There is no shortage of fine recordings of this intense hypnotic work-and this superb recording would join the ranks of the very best were it not for vocal deficiencies.
Recorded live at a concert in the Mozartsaal of the Konzerthaus Vienna in 2011, the marvellous acoustic which we know so well from recordings by Westminster in the early post-war era through to recordings with the RSO Wien today (and including many of Abbado's fine VPO recordings for DG) assists the Philharmonia in producing a really impressive weight of rich tone.
Brass, string tone and piercing woodwind are brilliantly caught-the blast of sound at the opening of the 5th door is hair-raising with the organ chords cutting through the weight of the orchestra.
Salonen is a master of early 20th Century works-his Gurrelieder available on Signum is wonderfully well conducted-and whereas Ivan Fischer gives the most luminous and eerie interpretation, reminiscent of Debussy's Pelleas, Salonen's approach is much more passionate and driven redolent of Tristan as much as any other work. He is nearest to Solti in his approach, without being quite so hard driven. It works wonderfully well.
Michelle de Young is an artist who frequently frustrates-she has made some superb recordings, and yet others where the vocal frailty surely portends the end of her career-only to be followed by later recordings where she is again superb!
Happily on this occasion she was in her best form, and she delivers a fine Judith-passionate, petulant, afraid and resigned by turns. I have no reservations about her performance at all.
On the other hand, John Tomlinson's Duke, his 5th recording (I've got 4 as I don't have the English version on Chandos) since his first with Haitink in 1996. His best-I use the word advisedly-is in my view his recording with Levine from Munich on Oehms-but even there the voice is ragged for much of the time.
In this recording the artist was 64, following a long career singing roles to which his voce was unsuited because they lay too high for his range. He is true Bass in the manner of Ludwig Weber rather than say Frick or Salminen and the warmth in the voice has tempted him to sing Wotan and Sachs as well as Hagen and Titurel.
At his best the top of the range was frail to put it mildly, but years of exposure have left his voice unsteady throughout. In this recording, he resorts to "sprechgesang", declamatory shouting, straining-and at times a fair attempt at maintaining a decent legato, but is always uncomfortable.
However, he catches the sense of the drama wonderfully well and makes a real character study of The Duke-it is a fine acting performance and as a result the singing is JUST tolerable, and in the context of the overall performance it is more than acceptable. It has to be said that he is a model of rock steady firmness compared to the likes of the much vaunted Eric Halfvorsen or Kurt Rydl, and it says much about the present vocal predicament that Tomlinson continues to be the default option for this role and is cast as Hagen in Vienna 2014.
The recording places the voices in a very realistic balance as a concert performance-not too far forward-and the whispered sighs are clearly heard from the ladies of the chorus-a real extravagance.
The spoken prologue has been added spoken in English by Juliet Stevenson-she delivers the poetic text wonderfully well, and I can readily forgive the incongruous English when delivered as affectingly.
What is the message of this spooky work-don't delve too far into the past of your partners, you might not like it-quit while you are ahead-don't marry Dukes who live in a foreboding castle with a history of disappearing wives? All of the previous and more, and Bartok's sinister yet moving Fairy Tale emerges yet again as a true masterpiece which should not repel any who fear his more experimental music.
The cd is short measure but reasonably priced, so is an attractive proposition but the competition is fierce-Ivan Fischer, Adam Fischer, Kertesz (still sounding great!), Levine, Boulez and Solti to name but a few offer fine alternatives and indeed the only recording I do not care for is the Gergiev which is unspeakably dull for much of the performance.
Salonen's earlier mentioned Gurrelieder suffers from the same problems as this recording-great conducting, truly great, superb playing and recording but plagued by singing requiring MAJOR allowances by the listener. 5 Stars Plus for conducting, recording and playing, 5 stars for de Young, 2 Stars for Tomlinson-4 Stars overall. Stewart Crowe.