in the first half of their act II love duet but post-coitally, when the lovers’ exchanges turn tender and philosophical, things are much better. “O sink hernieder,” which depends a lot less on sheer muscle, is very successful as Brewer seems to scale back her instrument and the two, with Runnicles’s knowing support, generate some real magic. The distant interjections from Brangäne contribute to the sense of the outside world fading away. The culmination of this scene, “So starben wir, um ungetrennt,” is exactly right in tone, a firm welcoming of their shared fate. Treleaven survives act III by pacing himself well. He doesn’t take any Vickers-like chances, but always manages to sound in control, his voice remaining appealing to the end.
Peter Rose also has an attractive voice and portrays a very different sort of Marke—a monarch that’s perhaps just 10 or 15 years older than Tristan, rather than the elderly widower usually represented. Even if some gravitas is lost—the kind that René Pape provides in spades—a more youthful sounding Marke adds to the poignancy of the drama: Tristan has wounded not only the honor of his king but also the sexual pride of another potent male.
Boaz Daniel is a bluff and hearty Kurwenal, loyal, dependable, and empathetic. As Brangäne, the Czech mezzo Dagmar Pecková sings gorgeously, presenting a three-dimensional character that is tortured by her decision to switch pharmaceuticals on her mistress. The smaller roles are all nicely covered, particularly Eugene Ginty’s alert-sounding shepherd and Jared Holt’s snake-like Melot.
We get a fairly realistic sonic picture of a concert performance of an opera—soloists in front, orchestra behind them, and men’s chorus to the rear. The orchestral depiction isn’t especially dimensional and dynamics are a bit blunted compared to the best; detail and orchestral weight are satisfactory. The libretto’s offered in three languages, as is an essay by Mike Ashman. No notes on the performers. This Tristan und Isolde certainly doesn’t eclipse the usual suspects—Furtwangler/Sulthaus/Flagstad, Böhm/Windgassen/Nilsson, Karajan/Vickers/Dernesch—or even some recent contenders—Thielemann/Moser/Voigt and Pappano/Domingo/Stemme—but serious Tristan freaks will want this new Warner release, and not just for Brewer’s contribution.
FANFARE: Andrew Quint