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CD Review

Richard Wagner

Tristan und Isolde

  • Anja Kampe, soprano - Isolde
  • Torsten Kerl, tenor - Tristan
  • Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano - Brangäne
  • Andrzej Dobber, baritone - Kurwenal
  • Georg Zeppenfeld, bass - König Marke
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
Glyndebourne Festival Opera GFOCD019-09 3CDs
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This Tristan is a compelling, well-wrought, charged – even soulful – live recording made during several performances in August 2009 at Glyndebourne. The five principals (Anja Kampe – Isolde, Torsten Kerl – Tristan, Sarah Connolly – Brangäne, Andrzej Dobber – Kurwenal and Georg Zeppenfeld – King Mark) are all first rate. They enter their roles with conviction and passion. Yet none exceeds the bounds which Wagner set in order for the music drama to be tight and full of the lasting impact which thrills in the best performances. This set has no spurious emotions; no histrionics; each action, each sung or portrayed feeling has a reason.

The playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their dynamic Principal Conductor and Artistic Director, Vladimir Jurowski, is sweet, sensitive, seductive and technically contained, respectful of the score, and highly supportive of the principals. The Glyndebourne Chorus, too, participates actively to convey the tragedy, the inevitability of doomed love. The balance in the recording happily ensures that we both hear the singing as we would if sitting in the Glyndebourne auditorium, and yet benefit from the clarity of enunciation which distinguishes these singers' performances.

For all the control and rigor of the conception with which Jurowski distinguishes this performance, there is passion, drive and momentum: listen to the ways in which the dialogs develop in passages like the "Herr Tristan trete nah" in Act I [CD.1 tr.8]. There is total engagement in the drama by the singers and orchestral players; not the presentation. By the end of the Act, all but the most cursory listeners will have been drawn into the tension completely. Judicious use of tremolo, and whispering, strings, gentle, loving, intimate singing make one want to move immediately into the second act.

In some ways that second act is the heart of the opera; the love duet is a distillation of the relationship between Tristan and Isolde. Or so it seems, while you're completely wrapped in this part of the work. Kempe and Kerl really do only have eyes for each other. The love duet is also highly believable. Yet Jurowski manages to infuse the progression of their fast-growing closeness with two qualities: a sense of questioning, "Maybe doom is attending us, is inevitable?" and an awareness that the essence of the passion only really actually has sense when it is situated in the "outside" world. Chiefly Brangäne, of course, represents that "outside"; but also the circumstances in which the lovers have met. It's all too tempting, all too easy, to make the love of Tristan and Isolde all-consuming and nothing but hothouse indulgence. It's not just that this Glyndebourne production is more measured (which it is); but that the love (and reactions of the other three principals to it) is ultimately very human. Not symbolic or representative. But something we can all relate to.

In fact, Jurowski turns up the heat in Act III and reveals that the consequences for the lovers' actions are as pressing (though they never seem plainly inevitable, somehow) as whatever forces (love, potion, circumstance) draw the two lovers together in the first parts of the opera. The highly atmospheric opening as Tristan waits with Kurwenal for Isolde never overplays any sense of threat or doom. The low strings convey the intensity of lovers' longings where nothing else matters. So does the singing. The (shepherd's) oboe and other languorous woodwind suggest, perhaps, the paralyzation which such extreme concentration can engender.

It's in passages like these, when Jurowski is drawing rich and meaningful color from the LPO, that you realize just how carefully-conceived is this production. Nuances (such as states of mind, such as ambiguity of motive, such as awareness of the "other" side of one's own obsession… in Tristan's dialogs with both Kurwenal and King Mark) remain nuances. They are neither made explicit nor pushed into becoming a kind of conscious subtext to the visible and audible action. They're an integral part of the psychological complexity with which Wagner imbued his characters and story.

As the Third Act progresses – from 20 minutes or so in [CD.3 tr.4], the focus tightens. Yet again, it's not a dramatic, showy, "set-piece" increase in tension designed to satiate the audiences' eyes and ears. It's whole, integral to the characters; it's realistic, genuine and convincing. The pacing suggests that the lovers (and "onlookers") are not acting a tragedy out to its conclusion. Rather, they are behaving consistently with their feelings and desires. This is just as it should be. But achieved very well in this production.

At the same time, there's nothing even remotely perfunctory or low key, underplayed or deflated about the realism which this production seems to embrace, rather than to create. There's all the emotion, anxiety and pressure. But it's human, not theatrical. The yearning as Isolde's arrival in Act III is repeatedly delayed is beautifully achieved. Tristan's sighs and distress are conveyed well too. When they finally meet, they have become different people: more evidence of the sense of exact (and exacting) personal portrayal which characterizes this production. Although – as Wagner intended – the opera does reach its apotheosis in the Liebestod, there's reserve and detachment in Anja Kampe's voice. As much sadness and resignation as ecstasy. That is completely in keeping with the blend achieved throughout this performance between humans reacting to circumstance, and humans following very human forces.

The acoustic of the Glyndebourne theater is dry and close. There is little sense of space in this recording; this is not a disadvantage in any way. Applause at the end of each act is never intrusive; it adds a suggestion of the event. Enunciation and delivery are clear and clean. The presentation of the three CD set is excellent, each CD being individually wrapped; the whole is presented in a book-like container. The bulk of the book that comes with the CDs is the libretto in German and English; although there are also photographs of the production and a synopsis of the opera. If you don't own one of the classic recordings of Tristan like the Karajan, Vickers, Dernesch on Emi (69319), this is definitely one to consider.

Jurowski has the gifts to strike all the right balances. His pacing, tempi, grasp of the work's architecture and gentle but firm refusal to "zoom" in and out of the high points, or to let Wagner's tonal clutch, grip, release and relaxation drive the drama are just what's needed. Instead Jurowski elicits from his forces a view of Wagner's personal, pessimistic yet compelling view of love, betrayal and loyalty which operates as a totality.

Tristan is a spectacular opera. Events do take their course relatively simply. But Wagner's matching of psychological insight with the musical intricacies (leitmotiv, instrumental color, juxtaposition of orchestral/vocal dynamic) ranges from the intimate to the broad orchestral. It must be understood and implemented carefully for the opera not to become a melodrama without heart. In this year of bicentenaries, this is a German, not a Verdian, opera. Consider it carefully.

Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey