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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Tristan und Isolde

Love, death and infidelity, both on stage and in real life.
Promotional image for the 2015 production of Tristan und Isolde at
The Bayreuth Festapielhaus. Direction and concept by Katherina Wagner
Copyright 2015 Bayreuther Festapiele.
There is nothing in the opera repertory quite like Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s meditation on love, death and longing baffled performers and audiences, taking almost a decade to finally reach the stage. When it was finally premiered in 1865 the tenor sang just four performances before dying. Since that inauspiciously start, Tristan has claimed the lives of two conductors since: both Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth died after conducting its second act.


It is a simple story. Tristan is a knight in the service of the Cornish King Marke, his uncle. He agrees to courier the Irish princess Isolde to Marke’s court to marry her to the old monarch. But before reaching shore, Isolde (who is secretly in love with Tristan) decides to kill herself and her escort. She commands her maid to serve them both a death potion, but  Brangäne substitutes one guaranteed to cause obsessive love. With their inhibitions thus removed, the two embrace passionately...just as the boat docks.

Act II is essentially a very long love duet, interrupted after about half an hour by the rude entry of Marke and his court. (Tristan and Isolde generally express the or feelings while sitting in a bench, singing loudly over a massive wave of orchestral sound.) Tristan is wounded and spends the third act at his castle in Brittany dying very, very slowly. Isolde arrives but is too late to save him. She sings a long, transcendent aria that resolves all the slithering chromaticism of what has gone before, and expires, reunited with her lover in death.

Wagner set aside the Ring in 1855 to begin work on this score, the start of a 12-year sabbatical from the world of German myth. He wrote his new opera at a white-hot pace. His inspiration was the Arthurian legend of Tristan and one Mathilde Von Wesendoncck, the wife of a wealthy Swiss silk merchant. Herr Wesendonck liked Wagner ’s work enough to grant him a stipend and accommodations at his summer cottage. Nobody knows if Richard and Mathilde ever consummated their relationship, but the composer's passion for the good frau resonates through every pageof this opera. (It also brought an end to his own 22-year marriage to his first wife, Minna.)

The Tristan score had no precedent and its power has never been duplicated. Starting with the famous, unresolved “Tristan chord” (F-B-D#-G#) it consisting of a long series of harmonic suspensions and chromatic discords, always teasing the ear with the possibility of resolution. This is music that can lift the soul out of the body or in some cases, send would-be listeners running out of the room. However, every finely ratcheted tension resolves in the Liebestod, the gorgeous final address delivered by Isolde over Tristan’s body, which ends in the musical equivalent of a massive and well-earned  orgasm.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Wilhelm Furtwängler (EMI 1952, mono sound)
Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the greatest conductors to ever pick up a baton. Here is his approach to Wagner, a tidal-wave of slow-motion eroticism building to unforgettable climaxes. This recording also captures Kirsten Flagstad at the tail end of her career (with her very highest notes interpolated by soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf) opposite the very fine tenor Ludwig Suthaus. It should be heard at least once.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm (DG/Philips 1966)
A live recording that captures the energy of Bayreuth in full bloom, this recording squares off the titanic talents of heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen and soprano Birgit Nilsson. She is not an Isolde to be messed with, but delivers tenderness in the love scene and the Liebestod as well as laser-like precision in the harrowing Act I monologue. A classic.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI/WBC 1972)
This might be von Karajan's best Wagner recording, a surging, swelling performance that drips with sensuality and orchestral color. He has a great pair of leads with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers delivering a harrowing third act and soprano Helga Dernesch glorious in the role of Isolde.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Carlos Kleiber (DG 1979)
Carlos Kleiber was one of the most idiosyncratic conductors of the 20th century, and it's not surprising that his studio Tristan from Dresden features unusual casting. Tenor René Kollo and soprano Margaret Price make the listener feel the intimacy and closeness between the lovers, especially in the glorious darkness of the second act. Brigitte Fassbaender, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Kurt Moll are luxuries in the supporting roles.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC 1994)
For this Tristan, Barenboim opted for singers he knew very well, with Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier cast as the titular lovers. Barenboim conducts the set like his mentor and inspiration Wilhelm Furtwängler, with lush, surging strings and detailed playing from the glorious Berlin orchestra. Quirky but in no way a disappointment. Look for future heldentenor Johan Botha in the tiny role of Melot.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.