Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde- music-drama in three acts (1859)
Stephen Gould - Tristan
Nina Stemme - Isolde
Michelle Breedt - Brangäne
Johan Reuter - Kurwenal
Kwangchul Youn - König Marke
Simon Pauly - Melot
Clemens Bieber - Shepherd
Arttu Kataja - Steersman
Timothy Fallon - Young Sailor
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, in concert, Berlin Philharmonie, 27 March 2012
PENTATONE PTC5186404 [3 CDs: 76:45 + 75:39 + 72:35]
Marek Janowski’s Wagner cycle is a laudable project with worthy ambition, but releases like this will do the conductor’s reputation no favours. His approach to this great score is inconsistent, badly realised and often infuriating, a good second half failing to redeem a poor first half.
Things do not get off to a good start. Janowski’s preference for fast tempi has, previously in his cycle, brought moments of revelation or welcome lightness. In this recording they are a serious problem. The bizarre paradox is that, when you look at his act timings objectively they don’t seem that fast, but they sure as heck feel it. In fact, the conductor appears to push the first half of the opera along in a manner that is at best distracting and at worst actively damaging. In his hands the Prelude is given no space to unfold: instead it is pushed and pulled through its spaces as if Janowski were impatient to get to the singers, paying little heed to the sensuous ebb and flow of the line and lacking all allure. For the string theme at the entry of Tristan before his Act 1 duet with Isolde, Janowski chops up the line as though he were conducting with a carving knife, unforgivably destroying the continuity of the passage in a manner I found infuriating. He calms this down for the passage after the drinking of the potion, which does seem to pause for breath, but the helter-skelter pacing of the lovers’ ensuing ecstatic duet makes neither dramatic nor musical sense, and the end of the act seems to arrive in a blur of confusion. It’s a very unsatisfying end to the first disc, and things barely improve as the second begins with a rather hasty scene in the garden. Janowski’s impatience finally pays dividends in evoking the anticipation and eventual consummation of the lovers in the fast, ecstatic section of the love duet. When he finally does slow down, in O sink hernieder, it comes as a blessed relief and helps to point up the sheer beauty of that passage. Perhaps that was Janowski’s objective all along, to draw attention to that key passage through contrast, but if it was then it didn’t work for me because it casts off so much of the rest of the score en route and ends up making his vision of the score sound uneven and badly worked out. Maybe I was just becoming bad-tempered with it by the start of the third act, but for me even the desperate torment of the Act Three prelude feels chivvied along and impatient, a double shame because the string playing that sustains it is so soulful and deep. At least Janowski has the presence of mind to vary the pacing of Tristan’s great monologues, though, and there is enough compelling drama there to rescue this section of the work. The final problem comes with the Liebestod where the issue is not pacing so much as lack of scale. In fact, the orchestra entirely fails to provide the appropriate sense of climax - in every sense - that is required here. In particular, the great orchestral overflowing on the word Weltatems simply doesn’t happen, and it’s incredibly disappointing. Janowski seems intent on producing a sound that approximates almost to chamber music at this point, failing entirely to provide the ecstatic orchestral finale to accompany Isolde’s transfiguration.
For me, the conducting is so badly judged that I’m afraid it rules this Tristan out of court, for me, as a serious library choice. That’s in spite of some truly excellent singing from the principals, though it has to be said the even Nina Stemme, one of the finest Wagner singers of our generation, seems uncomfortable at the start of the performance. Perhaps it’s down to the issues surrounding a live performance, but she take a noticeably long time to warm up. Her opening exchanges with Brangäne sound unfocused and her Act 1 narrative lacks punch. It isn’t until the long Act 1 duet with Tristan that she finds her footing, but admittedly, once she finds it she does so triumphantly. In fact, her performance grows in stature as the work progresses, and her invocation to Frau Minne in Act 2 rings with the compelling authority of her Isolde at its finest. This gives way to an excellent account of the love duet and culminates in a Liebestod which is very well sung indeed. However, as I’ve mentioned above, this too is hamstrung by the conductor’s failure to produce a sufficient sense of climax. Stephen Gould gives a compellingly different portrayal of Tristan. His dark-hued voice conveys vulnerability and humanity with never a hint of Heldentenor abrasion and a good deal of honeyed beauty. He is especially fine in the great monologues of the third act, which see him running a huge gamut of emotions with total commitment and compelling honesty. He evokes frailty and disillusion in the opening section and utter devastation as he recalls the death of his father and mother, rising to self-destructive nihilism at the curse on the drink and ecstatic frenzy as he looks forward to Isolde’s arrival. It’s an extraordinary portrayal, made all the more interesting for the fact that it is so unreservedly musical. Gould’s is a Tristan for the ages. The great love duet finds Gould and Stemme at their best. The ecstatic first section holds no challenges for them, and the beautiful, symbiotic sound they make for O sink hernieder is sensational, the highlight of the set, a wonderful blend of voices and instrumental lines and - at last! - a sympathetic conductor. Their concluding exchange, after King Mark’s monologue, about entering the land of night is also extremely beautiful and in places very moving.
Johan Reuter is an outstanding Kurwenal, virile, exciting and lyrical in the first Act, sympathetic and admirable in the third: in his interpretation Tristan’s old friend is clearly way out of his depth in dealing with the situation at Kareol, and he is the most humanely sympathetic character in the drama. Kwangchul Youn is also a breathtakingly good King Mark. In a role whose longueurs can try the patience, I found myself continually beguiled by the sheer beauty of his voice, something very special. For once I actually found myself sympathising with him through some excellent vocal acting refracted through the prism of a truly remarkable voice. The minor male roles are well taken, with special mention to the exciting Melot of Simon Pauly. However, Michelle Breedt is a squally and histrionic Brangäne, a strain on the ear in the first act and barely improving in the second. Her offstage warnings during the love duet are straightforward enough but are distinctly workaday, especially in comparison with her company.
The playing of the orchestra remains very good indeed, though, and you have to admire the way they give Janowski their full commitment, even if you don’t always agree with what they’re being asked to do. The recording is also very good, capturing the off-stage effects as effectively as it picks up the orchestral details, especially the strings which are favoured by the microphone balance.
Part good, part not, then, but if you’re prepared to hear the top class singing then you also have to be prepared to hold your nose and come to terms with some very trying conductorial decisions.
Simon Thompson
Part good, part not but top class singing filtered through some very trying conductorial decisions. 

Masterwork Index: Tristan und Isolde