Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

spacer Kampe, Connolly; Kerl, Dobber, Zeppenfeld, Gijsbertsen, Scheunemann, Kennedy, Mosley-Evans; Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jurowski. Text and translation. Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09 (3)

GlyndeTristanCD

Wagner and Glyndebourne are two names that rarely appear in the same sentence. Founded in 1934, the festival waited until 2003 to mount a Wagnerian work — no less a monument than Tristan und Isolde, in a production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. This live recording captures the intriguing result of the staging's 2009 revival.

The performance led by Russian-born conductor Vladimir Jurowski stands out for what it does not do. Signs of rhetorical originality or lingering philosophical rumination are scarce. Wagnerian exceptionalism is not telegraphed by insistence on severity, weight or depth. On the other hand, despite the size of the theater (1,000 seats), miniaturization is not the agenda. The orchestral textures are not so diaphanous as certain famous experiments of the past, such as Herbert von Karajan's "chamber-music" Ring in the 1960s, which aimed at radical transformation. Extremes, whether in pacing or dynamics, are not Jurowski's style. 

Two particular qualities, however, are enhanced by the Glyndebourne scale. The conductor excels at lyricism — as does his remarkable Isolde — which sometimes allows a discreet Italianate contour in the love music (as in the Act II tryst) or even in the sarcastic sweetness of the heroine's inflections, such as in citing the name "Marke" when Tristan asks why she has spared his life. German soprano Anja Kampe, the Isolde, has not just a bright, plummy timbre but a supple style that harks back to her considerable experience in Italian opera houses and Italian roles. She sounds a little light for the lower-lying passages, but she triumphs in the onrushing high notes in the duets (with a little help from the traditional cuts in the score, which also fit the recording onto three discs).

Kampe's intimate portrait is lavishly varied without fussiness, especially in the anguished early scenes wherein her Isolde betrays herself repeatedly — through softness, or through excessive details and painful hints, in which the listener may cringe for the character. The soprano can pack double meanings, solemn warnings, into her gentle voicing of lines such as "Wir sind am Ziel" (Our voyage is nearly over) or "Nun lass uns Sühne trinken" (Now let us drink to reconciliation). 

The other hallmark of this Tristan is relativism, the exploitation of countless degrees of subtle difference, played off one another. When the orchestra intrudes, as it so often does, with a premonition, a nagging reminder or the baring of a suppressed feeling, Jurowski's changes in rhythm and color are as dramatically forceful as the melodic identity of the theme itself. Echoes and contrasts enliven the dialogue, especially between the lovers; frequent use of rubato, in particular, unsettles the exchanges. And yet the precipitous drama feels spontaneous, never too busy or contrived. Even the Liebestod gains from contrasts — between the soprano's refined detailing of the quick, small-note arpeggios and the vast melodic waves suggesting transcendence. 

Vitality and sensitivity mark the work of most of the cast. Andrzej Dobber is a heart-on-sleeve Kurwenal; bass Georg Zeppenfeld makes a wrenching King Marke; and Sarah Connolly, while not always forceful in chest register, is a sympathetic, committed Brangäne, marvelous in her diction too, with contemptuously forced consonants in quoting Kurwenal's rudeness.

As for the robust, vivid Tristan of Torstan Kerl, his more generic helden-tactics make him seem almost an outsider here, as if he'd stepped in as a last-minute substitute. Should Tristan be a clueless soldier? Recent recordings led by Christian Thielemann and Marek Janowski, in contrast, invest the hero's early lines with lingering hints of sensitivity, which seem fully justified; after all, this is a character who can reflect, in Act III, "It was I myself who brewed that [love] potion" — an insight worthy of Freud. Kerl's Tristan is also a little short on tenderness, although his desperation in Act III rings true.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, with its unfailing gloss and warmth, keeps the conductor's generally taut pace from sounding at all threadbare. Instrumental solos are brilliant, and a beautifully timed and textured passage such as the opening of Act II — with its expert alternation of hunting horns and moonlight, menace and desire — is just one instance of the smart, focused quality of the performance as a whole. spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6