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Audio recordings

April 2013

Birgit Nilsson (soprano: Isolde), Fritz Uhl (tenor: Tristan), Regina Resnik (mezzo-soprano: Brangäne), Tom Krause (baritone: Kurwenal), Arnold van Mill (King Marke), Ernst Kozub (tenor: Melot), Peter Klein (tenor: Shepherd), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor: Young seaman), Theodor Kirschbichler (bass: Steersman), Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Georg Solti

rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, September 1960

Die Walküre (1870): Act Two, Scene Four: Act Three  

Kirsten Flagstad (soprano: Brünnhilde), Otto Edelmann (bass: Wotan), Set Svanholm (tenor: Siegfried), Marianne Schech (soprano: Sieglinde), Oda Balsborg (soprano: Gerhilde), Ilona Steingruber (soprano: Ortlinde), Claire Watson (soprano: Helmwige), Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano: Waltraute), Anny Delorie (mezzo-soprano: Siegrune), Margarethe Bence (mezzo-soprano: Schwertleite), Frieda Roesier (contralto: Grimgerde), Hetty Plümacher (contralto: Rossweise), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Georg Solti

rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 13-27 May 1957

MAJOR CLASSICS M5CD501 [5 CDs, 75.19 + 70.34 + 65.39 + 43.16 + 71.03]

 

This set is marketed as a memorial to Sir Georg Solti (1912-97) but might also be regarded as a testimonial to the beginnings of the partnership between the conductor and John Culshaw, the Decca producer who did so much to promote his recording career. We have here the first two of their collaborations in Wagner which were to culminate in the great recording of the Ring which I enthusiastically reviewed in its latest reissue last year. The two extracts from Die Walküre were indeed regarded by Culshaw as being in the nature of a ‘trial run’ for that recording, in which he and Solti experimented with the stereo staging of the operas for disc; and these sessions were indeed experimental in another sense, as the first time that Solti had conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Wagner.

The results are, as might be expected, a somewhat mixed success. Both the parts of Walküre recorded here are somewhat slower than in the complete cycle; but Solti’s sense of pacing is not as sure-footed as it was to be seven years later. There are some slightly startling changes of speed, for example at the beginning of Wotan’s Der Augen leuchtende Paar (track 9), which (if they are not the result of editing) are somewhat abrupt; and the sounds that Solti and Culshaw obtain from the Vienna Philharmonic are rather brasher than they afterwards became. Nor is the casting anything like as stellar. Four of the Valkyries here (Oda Balsborg, Claire Watson, Grace Hoffman and Hetty Plümacher) went on to take part in the complete Ring, but they hardly match the line-up that Solti assembled in 1964 which included two future Brünnhildes (Helga Dernesch and Berit Lindholm) as well as such stars in the making as Brigitte Fassbaender and Helen Watts. And the rest of the warrior maidens here are an unprepossessing bunch, ill-matched in tone and sometimes almost drowned out by the brutal sounds that Solti conjures from the orchestra. Nor are the recording levels as well judged by Culshaw as he contrived later; in Ring Resounding he explains that he placed the offstage Valkyries in boxes in the hall, but in 1964 he employed multi-studio techniques to much better effect. Marianne Schech, who could often be a squally singer, is steady but hardly imaginative here; and Otto Edelmann, best remembered now for his Ochs in Karajan’s first Rosenkavalier, is a Wotan oddly lacking in bass resonance and hardly in the same league as the much more imaginative and regal Hans Hotter in the complete set. Nor is Set Svanholm, by this stage reaching the end of his career, a very heroic Siegmund in the Todesverkundigung scene; James King in the complete set had a much more appropriate voice, even though Svanholm scores here in many subtle points of interpretation. (Incidentally the extract performed here extends into the beginning of the Fifth Scene, with Siegmund’s opening monologue included and Hagen’s offstage Stierhorn played on bass tubas.)

The main interest in these Walküre extracts comes with the presence of Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde, her only stereo recordings of any part of this role. But it has to be said that she too was coming to the end of her career (she was to die five years later); and the voice is not as noble and magnificent as it had once been, as can be heard in the many live mono recordings that we can now hear. She lacks the sheer heft and sense of command that Birgit Nilsson brought to the role in the complete set, although she is still streets ahead of most of the singers that surround her here.

Five years earlier again Flagstad had recorded Isolde complete (if one discounts the top Cs obligingly furnished for her by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) for EMI with Wilhelm Furtwängler, in mono of course but with sound that still sounds very passable sixty years later. When Birgit Nilsson was first contracted to Decca she insisted that she wanted to record Tristan und Isolde as a condition of her signature, and that the whole contract turned upon that point (Culshaw gives an extensive account of the negotiations in his autobiography Putting the record straight). The conductor originally suggested was Hans Knappersbusch, but Culshaw wanted Solti and he got him. He also wanted Wolfgang Windgassen for Tristan (having failed to persuade Jon Vickers to undertake the role), but that tenor was under exclusive contract to DG and Nilsson was not prepared to wait for that contract to expire. Culshaw therefore turned to Fritz Uhl, a tenor who had been around for some time but had never previously undertaken any of the major Wagnerian roles. He reports in his autobiography that Nilsson’s only comment was that she “had never heard of him.”

In fact Fritz Uhl did an extremely creditable job in this recording, matching Nilsson well in the love duet even if clearly with some assistance from careful placing of the microphones. And he is an intelligent artist who makes the most of his extended scenes in Act Three. After the recording was issued however his subsequent live stage recordings (he can be heard as Erik in a Bayreuth Flying Dutchman, for example) raised serious questions about precisely what the engineers had done to his voice in Tristan to get such impressive results, and his performance here has been discounted by several critics on that basis. However nowadays when Plácido Domingo can sing the role on disc for Pappano without any stage experience in the part, or when Margaret Price can sing Isolde for Carlos Kleiber under the same circumstances, we can perhaps be more understanding; and Uhl would be regarded nowadays as very good. He doesn’t have the unpleasant vibrato that can affect so many heldentenors in the role; and unlike many modern exponents of the part, who bellow their way through the score, he engages fully with the text.

Two years later when Culshaw was looking for a tenor to take the leading role in Siegfried (he was sceptical about Windgassen’s willingness to participate satisfactorily in the concept he had in mind) he does not seem to have even considered Uhl. But he did seriously consider Ernst Kozub, heard here in the small part of Melot, to the extent of offering him a contract. Listening to Kozub here, one can see why – he clearly has a more heroic voice than Uhl, as their brief scene together at the end of Act Two demonstrates – and one can only regret that Kozub’s lack of preparation led to the abandonment of his participation in Siegfried. He too later recorded Erik in The flying Dutchman (for Klemperer), but by that stage his voice sounded no better than had Uhl in Bayreuth. Missed opportunities.

The main raison d’être of this set, however, remains Birgit Nilsson’s first recorded Isolde, and it is a really magnificent assumption of the role. She rides fearlessly over Solti’s orchestra during the First Act, and her Liebestod is radiant. But here she is challenged by her own later Bayreuth recording with Karl Böhm and Wolfgang Windgassen, where with the benefit of several years of stage experience she engages more fully with the words. I personally am not over-fond of Böhm’s sometimes very fast speeds in the music, but the Bayreuth set has generally been preferred by critics.

The rest of the cast is middling to good. We have heard better and more heartfelt performances of King Mark and Brangäne than those here from Arnold van Mill and Regina Resnik (according to Culshaw the latter was suffering from a cold throughout the sessions); but the young Tom Krause is very fine as Kurwenal, virile and strong. There seems to be an odd tradition of casting singers at the beginning of their careers as the old retainer – Fischer-Dieskau sang the same role for Furtwängler when he was almost unknown – but it works well here. Waldemar Kmentt is strong if not overly subtle in his offstage solos in Act One, and Peter Klein is properly plaintive as the inquisitive shepherd. The offstage pipe which the shepherd plays when Isolde’s ship is sighted was originally scored by Wagner for a cor anglais, but he later changed his mind and asked for a “specially built natural instrument.” Many recordings stick with the refined sound of the cor anglais, but here Solti employs a wooden trumpet that was used in Vienna State Opera productions; and although it doesn’t sound anything like the pipe the shepherd was playing earlier, it fits the music ideally.

When the Solti set was first issued it was hailed ecstatically by the authors of the Stereo Record Guide: “This is one of the finest Wagner sets ever made, equaling and often surpassing the earlier HMV recording with Furtwängler and Flagstad.” But the enthusiasm soon waned – those opening remarks do not appear in later editions of the Guide – and part of the reason for this seems to have been the nature of Culshaw’s recording. Now Culshaw goes to great lengths in Putting the record straight to explain precisely what he was after here: he wanted a saturated orchestral sound, with the voices enveloped in the general melos to produce a sort of symphonic poem. Karajan, when he came to record Tristan for EMI ten years later, seemed to be aiming for the same sort of effect, with very obvious acoustical manipulation of the sound in a manner than could not be emulated in the opera house. But whereas Karajan’s extremes of dynamic and sometimes deliberately distanced singers can seem merely eccentric, it seems to me that Solti and Culshaw get the balance here just about right. The offstage horns at the beginning of Act Two are only just behind the scenes, receding into the distance as the action progresses; with Karajan they are already far away. Solti’s chorus at the end of Act One bursts onto the scene, bringing the harsh reality of daylight to blight the lovers’ new-found ecstasy; with Karajan they remain obstinately a distant but threatening menace. And during the Act Three battle which follows Tristan’s death, the brutal nature of the music is not down-played; Karajan had his singers set very far back on the sound stage, which diminished their impact.

Decca have reissued this Tristan several times, but their remasterings have always been plagued by a problem of breaks between discs. Solti’s Act One is just too long to fit onto a single CD, but it would seem to me that nevertheless the whole of Act Two could be squeezed onto the second disc leaving the Third Act complete on the third disc (with a second disc of just over 79 minutes and a third of about the same length); this would mean that there would be only one break during the music. But no; the Decca issues all make a musically and dramatically nonsensical break in the middle of the Love Duet, and one that is nearly as bad during Act Three. The break here during the First Act is the same as in the Decca sets (it is the only logical place to make a break during the music); but Major still persist in making unnecessary breaks in the later two Acts, although the ones they do make are better judged than on the Decca sets (they correspond to breaks in the original LP sides).

But, oh horror and disaster! where the original LP sides have been joined together on one CD, some illiterate and unmusical engineer has very precisely and carefully on each occasion inserted a break of a second or two. This is bad enough each time it happens, but it is utterly disastrous when it occurs in the middle of the Love Duet (where Decca make their equally unnecessary CD break); the orchestra leads up to the key change which introduces Tristan’s words “Unsrer Liebe? Tristans Liebe?” and then suddenly we have a couple of seconds silence before the music resumes. This is not the first time such a monstrosity has been perpetuated on disc; last year I had reason to complain about a similar nonsense in the Blu-Ray CD included in the reissue of the Decca Ring. When Culshaw bowed to necessity and made a side-change on the LPs (he discusses the problems in Ring Resounding) he never in his wildest dreams imagined that this would be seen as anything other than a temporary expedient. Does nobody ever think to consult a score? If they really have nobody on the staff who can read music, does nobody think to employ someone to check out what they are preparing to foist onto an unsuspecting public by way of adding silences that Wagner never wrote?

When reviewing the reissued Ring set in the March 2013 issue of Fanfare magazine, Arthur Lintgen referred to my complaint about the similar issue there as the views of an “obsessive Wagnerite” – at least I presume it was me to whom he was referring, as I can find no other reviewer who has made any reference to the matter at all (although the issue has subsequently been picked up on a number of internet blogs). Well, I would not like to think of myself as an obsessive about anything; but I do happen to think that it is important that the manner in which Wagner wrote the music is correctly presented on record, without any intrusive pauses which are simply the result of the limitations of outdated LP technology. Nor is it only Wagner who is subjected to such barbarous inanities; EMI have persisted for years (and over a number of reissues) in the insertion of unauthorised pauses and silences corresponding to old LP side breaks in Boult’s recording of Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem, and even more heinously in Willcocks’s recording of Sancta Civitas where they actually fade down and fade up what is supposed to be a sustained note in order to insert this pause.

If Major had managed to cram the whole opera properly onto three CDs (and it could have been done) they could then have let us have the fascinating disc of rehearsal sequences that came with the original LP set, and which has been subsequently reissued by Decca with their complete set of Solti’s non-Ring Wagner operas. Otherwise it would have been preferable to leave a very short fourth disc containing just the Todesverkundigung (which here follows far too quickly on the last chord of Tristan) and preserve the integrity of the music in the Second and Third Acts of Tristan. Another opportunity missed, I’m afraid.

In the last years of his life Solti often stated that he wanted to record Tristan again because he was dissatisfied with his earlier attempt; but he died before this could be accomplished. I don’t think he should have been ashamed of this recording, which still sounds very good and has come up well in this re-mastering (I am assuming this was done from the original LPs, since the recordings here are now out of copyright). Fashions seem to come and go with sets of Tristan – first it was the Furtwängler, then it was this Solti, then it was the Karajan, then the Bernstein, then the Pappano set which received critical acclaim – but this was, and remains, a very worthwhile recording in its own right. And the Walküre excerpts are an interesting bonus. John Kehoe contributes a lengthy booklet note which sets the recordings in the context of Solti’s early career; there are no texts, translations or synopses, but these are of course readily available elsewhere.

 

May 2013

Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor: Tristan), Birgit Nilsson (soprano: Isolde), Kerstin Meyer (mezzo-soprano: Brangaene), Eberhard Waechter (baritone: Kurwenal), Josef Greindl (bass: Marke), Niels Möller (tenor: Melot), Gerhard Stolze (tenor: Shepherd), Georg Paskuda (tenor: Seaman), Hans-Hanno Daum (bass: Steersman), Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm

rec. Bayreuth Festival Theatre, 1962

MYTO HISTORICAL 00328 [3 CDs, 78.04 + 78.23 + 73.16]

 

Karl Böhm’s live recording of Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth in 1966 with the same two protagonists has long been favoured by many critics as the best all-round version of the opera on CD. But it has its controversial features, the most notable being the very brisk rendition of the score which the conductor gave in his performances that year, which sometimes give the impression of hustling the singers. He was also conducting the Ring at the time, and John Culshaw in Ring Resounding complained bitterly about his “stupefying indifference, as if the conductor could not wait to get back to Salzburg or wherever he was going for his next engagement.”

This live performance of an earlier production from four years earlier (surprisingly Böhm’s Bayreuth debut) takes longer over each of the Acts – around three minutes in the First Act, six minutes in the Second and two minutes in the Third. And for that reason alone the recording is valuable, because Böhm’s slower speeds allow both Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen more latitude in the way they phrase their music; and Windgassen, at the height of his powers in 1962 – he was recording Siegfried for Solti during the same period – is in fresher voice than he was to be in 1966.

Indeed, one of the principal causes for enjoyment in this set is the singing of Windgassen, who amazingly never recorded Tristan, one of his principal roles, in the studio. His singing in reply to Marke’s upbraidings (CD 2, track 14) is heartbreaking in its intensity, and he shows no signs at all of tiredness in the most strenuous passages of the final Act. By his side Nilsson is a tower of strength as always; she was well-established as the leading Isolde of her day by this time (her earlier recording for Solti showed her still to a certain extent finding her way in the role), and she never makes an ugly noise or fails to provide heroic singing, launching her high Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet (CD 2, track 5) as though they were the easiest thing in the world. Her introduction of the theme of the ‘love glance’ during her Narration has real delicacy. Eberhard Waechter, who also appeared in Böhm’s 1966 recording, is a superb Kurwenal, forthright in his hymn of praise to Tristan in Act One and singing with real sensitivity at the beginning of Act Three.

However when it comes to the other roles Böhm in 1966 had a generally superior cast of singers. Kerstin Meyer here is a young-sounding Brangaene, who floats her warning in Act Two (CD 2, track 8) with real delicacy; but by the side of the incomparable Christa Ludwig in the 1966 set she sounds uninvolved. Josef Greindl never had a beautiful voice, and although he does his best to shade word-meanings in his long monologue in Act Two (CD 2, track 13) his higher notes give evidence of strain; Martti Talvela in 1966 is incomparably superior. Nobody buys a set of Tristan for the singing in the smaller roles, but Gerhard Stolze is an unexpectedly touching Shepherd with his natural propensity to rasping Sprechstimme held firmly in check; and Georg Paskuda is a full-voiced Seaman (CD 1, track 2).

But this brings out one of the major problems with this production, the recorded sound itself. Presumably this comes from broadcast tapes, but the voices are always very present and forward and the orchestral tumult is often rather poorly served by the microphones. And the Bayreuth audience is a real stinker, coughing and hacking their way through the quietest moments; the cor anglais solo at the beginning of Act Three, although very present, almost becomes a duet with the unmuffled noises coming from the auditorium. When the Philips engineers came to record their live set in 1966, they had access to a whole series of performances and dress rehearsals and were able to reduce the unwelcome interruptions to an absolute minimum; here we get the sound raw and unvarnished, and the results could I imagine become absolutely intolerable with repetition.

There are two other live performances by Böhm available; the one from Orange has the ‘dream cast’ of Nilsson and Jon Vickers in the title roles, but suffers from the ‘usual’ cut in the Love Duet. The other, taken from a single performance in the 1966 Bayreuth season, has a most unfortunate tape edit in Act Three just after the Shepherd’s “Ein zweites Schiff” where two or three seconds of silence are introduced (or at least it did in the Frequenz transfer which I once owned). Although I would generally prefer this 1962 Bayreuth version as a performance to the 1966 one because of Böhm’s more relaxed approach to tempo, the general superiority of his later cast and the incomparably better recorded sound inevitably means that the 1966 version should be preferred. However for those who would like to hear the individual members of the cast in this version, with Windgassen in fresher voice and a less frenetic approach to the score, this Myto recording will have its value.

Presentation is, as usual with these historic recordings, minimal: no texts, translations, or notes, simply cast and track listings. One major advantage of Böhm’s speeds is that each Act can be fitted complete onto a single CD without any breaks in the dramatic or musical continuity; among studio recordings only Pappano manages to do this. Personally I prefer a rather slower treatment of the score, even if this means annoying breaks in the music between CD sides: Karajan, Goodall or Bernstein. But others will welcome Böhm’s more urgent approach, and will regard Culshaw’s observations as misguided. There is certainly no lack of dramatic punch here.

 

July 2013

Torsten Kerl (tenor: Tristan), Anja Kampe (soprano: Isolde), Andzej Dobber (baritone: Kurwenal), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano: Brangaene), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass: King Marke), Trevor Scheunemann (baritone: Melot), Peter Gijsbertsen (tenor: Young sailor),  Andrew Kennedy (tenor: Shepherd), Richard Mosley-Evans (baritone: Steersman), Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Vladimir Jurowski

rec. Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, August 2009

GLYNDEBOURNE GF0CD 019-09 [3 CDs, 79.45 + 70.10 + 77.14]

 

Last year I reviewed a DVD of this Glyndebourne production, originally staged in 2003 by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, reissued as part of OpusArte’s mammoth Wagner Edition. This set of CDs features an entirely new set of performers from that earlier Glyndebourne version, but unfortunately it also retains one feature of the original issue about which I complained bitterly: the dreadful cut in the opening section of the Love Duet in Act Two. To save readers having to plough through the whole of my extremely lengthy previous review, I will repeat here what I said on that occasion: “The dichotomy between darkness and night, of which Wagner makes so much in the text, is rendered totally nonsensical because of the cut that is made in the first half of the duet. Now this cut was standard practice in many theatres until the 1960s (it helped the two leading singers to keep their voices fresh) but it has since become discredited, and quite rightly so. The discussion between the two lovers – how the daylight blinded them to their mutual attraction, and how their love could only blossom in the world of night – is central to the whole of the plot as it develops: their reference to the realm of night as a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Tristan’s continual agonies in the realm of light in the Third Act.”

At the time of the earlier review I expressed amazement than producer Nikolas Lehnhoff and conductor Jiri Bĕlohlávek had allowed the cut to be made, and I am even more astonished that it should have continued to be perpetrated when this recording was made by Vladimir Jurowski six years later. The booklet note quotes a review from the Sunday Telegraph of the stage production where the unattributed critic states that Jurowski “shaped the Act II Love Duet as a beautiful arc.” Well, it is easier to obtain such an arc (I suppose) when ten minutes of music or so has been cut; but it is extraordinary that the critic concerned should have overlooked the fact of the truncation when making his comments.

But the cut does have the dubious advantage of allowing each of the three Acts to be contained complete on a single CD, although this may also be due to Janowski’s sometimes eccentrically fast speeds. Actually he indulges himself in extremes of speed throughout, both faster and slower than usual; and this has the unexpected side effect of making the faster passages seem faster than ever and sometimes seems to leave both singers and players sounding positively breathless with some of the string playing sounding decidedly hustled. It is exciting, but it is unconventional; the durations of each Act are indeed very close to those of Karl Böhm’s controversial Bayreuth performances, and a mile removed from Leonard Bernstein or Reginald Goodall’s approach to the score. And Janowski does make some rather odd choices: when the music of the Liebestod makes its initial appearance in the Love Duet (CD 2, track 8), it is taken very slowly, only to speed up after a few bars – a procedure for which I can find no justification in the score. When the music returns at the end (CD 3, track 11)  Janowski finds a different solution, which could be viewed as a valid response to the changed dramatic situation – the Liebestod is after all the consummation of the Love Duet, not an imitation of it. On the other hand, passages such as the flute arpeggios which illustrate Tristan’s vision of the fluttering flag on Isolde’s approaching ship, which Cecil Forsyth cites so approvingly in his Orchestration but which are almost invariably covered by the rest of the orchestra in other performances, come through loud and clear in a manner which makes Forsyth’s enthusiasm entirely understandable (CD 3, track 5, 11.00). 

Comparison of the singing with the earlier Glyndebourne recording is a matter of swings and roundabouts. On the DVD Nina Stemme produced an Isolde both heroic and womanly, a beautifully judged lyrical performance which still managed to raise the roof at climaxes. Here Anja Kampe is more purely lyrical, and passages such as the end of the Narration clearly tax her to the limit especially at Jurowski’s swift speed. In the Second Act she sounds more fully inside the role, and she tackles her high Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet fearlessly. Just before this point, however, her instruction to Brangaene to keep watch lacks a sense of command – she might almost be asking her to check whether the napkins are properly folded – which goes against the imperious nature of Wagner’s lines (CD 2, track 2, 12.56). Some Isoldes can sound tired by the time of their return at the end of the last Act, but there is no evidence of that here.

Torsten Ralf here is a more conventionally tenor Tristan than the baritonal-sounding Robert Gambill in the original production; his voice is also slightly under-powered at climaxes (notably just before the lovers drink the supposed poison) but nevertheless manages to cut through the turbulent orchestration. During the Love Duet, the low-lying passage “O sink hernieder” finds him rather more baritonal in sound, with a tendency to sit on the flat side of the note which becomes really worrying in the later section beginning “Unsrer Liebe?” where his tuning becomes very suspect indeed. For some reason he is much surer in intonation in the Third Act (were the recordings taken from different performances?) and rises to his hysterical outpourings with real involvement and dramatic fire. Nor does he lack lyricism in his contemplative “Wie so selig” (CD 3, track 7).

Sarah Connolly is a superb Brangaene, as one would expect, not at all overpowered by the Wagnerian orchestra; but it is a shame that her big solo from the watchtower in the Second Act is phrased with such delicacy that it is sometimes almost inaudible from offstage (despite the diaphanous playing of the orchestra – CD 2, track 5). Andrzej Dobber as Kurwenal sounds very young by the side of his master in Act One, and his responses to the Shepherd at the beginning of Act Three are rather matter-of-fact (one misses the inwardness of singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Eberhard Waechter here). In a line like “Schreckliche Zauber!” he resorts to a sort of Bayreuth bark which disturbs the musical line (CD 3, track 6, 11.03).

George Zeppenfeld is a tower of strength as the betrayed King, with a real richness of tone and beautiful sound. This is immeasurably superior singing to his King Henry in the Bayreuth Lohengrin three years later, where one suspects he may have been suffering from the appalling characterisation imposed on him by the producer. It is not unknown for the part of Melot to be taken by a baritone (Bernd Weikl did it for Karajan’s later recording) but Wagner did specify the part for a tenor, and the small role has become almost a custom for it to be assigned to an up-and-coming heldentenor as a vehicle on which to cut his teeth. Trevor Scheunemann certainly sounds very baritonal indeed, and it is hard to believe that the role could not have been more appropriately cast. The smaller roles – Shepherd, Steersman and Young Sailor are well taken, although again the unaccompanied solo for the latter from offstage discloses some slightly suspect tuning, and Andrew Kennedy doesn’t really get the ultimate sense of desolation which can be wrung out of a line like “Öd und leer das Meer” (CD 3, track 3, 3.01).

The audience is very well-behaved indeed (there is one unfortunate cough during the passage where Isolde and Brangaene are discussing the merits of their relative potions during Act One, but none of the hacking that interrupted Böhm’s live Bayreuth performance which I reviewed recently). And the applause at the end of each Act is edited down to a sensible half a minute or so (oddly enough the DVD recording of the original cast cut out the applause altogether). The recorded balance is generally very good, with the singers only occasionally caught off-mike, and the orchestra comes through well with plenty of detail audible. The production, like many of these new Glyndebourne sets, is handsomely packaged with plenty of photographs, text and English translation, and synopses in English, French and German. But I am afraid that the miscellaneous drawbacks noted in this review can hardly lead to a recommendion for this set over the many excellent recordings in the current catalogue except for those who want a souvenir of the Glyndebourne performances or these particular singers. One would certainly have enjoyed this performance immensely in the opera house, but for home listening to the music without the benefit of the stage presence one might perhaps look elsewhere.

 

 

Video recordings

July 2013

René Kollo (tenor: Tristan), Gwyneth Jones (soprano: Isolde), Hanna Schwarz (mezzo-soprano: Brangaene), Gerd Feldhoff (baritone: Kurwenal), Robert Lloyd (bass: King Marke), Peter Edelmann (baritone: Melot), Clemens Biber (tenor: Young sailor), Uwe Peper (tenor: Shepherd), Ivan Sardi (bass: Steersman), Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin cond. Jiři Kout

rec. NHK Hall, Tokyo, 24 and 29 September 1993

ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 317 [2 DVDs, 84.32 + 148.28]

 

It is unlikely that there will ever be a totally flawless performance or recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Apart from the fact that the two leading roles are among the most strenuous in the repertoire, any weak link in the rest of the cast or the orchestra will inevitably destroy the illusion that the composer sought to conjure of the overwhelming power of love to conquer even death. Even in the recording studio it is difficult to create this, and on stage it is almost impossible to find two singers who can at the same time be convincing young lovers and yet encompass the sheer physical, musical, emotional and intellectual demands of the music.

The main reason for anyone to invest in this DVD of Tristan und Isolde is also certainly the most controversial one – the assumption of the role of the heroine by Dame Gwyneth Jones. She sang the role many times on stage (including at Bayreuth), but never set it down commercially and so far as I am aware this is the only available recording of her in the part. But it has to be said that her well-known faults are also well in evidence in this performance, made late in her career. The high notes remain true and ringing, and her soft but dramatically inflected singing is as good as ever; but the vibrato when she pushes the tone in her middle register becomes distressing during the Narration, her legato singing in the Love Duet is poorly tuned, and her delivery of her solo after Tristan’s death is unsteady. She is at her worst in the address to ‘Frau Minne’ preceding the extinguishing of the torch, where the sustained notes find her delivery seriously flawed; Rodney Milnes once described her voice in the pages of Opera (discussing a performance of Elektra) as “generous” by which he explained that he meant that she “gave us three notes for every one” (these may not have been his exact words – I don’t have the quote to hand – but the phraseology was something like that). That is cruel as well as slightly unfair – her unsteadiness consists of a coming and going of the tone rather than a movement off the note – but one is sometimes painfully aware here of a voice not always under control. And by no stretch of the imagination can she be seen as a young princess – a “spruce colleen” as the subtitles engagingly describe her – when her elderly husband, despite his make-up, is clearly a good ten years younger than she is.

By her side René Kollo, also in his fifties at the time of this performance, comes out of the performance rather better. He recorded the role in Carlos Kleiber’s studio set, and also for the Bayreuth production by Ponnelle conducted by Daniel Barenboim; but his voice was never really a natural for the part, a lyric tenor pushing his voice rather than a natural heldentenor. In his later years he too developed a wobble that could be distressing, but there is not too much evidence of that here although he sometimes has to deliver some of the more dramatic lines is a sort of Sprechstimme – rather more than a ‘Bayreuth bark’ – in order to get the words across. He too hardly looks young – he gave a much better impression ten years earlier at Bayreuth – but the voice here is still largely intact. Although in the final Act his tendency to fall into Sprechstimme becomes endemic – for example, in his delivery of the line “Wie, hör ich das Licht?” which departs wildly from Wagner’s indicated notation – the dramatic intensity is thrilling.

Also dramatically thrilling is Robert Lloyd as the betrayed husband. He gives his long monologue all the pathos and nobility that the music demands, and generates a real sense of excitement in the closing scenes of the Second Act. The way he reacts with his back to Tristan’s recognition of his treachery is histrionic art of the highest order. Gerd Feldhoff as Kurwenal also is a very good actor, and shades his voice down to the merest whisper at lines such as “Hat dir der Fluch entführt?” He cannot ride the orchestral storm at the climaxes with as much ease as would be ideal, but he is never less than musical. Hanna Schwarz is more predictably excellent as Brangaene, but her delivery of the first line of her offstage Warning displays an unexpected quiver in the voice which suggests that she may not have been able to hear the orchestra clearly (she was better in the earlier Bayreuth DVD). Again she is a good actress, with plenty of sympathy towards her mistress during the First Act. Peter Edelmann is a baritone rather than a tenor Melot, and his higher notes do not sound comfortable. Clemens Biber is a good Seaman in his opening solo, but Uwe Peper unfortunately goes off the note during his short scene with Kurwenal at the beginning of Act Three.

It is usual in reviews to deal with the matter of the staging first, but with this DVD it becomes less significant. The 1980 production by Götz Friedrich is a pretty dour affair, despite some minimal but evocative scenic designs by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. One does not know how much of Friedrich’s original direction remained by the time of this 1993 performance, but for too much of the time there is a serious lack of dramatic involvement by the singers – they simply stand and deliver – and there is also evidence of some routine, as when Isolde reacts to the cries of the sailors (just before Kurwenal’s entrance) before their voices are actually heard. Friedrich is to be commended for his willingness to allow the principals to remain still when there is nothing dramatic for them to do, but some of his directorial decisions seem odd. If Isolde has delivered her Narration in Tristan’s hearing, actually directing her curse to his face, there seems no reason for her afterwards to insist that he should come to see her; and if Kurwenal has had to help Brangaene to separate the lovers at the end of the same Act, why does he then address Tristan with such bombastic indifference half a minute later?

We are used to Friedrich’s habit of staging the preludes to Wagner operas, but the long Prelude to Act One with Isolde sitting impassively onstage does nothing to illuminate the music at this point. He does however appreciate the distinction between night and day which is one of the philosophical ideas underpinning the action, plunging the lovers into darkness immediately after they have drunk the cup which they imagine contains poison – and his production of the long orchestral passage at this point, always a matter of difficulty, has sensitivity and understanding. This makes it all the more reprehensible that he and the conductor connive in the extensive cut in the opening section of the Love Duet, where the lovers discuss the symbolic meanings of light and darkness which underlie the heart of the drama. Possibly it was done to spare the voices of his ageing principals, but it remains anathema nevertheless. Otherwise Friedrich thankfully adheres fairly closely to Wagner’s scenario, and despite the rather barren nature of the production (not helped by the gloomy lighting) it does not misrepresent the composer’s intentions in the way that Ponnelle did at the end of his Bayeuth production – but the sets for the Lehnhoff production at Glyndebourne (like those of Ponnelle) have more sense of sheer beauty, which is after all another one of Wagner’s requirements for this most ecstatic of scores.

The English subtitles, derived from William Mann’s translation originally written for and published by the Friends of Covent Garden in 1968, contain some amusing typographical errors – I noticed “wither” for “whither” and “trough” for “through” – which disturb concentration at just the wrong moments. And the translation itself is at once too literal and too free in tone – “Der Welt-Atems wehendem All” simply does not have the proper transcendent atmosphere when it is rendered as “The cosmic breath’s gusty totality.” The booklet synopsis is rather brisk, concentrating on the stage action rather than the psychological interplay of the drama; it manages to dismiss the whole of Tristan’s ravings in Act Three (lasting over half an hour on stage) in just one sentence: “Tristan’s thoughts turn to all that has happened; suddenly, the shepherd’s joyful melody sounds.” Well, yes; but rather a lot happens before that. The disc comes with no extras.

The conductor, Jiři Kout, is efficient rather than inspired; but he does nothing unmusical or wilful, and the orchestra by and large plays well for him. The audience, quiet as mice while the curtain is up and rapturous in their applause after the end of each Act, are clearly transfixed by the performance. But this DVD is principally of value, as I observed at the outset, for the performance of Gwyneth Jones. She may have been frustratingly uneven as an artist, but her delivery of the climax and the closing bars of the Liebestod, steady and rapt, makes one realise again just how very great a singer she could be when things went right. For a first choice on DVD, provided that one can tolerate the cut in the Love Duet, Nina Stemme’s assumption of the role at Glyndebourne is more reliable. If one insists on having the opera complete, Ponnelle’s beautiful Bayreuth staging is excellent (despite his irritating gloss at the end portraying Isolde’s arrival as the culmination of Tristan’s hallucinations, which becomes more annoying with repetition), although by comparison with that performance Gwyneth Jones knocks spots off the steady but comparatively uninvolved Johanna Meier for the sheer power of her interpretation.

 

December 2019

Stuart Skelton (tenor) – Tristan: Gun-Brit Barkmin (soprano) – Isolde: Ekaterina Gubanova (mezzo-soprano) – Brangäne: Boaz Daniel (baritone) – Kurwenal: Ain Anger (bass) – King Marke: Angus Wood (tenor) – Melot: Paul O’Neill (tenor) – Young Sailor, Shepherd: Andrew Foote (baritone) – Steersman: WASO Chorus: St George’s Cathedral Consort: West Australian Symphony Orchestra: Asher Fisch (conductor)

rec. Perth Concert Hall, Australia, 16 and 19 August 2018

ABC CLASSICS ABC 481 8518 [3 CDs, 77.24 + 73.33 + 71.04]

 

On many occasions in the past I have argued in these pages that, whatever the loss in dramatic engagement and verisimilitude, the mature works of Wagner are better served on disc by purpose-made studio recordings. In the first place the ability to edit the performance means that slips in execution, almost inevitable in scores of this complexity, can be corrected without troubling the listener; and such slips become more and more annoying with repetition, in a manner that can be readily excused in the heat of a live performance. In the second place audience and stage noise can be avoided – a matter of considerable concern in the many very quiet passages of music. And finally, and probably most crucially of all, the strain imposed on both singers and instrumentalists by the sheer length of the music dramas can be obviated and we can enjoy – for example – a Siegfried and Brünnhilde both in fresh voice for their love duet in a manner that simply cannot be achieved in a theatrical context.

But listening to this new set of Tristan und Isolde, taken from what are described as live concert performances, I feel almost condemned to eat my words. In the first place, there are no obvious errors at all to be heard in the performances; and in the second, the audience are noticeable for their total lack of any interruption, coughing or shuffling – not even applause at the end of Acts, until a furious burst of acclamation (following a respectful pause) at the very end. And finally the two principal soloists, confronted with roles that are notorious for the demands they place upon the stamina of singers, sound as fresh at the end of Act Three as they did at the beginning of Act One. But then I noted that the booklet informs us that the recording was made on two separate dates, three days apart; and these discs are therefore taken from two distinct concert performances which may in turn have been subjected to patching sessions under studio conditions – not quite a purely single ‘live’ performance, then (and probably all the better for that).

Some major singers in the past who have essayed the principal roles in Tristan und Isolde have done so purely under studio conditions – Margaret Price, Plácido Domingo – and one can well appreciate why they have been reluctant to undertake the same parts on stage. The part of the male hero in particular is of surpassing difficulty; he has not a great deal to do in Act One until the very end, when he is suddenly launched without much chance to warm up into an impassioned duet. Then in Act Two he has extended passages of quiet lyrical singing, only to be plunged in Act Three into an extended delirium of despair finally culminating in a febrile rejoicing which only (to the singer’s relief) ends with his expiry in Isolde’s arms. It is not at all surprising that many tenors over the years have sought to make cuts in the role, particularly in Acts Two and Three, and such was certainly the practice of Lauritz Melchior, probably the most perfectly fitted of voices for the role whatever his physical shortcomings. In the post-war era Jon Vickers frequently made a quarter-hour cut in the Second Act love duet – obnoxious because it leaves a massive hole in the symbolic argument about Love and Death, Day and Night – but even then he often had to resort to shouting towards the end of Act Three (although his studio recording with Karajan is a model of rectitude in this regard). In the next generation René Kollo similarly had increasing resort to a vocal line which departed wildly from Wagner’s instructions, as can be heard in live performances on DVD; afterwards Siegfried Jerusalem and Ben Heppner managed to restore some greater degree of faithfulness to the notes in the score. Even so, nothing had prepared me for the superb assumption of the role here by Stuart Skelton; even in the most frenetic passages of Act Three he adheres precisely to the score, and in so doing demonstrates conclusively that the composer knew exactly what he was doing to obtain the maximum dramatic effect without any need for over-acting. His delivery of the lyrical passages in Act Two have a honeyed centre and warmth that is a joy to encounter; and although I balked initially at the rapid pace he adopted in Act Three for the quieter section beginning Wie so selig I found myself convinced by the manner in which he moulded the motion of the melodic line into a quiet effusion of love at the end of its tether.

The concert performances, mounted in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the orchestra, were to have featured Eva-Maria Westbroek as Isolde; but she fell ill a few weeks before the due date, and was replaced by Gun-Brit Barkmin, singing Isolde only for the second time. I encountered this singer for the first time earlier this year when she assumed the role of Brünnhilde for the Naxos Ring cycle from Hong Kong, and when I noted that there were places where she seemed to run out of voice. As Isolde she presents a very young-sounding Irish princess; but is there any reason she should be a mature woman? Her reactions certainly seem to be those of a spirited young girl, and in the parallel Irish version of the same legend Gráinne is specifically described as a young maiden. I was concerned at the beginning of the Liebestod when Barkmin seemed to be drifting slightly sharp, and Asher Fisch took the music at a slightly faster speed than she might have been comfortable with. But then at the climax, as the speed broadened out, she allowed her voice to merge into the surge of the orchestra in a manner that exactly mirrored Wagner’s text at this point – sinking below billows of ecstasy – rather than the sheer display of heroic force that we sometimes encounter. And, like her Tristan, she never allows herself to be tempted into pushing her tone for the sake of greater emphasis. As I observed when reviewing her Naxos Ring, this is a voice of very great potential which needs to be nurtured and not pushed too far or too fast.

Ekaterina Gubanova as her maid has plenty of experience in her role, and still sounds fresh and concerned in Act One – a pleasant change from some Brangänes who can sound as if they aspire to take on the role of the mistress. Boaz Daniel also presents us with an unusually youthful Kurwenal, not quite the old retainer of Wagner’s text; but he shades his voice beautifully in his concern for his master in Act Three, and after all he does have to be young enough for Tristan to credibly bequeath all his worldly goods to him. The Estonian bass Ain Anger is also a young singer, but he conveys all the grief of the world in his Act Two monologue. Nor do any of those taking smaller roles let the side down, and their biographies included in the booklet testify to their experience in major roles in other operas. This is casting in depth and from strength.

There is however one point at which the performance falls short, and that is in the contribution of the male chorus. I know they do not have much to do (just some offstage junketing in Act One) but they sound far too respectable for a crew of rough sailors, and they have also a most unfortunate tendency to sit on the flat side of higher notes. The booklet quotes reviewers who comment favourably on the abilities of the two bodies of choristers involved, but I would hazard a guess that the exigencies of operatic performance have not formed a regular part of their repertoire.

Nor I presume have mature Wagnerian music drama formed a regular item in the fare of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. But you would never guess. From the very beginning they are inspired by Asher Fisch to produce a performance that seethes, bubbles and soothes by turns; at no point does one feel any lack of Wagnerian weight, and the conductor pulls no punches in delivering the full impetus of romantic passion which suffuse this score. The trombone punches in Tristan’s Act Three delirium, which can feel like quick jabs to the solar plexus in some performances, carry a real sense of violence which penetrate the very stomach. And the ripping string chords that end Act Two as the mortally wounded Tristan sinks to the ground have the whole weight of the world on their shoulders. Just two instances, and there are many more places where the performance draws attention to passages often overlooked. This is assisted by the recorded sound, taking full advantage of the presence of the orchestra on an open stage rather than in an orchestra pit to bring forward passages of counterpoint that can be submerged – like the fluttering flutes as Tristan imagines that he can see the flag of Isolde’s ship approaching.

The balance of the recording is also superbly judged, with the offstage hunting horns at the beginning of Act Two at just the right distance and the tricky exchanges between onstage and offstage characters during the fight following Tristan’s death managed in a manner that makes Wagner’s abrupt kaleidoscopic switching between full orchestra and tremolo strings sound almost natural. The offstage wooden trumpet as Isolde’s ship is sighted in Act Three is in just the right perspective. Praise too is due for the layout on disc; Fisher’s rapid speeds (not so extreme as those of Karl Böhm) mean that each of the Acts can be contained on a single CD, without any need to break the continuity of the music.

There are two booklets, containing not only the usual introductory notes and synopsis (brief but informative) but also the complete text with an English translation by Lionel Salter which manages to convey most of the meaning of Wagner’s often tangled prose. But the printed text omits all the stage directions, which would constitute a real problem for listeners unfamiliar with the work confronted with lengthy passages of orchestra depicting events that cannot be seen or understood. And there will be some listeners who do fall into that category. Otherwise the presentation is all that could be desired, with an atmospheric cover illustration. Indeed this whole set is far more than simply a celebration of an orchestral jubilee, or a souvenir of a concert; it is a very real contender to be one of the great recordings of Tristan und Isolde on disc.

 

 

February 2014

 

Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano: Isolde), Jon Fredric West (tenor: Tristan), Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo-soprano: Brangäne), Bernd Weikl (baritone: Kurwenal), Kurt Moll (bass: King Marke), Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor: Melot), Kevin Conners (tenor: Shepherd), Ulrich Ress (tenor: Young sailor), Hans Willbrink (baritone: Steersman), Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra cond. Zubin Mehta

rec. National Theatre, Munich, 1998

ARTHAUS 100 057 [2 DVDs, 161.00 + 80.00]

 

One wonders what King Ludwig, who sponsored the first performance of Tristan in this very theatre, really thought of the music that he heard in 1868. His enthusiasm for Wagner really stemmed from the scores for Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and the opening chord of the new work – branching out into realms of atonality – must presumably have startled him as much as it mystified its first audience (including Berlioz) when Wagner performed the Prelude in a Paris concert some five years earlier. Zubin Mehta, who conducts here, certainly relishes the music. In the days before he cast himself in the role of director for mega-media tenor circuses, he was a conductor to be reckoned with, and his interpretation here brings decided memories of Solti’s hyper-heated traversal of the score on disc some twenty years earlier. There are other things here which underline that parallel: the recorded balance gives full weight to the orchestra, often at the expense of the voices who are subsumed within the waves of sound emanating from the pit. And some of the singers, as in Solti’s recording, do not emerge from the contest unscathed.

Waltraud Meier was the nonpareil among Kundrys for many years, and her Isolde has some of the same attributes. She is a riveting actress, clearly relishing every word of the text; but she is better in anger than in romance, because her voice lacks the sense of femininity that one finds with singers such as Helga Dernesch or (more recently) Nina Stemme, and which she has subsequently demonstrated in her performances of Sieglinde. She has no trouble with the top notes, although they clearly tax her to the limit of her resources; but she has to take a breath in the middle of her expansive line just before she extinguishes the torch, and her top Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet are flicked at rather than delivered with full voice. But she remains fresh-toned throughout, and even though the Liebestod in front of a drop curtain finds her in severe danger of being overwhelmed by the orchestra she never quite succumbs. She is rightly given the biggest ovation of all at the end.

A further parallel with Solti’s recording is to be found in Jon Frederick West’s Tristan, who has more than a passing similarity to Solti’s Fritz Uhl: a voice working at the very limits of its strength, and despite intelligent use sounding a size too small for the role. He is also rather a dramatic cipher, keeping his eyes firmly glued on the prompt box and the conductor even during the most romantic of his entanglements with Isolde. In the final Act he generally manages to make himself heard clearly over the orchestra, although sometimes he has to resort to a species of Sprechstimme in order to do so.

Marjana Lipovšek is a properly involved Brangäne, and she and Meier make a good dramatic impact during Act One; but she too is overwhelmed in places by Mehta’s boiling delivery of the orchestral score. And most unfortunately her delivery of her Warning during the Love Duet is unsteady and plaintive in tone, which cannot have been helped by the producer’s bringing her onto the stage to place nightlights around the lovers like some over-eager gooseberry. During her second interruption she is properly kept offstage, but then has to force her voice to be audible over the orchestra.

Bernd Weikl’s Kurwenal, on the other hand, simply seems out of sorts, with a voice that sounds woolly and aged in the wrong sort of way. He was singing much better than this in other recordings at the time, and one suspects he may have been ill. As it is he doesn’t really wring our heartstrings in Act Three in the way a Kurwenal in top form can. Kurt Moll is a fine King Mark, but in the final scene he also sounds undesirably grey of tone. The other members of the cast are fine, but nothing special; Claes H Ahnsjö is a very lightweight Melot.

The production by Peter Konwitschny at first generally adheres pretty closely to Wagner’s stage directions (no appearance of King Mark at the end of Act One, for example), but when it departs from them it does not do so effectively. The young sailor at the beginning is present on stage; and at the end of Act One the lovers are entangled with each other long before they drink what they imagine is the poison which will loosen their constraints in the face of anticipated death. This leaves them with very little to do during the long orchestral passage after they have drunk the potion. At the end of Act One, by the way, the final offstage chord on the trumpets is cut off very abruptly – presumably to avoid the audience reaction, which is edited out (was there booing interspersed with the applause?). The wounding of Tristan by Melot at the end of Act Two is rather botched, and it is far from clear what actually happens here. Before that Tristan and Isolde have sat on each side of King Mark while they exchange their vows to follow each other, which seems rather like unnecessarily rubbing salt into the wound.

However in Act Three the departures from Wagner’s original scenario are more obtrusive, and much less convincing. We appear to be situated in a hospital room with a large functional central heating radiator, and Tristan has been provided with a slide projector on which he seems to be viewing his childhood holiday photographs. The shepherd is kept offstage during the opening scene, which robs his short dialogue with Kurwenal of any sense of pathos. Later two cor anglais players in ordinary concert dress wander onto the scene as Tristan describes the death of his parents. Tristan comes forward, takes the cor anglais from one of them to examine it, then hands it back and the two of them walk off again. What this is meant to signify God only knows.

In his booklet note Konwitschny says that he wanted to avoid the view of Tristan as a tragedy – although surely nobody would regard Isolde’s ecstatic Verklärung (to employ Wagner’s own description of the Liebestod) as a tragic ending? – but his solution is simply nonsensical. As Isolde sings her lament over the dead Tristan the latter comes back to life, and the two of them wander off to the front of the stage, remaining to watch callously as their friends slaughter each other in a battle to occupy the hospital room. They then draw a curtain over the scene and Isolde stands in front of this to sing her Liebestod directly to Tristan. After that they move off to the side of the stage together, as the drop curtain parts to show King Mark and Brangäne standing in contemplation of a pair of coffins. I’m not sure how this is less tragic than Wagner’s original, but it fights every inch of the way against his transfigured music at the close.

And the set designs really do nothing for Konwitschny’s concept. The primary colours throughout are simply horrible. Act One is set on the deck of a cruise liner, with Isolde and Brangäne seated on sun loungers sipping cocktails (the young sailor brings them refills); Tristan is discovered shaving in his cabin, and when he appears later on deck to visit Isolde, he still has shaving foam on his chin – presumably to enable him to offer her a razor with which to cut his throat. In Act Two Isolde’s torch looks like a gaudy Christmas decoration; and Tristan drags on a violently coloured yellow sofa for his encounter with Isolde, which looks absolutely ridiculous. I have already discussed the travesty that is Act Three in the preceding paragraphs.

The video production by Brian Large is a model of showing us what we need to see, and manages on occasion to minimise what we would rather not see. One only wishes that his successors in the production of operas for DVD were similarly circumspect. The subtitles in English derive from William Mann’s translation originally made for Covent Garden in 1968; I have discussed their deficiencies in earlier reviews, and can only repeat what I said then: “The translation itself is at once too literal and too free in tone – Der Welt-Atems wehendem All simply does not have the proper transcendent atmosphere when it is rendered as The cosmic breath’s gusty totality.” And to describe Isolde as a “spruce colleen” is no more apt as a description of Waltraud Meir than it was of Gwyneth Jones.

When it was originally released back in 1999, this was only the second representation of Tristan und Isolde on video (it had been preceded by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Bayreuth production). It also appeared at some later date as a cover-mounted DVD on a periodical magazine, and now re-emerges in a new release. It was not universally well received as a production on its first appearance, and the musical performance was not regarded as sufficiently good to redeem it; but in the intervening years versions of Tristan on DVD and film have proliferated, so it would need to be exceptionally good to justify its continuance in the catalogue. And the Glyndebourne production from 2004 is streets ahead of this, despite the obnoxious and inexcusable cut in the Love Duet, and Nina Stemme has a much more natural Isolde voice than does Meier here. Meier herself is heard to better advantage in Barenboim’s CD set. Even Ponnelle’s Bayreuth staging, with its equally wrong-headed treatment of the final scene, is better than this, and for sheer beauty of set design there is no comparison.

No, unless you are a Wagner completist who wants copies of every available production, it would be better to look almost anywhere else for a Tristan DVD. Apart from a booklet note on the origins of the work, a brief memorandum by the producer, and a synopsis, there are no extras.

 

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