Tristan und Isolde
Marek Janowski, cond; Nina Stemme (
); Michelle Breedt (
); Stephen Gould (
); Arttu Kataja (
); Johan Reuter (
); Timothy Fallon (
); Kwangchul Youn (
); Berlin R S O & Ch
PENTATONE 5186404 (3 SACDs, 224:59
Text and Translation) Live: Berlin 3/27/2012
, reviewed by myself in
35:3, failed to impress, and I fear that the self-same caveats I voiced at that time apply to this
. In the case of the earlier piece, I wrote that “one is constantly delighted by detail along the way (the clarity of the sound helps), but in terms of dramatic trajectory the performance is somewhat lacking.” There, it was the disjunct nature of the performance I was complaining about. Here, it is a related inability to shape the acts into the narrative that is the problem. Böhm’s famous Bayreuth recording (similarly one act a disc) is well-nigh perfect in its melding of speed with tension. Nothing sounds rushed, because it was all true to the score and the story. Janowski has little of Böhm’s grasp. He has a fabulous orchestra, a generally good cast, and an amazing recording team. He just doesn’t have Wagner on board. His main achievement is to enable Wagner’s contrapuntal/Leitmotivic web to come to the fore, a direct result of his concentration on the music’s foreground. It works in the short term, and there is much delight to be had. If only he had married this to a longer-range outlook this would have been a
that could contend for shelf-space. As it stands, a single wallowing in the PentaTone audio bath should suffice for most.
The standard of recording and string sound can be heard immediately. Strings are gorgeous, especially when they are allowed to blossom out. Janowski’s act I Prelude sums up his reading: flowing and sinuous (like a highly strung bow, perhaps) yet curiously unable to transport us to Wagner’s world. In Act II his speeds are so swift that singers’ words occasionally become garbled. Perhaps the idea was to convey Isolde’s breathless impatience? If so, he fails and the music sounds plain rushed. He is also unable to whip up the frenzy of Isolde’s act I emotional turmoil, and it is difficult to believe that the lovers are completely wrapped up inside of each other at the end of the first act, an impression underscored by a well-drilled but uninvolved chorus. The opening of act II echoes the problems Janowski displays. The initial chord is caught in stunning sound, but lacks by some way the emotional rawness to qualify it as an
As Isolde, Nina Stemme (who sang the role in the Pappano/Domingo EMI recording) has a big, velvety voice that fits the part well. She can also hit the bullseye as she flings out notes from her higher register. Of all the singers, she is the one most consistently inside her part, yet her restless, unquenchable passion as she waits in act II is really not there. She takes center stage at the end of the music-drama, of course, and gives a touching “Mild und leise,” nearly, but not quite, lifting the performance at the 11th hour (unsurprisingly the climax is scuppered by Janowski, who underplays it). Her Brangäne, mezzo Michelle Breedt, is not as secure as Stemme and has a habit of clipping her phrases, at least initially (she is better in the exchanges with Kurwenal later in the first act).
The Tristan, Stephen Gould, shines in the final act vocally, with a decidedly
demeanor. Yet he does not sound desperate here (look to Melchior for this). The act II duet is underpowered emotionally, and Janowski seems to deliberately make it bass-light from the orchestra. Tristan’s second act entrance is not all-encompassing (contrast Böhm), and neither are the two lovers the epitome of ecstasy in any way. Here’s the rub: Actually the duet is quite boring after a while. Good voices, good voicing in the orchestra, yes, but no sense of flow, much less getting carried away in one. True, there is some tenderness to “O sink hernieder” but little rise to the climaxes.
As Marke, Kwanchul Youn is excellent. Heavy and dolorous, he is in many ways emotionally reminiscent of Kipnis (the latter’s 1941 “insert” into the 1940 Met/Leinsdorf Guild set 2266/68 is simply remarkable, for example). Yet the conductor’s accompaniment to Marke’s long section at the end of the second act is decidedly workaday. The comparison should give some impression of how Youn shines above the rest of Janowski’s cast, and he nearly elevates the final stages of act III to a true musical experience single-handedly. If Johan Reuter (Kurwenal) has a weakness, it is that he tries too hard to find the lyricism in his part. Timothy Fallon is a fair Sailor, initially quite narcissistic in his delivery (it sounds like he is stroking the phrases). The smaller roles are generally well cast, though.
Presentation, as always from PentaTone, is beyond reproach. Beautifully housed, with full libretto and plenty of reading material, it shouts top-class issue. The reality is somewhat different. Audio buffs may find much to admire, but musicians may be forced to look elsewhere in the search for Wagnerian truth.