Tristan und Isolde

Donald Runnicles
Apollo Voices
BBC Symphony Orchestra
12 December 2002 [act 1]
5 [act 2] and 19 February 2003 [act 3]
Barbican Hall London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJohn Treleaven
IsoldeChristine Brewer
BrangäneDagmar Pecková
KurwenalBoaz Daniel
König MarkePeter Rose
MelotJared Hold
Ein junger SeemannMark Le Brocq
Ein HirtEugene Ginty
SteuermannJonathan Lemalu

“After dinner, in the presence of the children, R. plays from the second act of Tristan. Whether I am getting more and more receptive or pathologically sensitive, I don’t know, but I can hardly endure certain powerful impressions …” (Cosima Wagner – diary entry for 24 January 1869).

If anyone repeats the chestnut that there are no heroic Wagner sopranos to match past greats then insist they listen to Christine Brewer on this live recording based on broadcasts from London’s Barbican Hall. This is documentary evidence that Brewer must be discussed in the same bracket as Eileen Farrell, Rita Hunter, Traubel and even Flagstad.

Brewer’s majestic command, response to text and natural dramatic flair are miraculous. The ‘front’ of her voice is focused so that words are clear, as you would hear from a lyric soprano. Behind that there is a rich resonance, almost like a sound chamber that refracts the most extraordinary colours, including gorgeous burnished metals, and imparts all the dramatic soprano power required. Brewer’s tone is more beautiful, indeed warmer, than Nilsson’s penetrating timbre.

Can any soprano today sing the Liebestod so well? Brewer’s phrasing is perfectly natural and it is thrilling to hear her soar on the orchestral swell, high on the note, as if pushing up through some unseen barrier and into the skies. Brewer’s colours and security here don’t so much supersede Stemme on the recent Papano EMI recording, as blow her out of the water.

Incredibly, this is the first time Brewer sang a note of Isolde on stage. Whilst some patching sessions were needed before this performance was released commercially, none was required for her.

John Treleaven is a fine Tristan who may not have the most beautiful heldentenor on record but does beautiful things with it. I was most struck by the injected dark inwardness of “O sink hernieder … “, almost as if sung by a different voice to the previous lines. Also, sample the lines beginning “So starben wir, um ungetrennt …” where Treleaven moulds and colours with otherworldly intensity, holding the words as if he could not bear to let them go. A national newspaper review noted that Treleavan tires a little towards the end of Act III, but isn’t this the point dramatically?

Two other singers need special mention. Pecková’s earthy, vibrant mezzo is a superb contrast to her mistress’s sovereign radiance. Note the slightly hysterical desperation Pecková brings to the crisis that ends Act I. Peter Rose’s King Marke is blessed with a deep well of sound, dark and cool.

Runnicles’ conducting holds many insights such as ratcheting tension towards thunderous timps for the drinking of the love potion. Also try the gathering rhythmic force as worrying strings give way to biting brass, which never unduly overpower, as Isolde regrets sheltering Tristan (CD1, track 5). Brewer here brilliantly captures Isolde’s turmoil of grief and fury.

The Act II duet is surprisingly gentle so that the final crisis comes too suddenly. Compare with Furtwängler and Goodall who build the duet in more powerful, grander steps that really take the music airborne and generate conflagration. In the final moments of the duet Flagstad for Furtwängler hits “one consciousness” forte. Then the violins surge forward in plunge in a frankly sexual metaphor. Goodall begins the duet from “O sink hernieder … ” extremely tenderly, building over the next twenty minutes almost overwhelming waves of sound. His Isolde Linda Esther Gray sings “one consciousness” with searing power, her voice reminding me of a flaming sword held aloft in an English National Opera Tristan I saw years ago. Like Furtwängler, Goodall’s violins surge outward at this moment, plunging with the lovers’ abandonment.

Runnicles’ Act II crisis is compromised by distant strings and the woodwind are not clear enough. The Act I coda also lacks sheer volume. I wonder to what extent the BBC multi-miking is responsible? Listen to Goodall’s 25 year old Decca recording to hear how powerful, even violent, the orchestra can sound. The BBC engineers do however make the Barbican acoustic sound warmer than the LSO Live recordings. Applause is retained at the end of each act.

Warner Classics include a libretto and essay. Surprisingly, there are no biographies of the artists. The CDs are in cardboard sleeves, which I dislike as I worry they will be scuffed when slid in/out. The cover artwork includes corny Pre-Raphaelite imagery: yuk. If only the designers looked instead to ancient Celtic art, say, at the British Museum.

Furtwängler on EMI super-budget priced CDs remains an essential purchase. And try to find his 1947 live Berlin Staatsoper excerpts where the orchestral sound is less muddy and Furtwängler is utterly incandescent.

Despite Brewer, Pecková, Rose and the fine BBCSO, this new Tristan und Isolde gives way to the Goodall set. The Decca recording has more detail and range and the Mitchinson/Gray team is impressive. This is entirely subjective, and may seem perverse after my praise for the great Isoldes, but Gray is closer in my mind to the young Celtic sorceress. Gray’s legato phrasing, colouring and living dramatic response bring Isolde before this listener. Even Gray’s slight strain at the “world- breath” crescendo of the Liebestod seems more dramatically real: this is not a superstar soprano cleaving through symphonic sound but a young woman overwhelmed as she faces transfiguration.

Goodall outclasses even Furtwängler in Tristan. Wagner’s music flows and breathes with intimacy, passion and cosmic vision. The inner pulse and huge arches of sound, even at slower tempi, seem to transcend time itself. It is Goodall who reminds the listener most of the radical, dangerousness and eroticism that Cosima most probably sensed.

David Harbin

A new recording of this opera is not needed; in the past couple of years we’ve had two newly recorded ones of varying quality and there’s no dearth of others, both studio and previously “private”. Assuming you have the EMI Furtwängler, the Opera d’Oro Kleiber, and/or the Philips Böhm/Nilsson, you still might want to hear this version for a couple of reasons.

The primary one is the Isolde of Christine Brewer. Here is a voice of such grandeur and warmth that you might say she has the steel of Nilsson and the womanly qualities of Flagstad; of course, she is neither singer and I wouldn’t dream of removing an iota of sheen from their achievements in the role. Brewer’s voice, however, has great breadth and apparent limitless reserves of power. In a recording like this one, in which the tempos are broad and the orchestra–not an opera band but a Symphony Orchestra–is urged to play with great force and occasional disregard for the singers’ capabilities, she has no trouble riding over the waves of sound without a hint of effort, shouting, or anything other than great expressivity and musicality. You might call her Isolde “Italianate” if that didn’t imply certain stylistic tics. Her reading is that of a woman wronged, but so in love that she’s almost fragile. Her feelings are white-hot and very close to the surface; we can practically read her face. It’s a great portrayal.

It’s crucial to mention that this “live” performance was recorded on three separate evenings at which only one act of the opera was performed; this certainly might help to explain Brewer’s lack of strain. But congratulations anyway, and to the other reason Tristan fans may need this recording: the leadership of Donald Runnicles. Considering that Acts 1 and 3 were given almost three months apart, he has a remarkable grasp of the work’s collective drama, and while his tempos are on the leisurely side (the opera takes a half hour longer than Böhm’s), there’s no lack of tension. He builds to crescendos with masterful control and the BBC Orchestra is superb throughout.

The others in the cast do not dazzle. John Treleaven’s Tristan is certainly good enough: the voice has weight and is never in danger of letting him (or us) down, but you rarely want to hear more from him. Peter Rose’s Marke is similarly good but is not in a class with the likes of Talvela, Moll, or Pape. Dagmar Peckova sings handsomely as Brangaene but misses the mysterious, “night” quality that is so crucial to her second-act warning. Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal is good but lacks memorable moments. The sound is full and grand. In short, Brewer’s Isolde must be heard and Runnicles’ entry into the Tristan sweepstakes is very impressive; but if you can only own one, two, or three recordings of this opera, note the three mentioned in the first paragraph above.

Artistiic Quality: 7
Sound Quality: 9

Robert Levine

In a work on the scale of and with the sublimity of Tristan und Isolde, it is foolish to expect any performance or recording to be flawless: it’s safe to say none ever has been or ever will be. There are already several outstanding recordings in the catalogue, of which the first, made under Furtwängler in 1952, has long been recognised as the standard by which all others are judged. But Böhm’s exciting rather than moving account from Bayreuth, and Barenboim’s more recent one, also have very strong claims. Nonetheless, among modern accounts, this new one strikes me as altogether exceptional. Here is the record of three evenings at the Barbican, in 2002 and 2003, widely spaced performances of the three Acts, with some patching up done afterwards in the studio. This recording in some ways even surpasses those wonderful occasions in magnificence, with more detail from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Tristan of John Treleaven sounding far less strained than he did in the concert hall. Lacking a beautiful voice, he still makes a great deal of the part, and rises to noble heights in Act III. Christine Brewer is quite stupendous, the finest Isolde I have heard for decades, even though she was new to the part, and not entirely inside it – but the sound she makes! There is no weak link in the cast, even such a small role as the traitor Melot being sung with distinction by Jared Holt. And Donald Runnicles provides a very detailed account of this inexhaustible score. Listening to these discs straight through is a shattering experience.

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
542 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 939 MByte (flac)
Broadcast (BBC) of a concert performance