Cher Public

Gould standard

Midway through his traversal of Wagner’s 10 mature operas for PentaTone, we’ve learned this about Marek Janowski: The no-nonsense maestro puts clarity and detail above the saturated sound and expressive phrasing many conductors employ to capture these works’ mysticism and grandeur.

It’s an approach seems less than ideal for Tristan und Isolde, an opera filled with ambiguities whose fabric fairly ripples with expressions of erotic desire. But Janowski’s newly released March 2012 concert performance with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and its chorus turns out to be the best installment in the series to date, a study in canny pacing and dramatic shadings with a top-notch cast led by Nina Stemme and Stephen Gould.

Capturing the essence of Tristan is no simple feat. Though its tragic love story can be summarized in a few moments and provides little outward action, Wagner utilizes mysterious words and beguiling orchestral narration to flesh out the characters over four hours and transport listeners into their psyches. Performing the opera in concert, while not ideal, relieves the singers of having to act out the passions that collide with the tale’s ethical restraints and places the focus entirely on the sheer intensity of Wagner’s melodic lines and force of the music’s climaxes.

Though this reading may not be in the league of say, Wilhelm Furtwangler’s epic 1952 recording, Janowski admirably delivers the goods, efficiently stitching the waves of leading motifs into a flowing narrative while staying attentive to the opera’s constantly shifting moods. PentaTone’s fine SACD sound helps capture the charged nature of the drama and the acoustics of Berlin’s Philharmonie, vividly bringing out individual sections of the orchestra and effects such as the offstage brass in Acts 1 and 2.

Stemme’s performance should be reason enough to buy the set and reinforces her standing as the preeminent Isolde today. Her formidable yet burnished soprano is seamless through the registers, surging effortlessly upward during the Irish princess’ Act 1 narration and curse, then turning tender and sublime during the lengthy Act 2 duet “O sink hernieder,” when Tristan and Isolde praise night and death as the only sanctuaries for their love. Her Liebestod is radiant.

Overall, this is a more vocally secure performance than Stemme’s 2005 EMI recording with Placido Domingo, where she seemed to get swamped in spots by Antonio Pappano’s intense orchestral accompaniment. Janowski is an attentive partner, giving the work a strong sense of forward motion while almost always maintaining a proper balance between the orchestra and her voice.

Gould—who spent the first decade of his career touring in Phantom of the Opera and other musical theater productions—more than holds his own here, dispatching Tristan’s punishing autobiographical narrative in the first scene of Act 3 with precision and passion and sensitively shaping long phrases in his scenes with Stemme. His is maybe not the most beautiful or colorful voice, but a sturdy one with nice baritonal shadings. And though there are some hints of strain singing over the huge orchestra, one got the feeling he could have kept going long past Tristan’s expiration.

Baritone Johan Reuter stands out among the rest of the cast as a sympathetic and totally committed Kurwenal. Though his voice isn’t very big, it conveys authority and adds a human dimension to a character that too often recedes into the background. The light-voiced mezzo Michelle Breedt tries a little to hard to wring meaning out of each of Brangane’s lines in a performance that at times sounds like a lieder recital.

As King Marke, bass Kwangchul Youn easily matches the orchestra’s sonorities but sounds bland and a bit shaky in his confrontation with Tristan at the end of Act 2. Tenor Timothy Fallon makes an energetic young sailor.

Janowski’s reading clocks in at a relatively fleet three hours 45 minutes but never sounds rushed. He draws some of the warmest and heartfelt playing in the moving prelude to Act 3 with its poignant English horn solo, and shapes the act’s dramatic arc into a feverish climax with Isolde’s entrance. Though there’s no holding back in such big moments, Janowski maintains a sense of proportion and taste that really makes one really appreciate his artistry. The orchestra and chorus sound totally committed to his approach.

Listeners who found the conductor’s Lohengrin, Parsifal and Meistersinger little more than cooly competent will probably find this Tristan a revelation. Heading into Wagner’s centennial year, it also makes one look forward to his reading of the Ring operas that will cap this series.

  • phoenix

    Thanks for the review -- very adroit & impressive.

  • Indeed! Terrific review.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Is there any note in the CD that talks about what performance materials were used for this recording? I wonder if it was made form the newly edited scores being introduced over the course of the centennial. Maybe that information is in the small print in the prublisher’s credit?

    • Adriel

      It’s the Schott edition.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        I thought so. Those are the recently generated newly edited orchestra materials, so that may have something to do with why this recording sounds a little different from others.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          How significant are the differences?

          • Quanto Painy Fakor

            I have no interest in hearing this recording, so I can’t tell you.

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            In the edition I mean, not the recording.

          • Quanto Painy Fakor

            The orchestra material is only available on rental. The complete purple covered collected works edition is extremely expensive. No sure if there will be new study scores that might be more affordable.

      • CarlottaBorromeo

        It’s interesting that when the new Schott complete edition was started (back in the 1970s now!) the publisher took the decision not to issue new performance materials that reflected what was in the full scores and that at last they have made the material available…

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Yes, and they are doing a complete new edition of the Richard Strauss operas too. Lots of facts in them thar mountains of paper for both Richards. Little by little the new Wagner material will enter the orchestra libraries of opera companies performing the works. The young players do not like and sometimes are not even able to read the old orchestra parts. It’s also very profitable for the publisher to do this now in view of the Wagner year.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Glad to hear Stemme is better here than she is for Pappano -- I find her so four-square on that recording. I ended up trading it in for something else, finding her really unrewarding and Domingo just a bit sad.

  • floridante2k

    I was at Marek Janowski’s Tannhauser in May 2012 in Berlin (Christian Gerharer as Wolfram!)… It was because of that performance I started to collect this series on SACDs… Swift, unsentimental and coherent performances!!!
    I actually listened to the Parsifal in one sitting at home !!!! and it was actually gripping for me from the beginning until the end (of all operas… Parsifal! LOL)
    I cannot recommend high enough for this series! I did not know Wagner was also a master of counterpoints until Janowski show-cased them during the performance :)

  • phoenix

    Don’t care much for Tristan und Isolde. I have already heard Stemme do it on broadcasts quite a few times -- I was not that impressed. But what I do like is how concise, professional and to the point this objective review by Adriel reads.

  • peter

    Nina Stemme is scheduled to sing Isolde in Houston next spring along with Ben Heppner. Does anyone know who his cover is?

    • Camille

      If it’s Texas, could it be JHM?
      I’m wondering this question as well. As it stands now, Big Ben is scheduled to sing Tristan in Toronto in late January/early February. Then the Tristan is scheduled for when—? April?

      Although the added attraction of the Stemme Isolde would point the way to Houston, although thus far I’ve only heard her in excerpts from the old recording and didn’t like it much, there is this persistent feeling I have that perhaps it may be all the better to try to hear him the first time, in Toronto.

      kashania has already warned me of the weather so I am all set for that. Melanie Diener is the Isolde, if I remember correctly, and that doesn’t exactly thrill me.

      I just don’t want to bother with all the expense and bother and end up with a substitute.
      This has been the unluckiest opera-going year of my life and hope to break the thrall of this spell.

  • sola soletta

    I was in the performance. The 4 hours flew away as if I were sitting in a Traviata performance. Janowski was so spontaneous and pragmatic that the music was nearly imperceptible. Gould was certainly the best from the entire cast. I don’t share the enthusiasm regarding Stemme. On record he voice seems to be huge and heavy. At the Philharmonie she was literally inaudible at some points. I’ve made the same experience with her in other music halls as well. With that throaty voice she has it’s very hard to have a sound that carries well in the house.

    • Camille

      Oh my goodness, that is exactly what my husband said about her voice in the concert version of Salome at Carnegie Hall this past spring. He was not that thrilled but I chalked it up to his being tired out after work at the day. He had preciously heard her, along with me, in San Francisco Opera’s Walküre and found her to be very good.

      I wonder what gives?

      • Camille

        After work at the end of the day, that is.