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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stellar Modern Tristan, 23 July 2008
This review is from: Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Audio CD)
Recordings of Wagner's greatest masterpiece seem to come in surges every decade that some promising artist or conductor comes to the scene with a vision to offer to eager Wagnerian ears. In the earlier part of the century, Furtwängler, Solti, Böhm, and Karajan gave the operatic world their interpretations of Wagner's subliminal masterpiece, each one miraculous and disappointing in their own ways. Three of these are considered classics, and indeed such recordings deserve the praise that has been heaped upon them for the unique insight the team of artists have bequeathed to the score. Furtwängler gave the music a febrile intensity, Karajan an erotic swell, Solti an orgasmic drive, and Böhm a neurotic vehemence. Each had their merits and their imperfections, yet these recordings have stood the test of time due to the quality of the Wagnerian singing captured in those times when stentorian voices once walked the operatic stage. Years later, Kleiber, Bernstein, and Goodall recorded the work and reshaped the audience's perceptions on a work that for all its connections to 19th century romanticism acquires a somewhat timeless element due to the stylized way Wagner addresses the subject of forbidden love. Times have changed, and so have the way conductors viewed the thematic foundations of Tristan und Isolde. Goodall was perhaps the stalwart of a bygone era, but his cast was perhaps more modern than any of those captured by his contemporaries, an example of this being his magnificent Isolde, Linda Esther Grey. Kleiber offered a radically different view of the score that seemingly removed several tenets of traditional Wagnerian conducting, but what was set in place was a feverish passion that characterizes the conductor's rare forays into the recording studio. Pity that the main principals of his cast were nowhere near equipped to tackle the demands of the score to a true Wagnerian scale. Bernstein's recording is a self-indulgent recording redolent of his inability to separate his personality from the score. It didn't help that his cast was inadequate to respond to the demands of Wagner's vocal line.

The last wave of Tristans to come to the market started with this 1995 Tristan with Barenboim followed by three wonderful recordings conducted by Thielemann, Pappano, and Runnicles. The last three have several things that are commendable about them, the best perhaps being Pappano's Tristan with the tireless yet beautiful tenor of Placido Domingo. Pappano gives the score a Mediterranean legato absent from many Teutonic visions of the work, yet he also imbues it with an intensity akin to Carlos Kleiber's fantastic theories about the score. It helps that many of the 21st century's greatest Wagnerian singers (including Nina Stemme, a great Isolde, and Rene Pape, the greatest bass singer of this century) were lined up in the studio to capture their interpretations for posterity. Thielemann is a fantastic Wagner conductor, yet his first forays into Tristan in his live Vienna performance found him in the embryonic stages of his ability to interpret the complexity of Wagner's score. His cast is merely efficient. Runnicles is perhaps the closest thing many listeners will find in a traditional Wagner conductor. His ability to color a score with his orchestra is simply breathtaking, and his knack for broadening a phrase goes hand in hand with his probing insights into the score. Orchestrally, his Tristan is one of the best out there. In the vocal department, the crown jewel in his cast is the Isolde of Christine Brewer, opulent and passionate yet also accurate and powerful. In fact, besides the Tristan of John Treleaven, the rest of the cast deliver highly committed performances, with special mention going to Dagmar Peckova's Brangäne and Boaz Daniel's Kurwenal.

Then there is this Tristan from a decade earlier conducted by Daniel Barenboim. In my opinion, no other conductor today can quite match Barenboim for his ability to bring a wealth of insight to this highly complex score while at the same time providing the listener with a sound world touched by his ability to draw a luxuriant phrase and paint a complete mosaic of colors to an opera brimming with these key musical elements. He, along with Furtwängler, is perhaps the greatest thing to happen to Wagner's masterpiece. Just listen to the perfect emotional balance he captures in each of the three acts. His Act 1 is a paragon of neurotic intensity, capturing the white hotness of Böhm's hand while at the same time allowing the score to breath akin to the way Furtwängler or Runnicles will shape a phrase. His Act II recalls Karajan's unique way of bringing out the highly sexual and erotic nature of the score while at the same time giving it Kleiber's extremely textured way of bringing out the more delicate aspects of the music. His Act III is on a class of its own, the surges and waves of anguish, pain, delirium and hope clashing violently and passionately without ever once losing control. For the conducting alone would I buy this recording. It helps too that the sound is simply to die for, in addition to the wonderful contribution of the legendary Berlin Philharmonic.

The other aspect of this recording that makes it such an attractive find are the principals who are able to sing not only with musical accuracy and tonal beauty, but also the kind of abandon that literally gives the characters a face without actually seeing a visual representation of the opera. Like Nilsson and Windgassen before them, Meier and Jerusalem imbue the title roles with such thespian intensity that they immediately lose themselves in the roles. Waltraud Meier is perhaps the best Isolde of her age. Her stamina is simply outstanding, as one can attest from the many live performances where her beautiful Isolde is preserved. Her commitment to the text is even more beguiling. No one else, not Stemme, Brewer, or Voigt, have the kind of vocal and theatrical resources Meier can command when she is in her element. Her Act I reading is perhaps the greatest next to Nilsson, while her Act II is tender and loving. Her Liebestod is an essay of how this opera should be ended--rapturously and beautifully. Jerusalem, likewise, is a fantastic Tristan who does not resort to the kind of sprechstimme-like vulgarities less limber tenors subscribe to when their vocal resources are depleted by this incredibly difficult role. His Act III is aided by an artist whose intelligence is coupled to a voice brimming with lyric beauty and a dusky, baritonal timbre. He also stands as an effective partner to the highly committed Meier.

The supporting cast is excellent, the best of them being Matti Salminen as a very noble and tragic Marke. Marjana Lipovsek sounds slightly strained as Brangäne, and while she will never erase memories of Christa Ludwig in the role, she nonetheless provides listeners with a highly alert and responsive interpretation of Isolde's maid. Falk Struckmann sounds right as Kurwenal, his voice tailored to the part for its edgy roughness.

For its musical and vocal merits, I can say that this is perhaps one of the best places to start if you want to explore the intricacies of Wagner's greatest opera.
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Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner (Audio CD - 1995)
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