Tristan und Isolde

Wladimir Jurowski
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
3 August 2009
Glyndebourne Opera House Lewes
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanTorsten Kerl
IsoldeAnja Kampe
BrangäneSarah Connolly
KurwenalAndrzej Dobber
König MarkeGeorg Zeppenfeld
MelotTrevor Scheuneman
Ein junger SeemannPeter Gijsbertsen
Ein HirtAndrew Kennedy
SteuermannRichard Mosley-Evans
Voix des Arts

One of the rarest commodities in opera in the Twenty-First Century is self-cognizance, a quality as important for opera companies as for individual singers. In an economic environment that has presented even the largest, most financially-solvent companies with tremendous challenges, too many companies have gambled on productions or whole seasons that mistook individual ambitions for legitimate artistic integrity, risking alienating dedicated audiences as standing endowments dwindled or were raided to produce temporary stability. One of the most thrilling aspects of opera is the unexpected triumph of confounded expectations, however, and this recording of Tristan und Isolde is a product of one of the most successful operatic experiments of the past decade. Many eyebrows were arched in doubt when it was announced that Glyndebourne’s 2003 season would feature the company’s first staging of a Wagner opera. From the days of its founding, when Fritz Busch presided over Mozart productions that set new standards both for stylish singing and interpretations on an appropriate scale, Glyndebourne has been the foremost example of a company that understands its limitations and plans its seasons accordingly: risks have been taken, to be sure, but never without the potential consequences having been carefully assessed. To stage a Wagner opera is a mammoth undertaking, and even companies with greater resources of space and funding than Glyndebourne have begrudgingly left the Bard of Bayreuth’s scores to larger houses. What many performances during the past half-century have obscured is the fact that, despite their large orchestras and larger-than-life characters, Wagner’s operas are, in their purest forms, very intimate. The passions of Tristan und Isolde are intensely personal, and performing the opera in a venue like Glyndebourne offers a rare opportunity to genuinely sing the opera on a scale that allows the emotions to simmer as the composer intended rather than shouting it to the last row of the highest balcony. Like Fritz Busch’s Mozart performances and Vittorio Gui’s bel canto outings, Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde proved a credit to the company and to Wagner, and this recording proves an important addition to the opera’s discography and a worthy celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial.

Any performance of Tristan und Isolde depends heavily upon the efforts of the orchestra and conductor, and this recording benefits enormously from the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski. Impressive, too, are the singers of the Glyndebourne Chorus, who produce wonderfully blended tone that is audibly shaped by the rich British tradition of choral singing but is never restricted by it. Unquestionably one of the world’s foremost orchestras, the London Philharmonic have nonetheless never sounded better on records than in this performance. The balance of the string playing is exceptional, and the woodwinds are beautifully recorded. The harp, gloriously played by Helen Sharp, has greater prominence in the recorded balance than it often has in the opera house, and this contributes to the intimacy of the performance. Under Maestro Jurowski’s baton, the orchestral playing is responsive to the demands of each scene. The tension achieved in the moments before the Love Duet in Act Two is phenomenal and lends the subsequent duet a palpable erotic charge, and both the orchestra’s playing and the clarity with which it is recorded support the singer to render Isolde’s Liebestod a breathtaking catharsis. The ‘Tristan chord’ that resounded through European musical circles like a volcanic eruption here sounds newly-minted. Maestro Jurowski is one of today’s unsung heroes of opera: while the conductors favored with contracts with major record labels do combat with largely indifferent, uninspired performances, Maestro Jurowski quietly graces the world’s opera houses and concert halls with superbly uncluttered performances of the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. In this performance of Tristan und Isolde, Maestro Jurowski focuses on realizing every musical and dramatic goal of Wagner’s score rather than seeking cheap effects or imposing qualities that seek to make the performance ‘his.’ Allowing the opera to reveal its power on its own terms is an approach that is virtually unique to Maestro Jurowski, however, and the emotional directness of the performance confirms how much more skill is required to conduct an opera like Tristan und Isolde idiomatically rather than idiosyncratically.

It is widely acknowledged that the principal rôles in Tristan und Isolde are extremely difficult to cast under the best of circumstances, but how many performances are marred by poor showings in supporting rôles! Consistently strong casting of secondary parts is one of the glories of Glyndebourne, and the cumulative impact of this performance is enhanced by the excellent singing of the artists to whom supporting rôles are entrusted. Vocally, the performance could hardly be launched more impressively than by the poised singing of the Shepherd of tenor Peter Gijsbertsen. Mr. Gijsbertsen’s rôle is not large, but he sings appealingly in a part that can sink a performance of Tristan und Isolde before the vessel is out of the harbor when it is sung unimpressively. Equally impressive is Andrew Kennedy’s Sailor, the plangent sound of Mr. Kennedy’s beautiful tenor allied with a Lieder singer’s formidable command of text. Richard Mosley-Evans contributes strongly to Act Three as the Steersman, his exchanges with Kurwenal heightening the drama. The Melot of Trevor Scheunemann, a wonderful singer too little represented on disc, is also a strong, bracingly masculine performance, the character’s duplicity convincingly portrayed without overwrought villainy: for once, it is possible to regard Melot as a viable rival for Isolde’s affection—in his own esteem, at least—rather than merely a jealous, petulant hothead.

Kurwenal is one of Wagner’s most ambiguous characters: central to the drama, he has some fine music but makes little impression in many performances. Baritone Andrzej Dobber’s singing ensures that this is not the case in this performance. Mr. Dobber finds in Kurwenal a virtually ideal rôle for his robust, slightly blunt voice, and he fully explores every dramatic opportunity offered by the music. Despite the tough, sinewy quality of the voice, there is a certain measure of tenderness in this Kurwenal’s interactions with Tristan, as well as an audible sense of mystery that increases the rôle’s dramatic profile. Mr. Dobber discloses a straightforward way with the text that is effective both on a broad scale and in small details. If Mr. Dobber is a somewhat unlikely Wagnerian, he is in this performance a very successful one: it would be interesting to hear him as Klingsor in Parsifal in a venue like Glyndebourne, where he could sing the part without the need for forcing the voice.

Wagner lavished some of his best music for the bass voice on König Marke. In a sense, Marke is like Gurnemanz but with considerably less to say: he is the moral axis upon which the drama turns, and it is his disappointment—he is too noble for anger—and magnanimity that expand the opera’s tragedy from a personal to a communal one. Most of the accomplished Wagnerian basses of the past century have recorded Marke, and Georg Zeppenfeld joins their ranks with a memorable performance in this recording. Mr. Zeppenfeld’s voice is one of the few heard in recent seasons that is equal to the demands of his rôle, and his singing is this performance is often masterful. Not surprisingly, his diction is superb, but his phrasing is occasionally awkward. The ease with which Mr. Zeppenfeld descends into his lower register is impressive, however, and the dignity with which he delivers Marke’s lines, completing avoiding any histrionic excesses, is touching and adds meaningfully to the understated eloquence of the performance.

In a large house like Covent Garden or the Metropolitan Opera, Sarah Connolly might struggle to be heard in some of Brangäne’s more extroverted moments, not least her outburst after Isolde’s Narration and Curse, when she is asked to soar to her top A over the full power of the orchestra. Heard in the warm acoustic of Glyndebourne, her performance is little short of perfect, and her voice takes to Glyndebourne’s microphones winningly, sounding fresh and sparklingly beautiful in all registers. All of the qualities that make a Brangäne unforgettable—insightful use of text, idiomatic phrasing, a warmly feminine timbre, audible concern for her mistress—are evident in Ms. Connolly’s singing throughout the performance. Ms. Connolly does not possess the vocal amplitude of Christa Ludwig, but she shares Ludwig’s intelligence for adapting her voice to the demands of the music at hand and the space in which she is singing. So affectionate and obviously prophetic are her exchanges with Isolde in Act One that the title princess seems more than usually ungrateful in ignoring Brangäne’s entreaties. Ms. Connolly’s singing is so alert to emotional nuances that her hands can practically be heard shaking as she prepares the fateful love potion. The great test of any Brangäne is her Watch in Act Two, and in this performance Ms. Connolly rises to the occasion with the unstinting radiance of a great singing actress. Only lovers in the throes of an insurmountable passion could be oblivious to this Brangäne’s baleful warnings, and the terror in Ms. Connolly’s voice as she foretells Melot’s treachery is gripping. The love with which this Brangäne addresses her mistress in Act Three is very moving. Ms. Connolly has total command of her voice and knows precisely what she can do with it, and she provides as complete a performance of Brangäne as has ever been recorded, and the fact that she accomplishes this level of Wagner singing with a voice that is no less stylish in the music of Händel is remarkable. More than in almost any other performance in recent years, one longs to know what becomes of Brangäne after her mistress’s death. How many Brangänes inspire this sort of sympathy?

During the past decade, tenor Torsten Kerl has been gradually taking on heavier repertory, his Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio having been admired at Glyndebourne and his Kaiser in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten winning praise in a concert performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and scheduled to be heard at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2013 – 2014 Season. Tristan is not a rôle than even a prodigiously-gifted tenor can afford to assume on a whim, and Mr. Kerl has generally exhibited a caution in pacing his career that suggests that he did not take on Tristan without feeling that the time was right. In this performance, all of the strengths and weaknesses of Mr. Kerl’s singing at its best are in evidence. Contrasting with the nasality of the timbre is Mr. Kerl’s reliable security in the upper register, something lacking in many Tristans. In Act One, Mr. Kerl is attractively boyish, conversing with Isolde with deepening interest. The brightness of the upper voice is telling in Act Two’s Love Duet, Mr. Kerl’s sensual exchanges with Isolde pouring out like molten silver. Mr. Kerl’s vocal security permits close attention to the text, his efforts at poetic phrasing reaching fruition in an exceptionally nuanced, beautifully-voiced account of Tristan’s death scene. The way in which Mr. Kerl’s Tristan reverts to the boyish wonder of Act One as he reacts to the sighting of Isolde’s ship in Act Three is sublime. Many good Tristans are upset by the challenging tessitura of the death scene, but Mr. Kerl maintains excellent mastery of line even as the voice comes under attack by the vocal range. He does not manage his generally wonderful performance without forcing the voice, but Mr. Kerl emerges with far fewer vocal wounds than many Tristans.

In addition to being one of the world’s reigning Sieglindes in performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre, a rôle that she recorded to acclaim with Valery Gergiev, Anja Kampe was lauded opposite Mr. Kerl as Leonore in Glyndebourne’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, also available on CD. In the era in which Kirsten Flagstad sang Sieglinde and Leonore, these rôles might have been thought apt training grounds for Isolde, but subsequent generations have suggested otherwise. In recent years, singers who have excelled in all three rôles have been woefully few, and one of the best of them—Waltraud Meier—is a mezzo-soprano! Like Ms. Connolly’s Brangäne, Ms. Kampe’s Isolde would be sorely tested in larger houses, but at Glyndebourne she finds an ideal setting for what proves to be a marvelous conception of the rôle. It must be said from the start that Ms. Kampe’s voice is not an ideal Isolde instrument, at least not along traditional lines: the timbre is more penetrating than truly beautiful, and the upper register can be raucous, especially when under pressure. Wisely, Ms. Kampe does not linger over the highest notes in this performance—which, of course, is what Wagner intended, as none of the famously exposed top notes is long sustained in the score. In the Narration and Curse in Act One, there is crushing sadness as Isolde sings of the death of her betrothed, Morold, and her indignation builds to a blazing climax as she contemplates Tristan’s escape from justice. No other Isolde on records leans quite so strongly into the text as Ms. Kampe does in her singing of the line, ‘ich ließ es fallen’ (‘I let it [the sword that she held ready to punish Tristan] fall’), elucidating her shame and self-reproach for having failed to take vengeance on Tristan when he lay incapacitated at her feet. Ms. Kampe’s singing of the Curse is powerful but also tinged by sorrow: these are more ambiguous sentiments than Martha Mödl’s all-consuming anger or Astrid Varnay’s wounded pride. The high notes do not come without effort, but they come without fail. It is all the more surprising, then, that the fearsome pair of top Cs in the Love Duet are brilliantly delivered. Ms. Kampe’s Isolde and Ms. Connolly’s Brangäne seem more like sisters than mistress and servant, a Wagnerian Norma and Adalgisa, and there is less haughtiness in Ms. Kampe’s Isolde than in many performances of the part. The refulgence of Ms. Kampe’s singing in the Love Duet is magnificent, and she and Mr. Kerl seem to be the rare Tristan and Isolde who are listening to rather than merely singing at one another. In Act Three, as Isolde’s disbelief and fear are transformed into acceptance and realization of purpose, Ms. Kampe’s voice takes on a perceptible brightness: drained of the darker colorations of regret and uncertainty, the voice moves through the mounting rapture of the Liebestod with golden tone. A small miscue in the Liebestod is remedied by Ms. Kampe’s admirable breath control, and if her final high F-sharp does not conform to Wagner’s pianissimo marking it certainly conveys the transcendence of terrestrial pain. Many latter-day Isoldes either act or sing the part compellingly: few singers achieve both distinctions. Like Hildegard Behrens, Ms. Kampe does not possess a voice of the proportions traditionally associated with Isolde’s music, but traditions do not sing Isolde. Ms. Kampe is not a conventional, Hochdramatische Isolde: rather, in ways that elude so many sopranos, even those with gigantic voices, she is Wagner’s Isolde.

It should surprise no one that, having taken on a project, Glyndebourne devoted the full measure of their resources to seeing that project realized with the extraordinarily high level of achievement typical of the company throughout its history. A decade ago, many opera lovers questioned why Glyndebourne would grapple with the operas of Richard Wagner: this recording cancels any doubts about the suitability of the venue for Wagner performances. As with the music of any composer, the most critical element of performing Wagner’s operas successfully is giving the music its due. The orchestras are large, the dramas are made of such stuff as the annihilation of humanity, and the demands made of the singers are formidable, but the operas of Wagner do not require multi-million-dollar productions in halls that seat thousands: they need the attention of musicians who love them, understand them, and give them the best of their artistry, and Glyndebourne’s recording of their 2009 revival of Tristan und Isolde preserves an occasion on which all of those needs were fulfilled. This is a Tristan und Isolde with which the Wagnerian will need no potion in order to fall in love.

Joseph Newsome | 16 September 2013

Intimate Tristan from Jurowski at Glyndebourne

This recording, taken from performances at Glyndebourne in August, 2009, is unique in its scale. Playing in a small house, with what I suspect is a slightly reduced orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski leads more in the Böhm than Karajan or Furtwängler mode, which is to say he favors somewhat quick tempos and a nervous energy and “snap” at crucial moments. His Act 3 prelude is a bit too fast, but his Liebestod is spacious; similarly, he gives King Marke plenty of room in his monologue, allowing the man’s grief to win out over his anger. This is a Tristan performance that emphasizes the sadness; rarely have I heard a Kurwenal with such a tear in his voice in the last act; rarely have I heard an Isolde sound so inward in her brief explanation to Marke near the close of Act 2, or from her entrance in Act 3 to the opera’s end. The LPO plays brilliantly, with mania leading up to the calm of the Love Duet and an abandon during Tristan’s third-act ravings that is terrifying. And while Jurowski never holds back the volume during the big moments, either the Glyndebourne acoustics or the engineers have made certain that each word and note of the singers is heard. During tender passages, the beautifully played strings act as cushioning; it’s a beautiful performance. Jurowski has no axe to grind and no idiosyncratic tendencies. And just for the record, the performance takes three minutes less than Pappano’s and five minutes more than Böhm’s.

The singing is superb. Torsten Kerl’s can be an uneven tenor, with a leathery quality. Here that rarely creeps in; he is tireless, observes dynamics, and actually seems to be reacting to his Isolde. His rantings in the last act are wild but always on the note, with the high notes ringing and true. His reaction to the sighting of the ship is almost child-like—a treat, a life-saving treat—and his first-act duet with Islode has a similar excitability. He doesn’t frighten, as does Vickers, but he’s stronger than Windgassen and more idiomatic than Domingo. And he has more energy than Heppner, if not the high quality of tone.

Anja Kempe is close to perfect: a gleaming, rock-solid sound with great warmth in the middle. She never turns shrill. She offers two cut-short B-naturals in the Narrative and Curse but is generous with the high Cs at Tristan’s Act 2 entrance. I suspect that her sound is not of a Nilsson/Varnay/Mödl size, but that doesn’t matter here. Lacking Nilsson’s icy anger or Mödl’s unbridled rage, she is a regretful Isolde from the start, very human and very young and impressionable.

Sarah Connolly’s Brangaene, like her mistress, is not huge-voiced. Best known as a Handel specialist, Connelly, with her concern, intelligence, and handsome tone, is an unusually sympathetic Brangaene—scared for her mistress in a familial way. Similarly, Andrzej Dobber seems more a peer than a manservant to Tristan as Kurwenal. The voice is solid if unyielding (no Fischer-Dieskau teensy subtleties here), and his fraternal love for and protection of Tristan are touching indeed. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Marke also plays for intimate grief rather than regal rage: his voice is a strong pillar of sound but he never pushes it.

The others in the cast—Trevor Scheunemann’s Melot, Peter Gijsbertsen’s Sailor, Andrew Kennedy’s Shepherd, and Richard Mosley-Adams’ Steersman—are thoroughly involved, as is the Glyndebourne Chorus, lively and responsive in the first act. I suspect that this set will not please the Goodall/Furtwängler more-epic-than-thou crowd, and it lacks the combination of mania and tenderness of Kleiber (Opera d’Oro and DG) or the sheer tension of Böhm, but it is a wonderful performance and should be heard.

Artistiic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9

Robert Levine

Last year I reviewed a DVD of this Glyndebourne production, originally staged in 2003 by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, reissued as part of Opus Arte’s mammoth Wagner Edition. This set of CDs features an entirely new set of performers from that earlier Glyndebourne version. Unfortunately it also retains one feature of the original issue about which I complained bitterly: the dreadful cut in the opening section of the Love Duet in Act Two. To save readers having to plough through the whole of my extremely lengthy previous review, I will repeat here what I said on that occasion: “The dichotomy between darkness and night, of which Wagner makes so much in the text, is rendered totally nonsensical because of the cut that is made in the first half of the duet. Now this cut was standard practice in many theatres until the 1960s (it helped the two leading singers to keep their voices fresh) but it has since become discredited, and quite rightly so. The discussion between the two lovers – how the daylight blinded them to their mutual attraction, and how their love could only blossom in the world of night – is central to the whole of the plot as it develops: their reference to the realm of night as a consummation devoutly to be wished, and Tristan’s continual agonies in the realm of light in the Third Act.”

At the time of the earlier review I expressed amazement than producer Nikolaus Lehnhoff and conductor Jiri Bĕlohlávek had allowed the cut to be made. I am even more astonished that it should have continued to be perpetrated when this recording was made by Vladimir Jurowski six years later. The booklet note quotes a review from the Sunday Telegraph of the stage production where the unattributed critic states that Jurowski “shaped the Act II Love Duet as a beautiful arc.” Well, it is easier to obtain such an arc (I suppose) when ten minutes of music or so has been cut; but it is extraordinary that the critic concerned should have overlooked the fact of the truncation when making his comments.

The cut does have the dubious advantage of allowing each of the three Acts to be contained complete on a single CD, although this may also be due to Jurowski’s sometimes eccentrically fast speeds. Actually he indulges himself in extremes of speed throughout, both faster and slower than usual. This has the unexpected side-effect of making the faster passages seem faster than ever and sometimes seems to leave both singers and players sounding positively breathless with some of the string playing decidedly hustled. It is exciting, but it is unconventional. The durations of each Act are indeed very close to those of Karl Böhm’s controversial Bayreuth performances, and a mile removed from Leonard Bernstein’s or Reginald Goodall’s approaches. Jurowski makes some rather odd choices: when the music of the Liebestod makes its initial appearance in the Love Duet (CD 2, track 8), it is taken very slowly, only to speed up after a few bars – a procedure for which I can find no justification in the score. When the music returns at the end (CD 3, track 11) Jurowski finds a different solution, which could be viewed as a valid response to the changed dramatic situation – the Liebestod is, after all, the consummation of the Love Duet, not an imitation of it. On the other hand, passages such as the flute arpeggios which illustrate Tristan’s vision of the fluttering flag on Isolde’s approaching ship, which Cecil Forsyth cites so approvingly in his Orchestration but which are almost invariably covered by the rest of the orchestra in other performances, come through loud and clear in a manner which makes Forsyth’s enthusiasm entirely understandable (CD 3, track 5, 11.00).

Comparison of the singing with the earlier Glyndebourne recording is a matter of swings and roundabouts. On the DVD Nina Stemme produced an Isolde both heroic and womanly, a beautifully judged lyrical performance which still managed to raise the roof at climaxes. Here Anja Kampe is more purely lyrical, and passages such as the end of the Narration clearly tax her to the limit especially at Jurowski’s swift speed. In the Second Act she sounds more fully inside the role, and she tackles her high Cs at the beginning of the Love Duet fearlessly. Just before this point, however, her instruction to Brangaene to keep watch lacks a sense of command – she might almost be asking her to check whether the napkins are properly folded – which goes against the imperious nature of Wagner’s lines (CD 2, track 2, 12.56). Some Isoldes can sound tired by the time of their return at the end of the last Act, but there is no evidence of that here.

Torsten Ralf here is a more conventionally tenor Tristan than the baritonal-sounding Robert Gambill in the original production. His voice is also slightly under-powered at climaxes – notably just before the lovers drink the supposed poison – but nevertheless manages to cut through the turbulent orchestration. During the Love Duet, the low-lying passage “O sink hernieder” finds him rather more baritonal in sound, with a tendency to sit on the flat side of the note which becomes really worrying in the later section beginning “Unsrer Liebe?” where his tuning becomes very suspect indeed. For some reason he is much surer in intonation in the Third Act; were the recordings taken from different performances?. He rises to his hysterical outpourings with real involvement and dramatic fire. Nor does he lack lyricism in his contemplative “Wie so selig” (CD 3, track 7). Sarah Connolly is a superb Brangaene, as one would expect, not at all overpowered by the Wagnerian orchestra. It is a shame that her big solo from the watchtower in the Second Act is phrased with such delicacy that it is sometimes almost inaudible from offstage; this despite the diaphanous playing of the orchestra – CD 2, track 5. Andrzej Dobber as Kurwenal sounds very young by the side of his master in Act One, and his responses to the Shepherd at the beginning of Act Three are rather matter-of-fact. One misses the inwardness of singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Eberhard Waechter here. In a line like “Schreckliche Zauber!” he resorts to a sort of Bayreuth bark which disturbs the musical line (CD 3, track 6, 11.03).

George Zeppenfeld is a tower of strength as the betrayed King, with a real richness of tone and beautiful sound. This is immeasurably superior singing to his King Henry in the Bayreuth Lohengrin three years later, where one suspects he may have been suffering from the appalling characterisation imposed on him by the producer. It is not unknown for the part of Melot to be taken by a baritone – Bernd Weikl did it for Karajan’s later recording – but Wagner did specify the part for a tenor. It has become almost a custom for this small role to be assigned to an up-and-coming heldentenor as a vehicle on which to cut his teeth. Trevor Scheunemann certainly sounds very baritonal indeed. It is hard to believe that the role could not have been more appropriately cast. The smaller roles – Shepherd, Steersman and Young Sailor are well taken, although again the unaccompanied solo for the latter from offstage discloses some slightly suspect tuning. Andrew Kennedy doesn’t really get the ultimate sense of desolation which can be wrung out of a line like “Öd und leer das Meer” (CD 3, track 3, 3.01).

The audience is very well-behaved indeed. There is one unfortunate cough during the passage where Isolde and Brangaene are discussing the merits of their relative potions during Act One, but none of the hacking that interrupted Böhm’s live Bayreuth performance which I reviewed recently. The applause at the end of each Act is edited down to a sensible half a minute or so; oddly enough the DVD recording of the original cast cut out the applause altogether. The recorded balance is generally very good, with the singers only occasionally caught off-mike. The orchestra comes through well with plenty of detail audible. The production, like many of these new Glyndebourne sets, is handsomely packaged with plenty of photographs, text and English translation. There are synopses in English, French and German. I am afraid that the miscellaneous drawbacks noted in this review can hardly lead to an endorsement for this set over the many excellent recordings in the current catalogue except for those who want a souvenir of the Glyndebourne performances or these particular singers. One would certainly have enjoyed this performance immensely in the opera house, but for home listening without the benefit of the stage presence one might look elsewhere.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Opera News

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.


This Tristan is a compelling, well-wrought, charged – even soulful – live recording made during several performances in August 2009 at Glyndebourne. The five principals (Anja Kampe – Isolde, Torsten Kerl – Tristan, Sarah Connolly – Brangäne, Andrzej Dobber – Kurwenal and Georg Zeppenfeld – King Mark) are all first rate. They enter their roles with conviction and passion. Yet none exceeds the bounds which Wagner set in order for the music drama to be tight and full of the lasting impact which thrills in the best performances. This set has no spurious emotions; no histrionics; each action, each sung or portrayed feeling has a reason.

The playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their dynamic Principal Conductor and Artistic Director, Vladimir Jurowski, is sweet, sensitive, seductive and technically contained, respectful of the score, and highly supportive of the principals. The Glyndebourne Chorus, too, participates actively to convey the tragedy, the inevitability of doomed love. The balance in the recording happily ensures that we both hear the singing as we would if sitting in the Glyndebourne auditorium, and yet benefit from the clarity of enunciation which distinguishes these singers’ performances.

For all the control and rigor of the conception with which Jurowski distinguishes this performance, there is passion, drive and momentum: listen to the ways in which the dialogs develop in passages like the “Herr Tristan trete nah” in Act I [CD.1 tr.8]. There is total engagement in the drama by the singers and orchestral players; not the presentation. By the end of the Act, all but the most cursory listeners will have been drawn into the tension completely. Judicious use of tremolo, and whispering, strings, gentle, loving, intimate singing make one want to move immediately into the second act.

In some ways that second act is the heart of the opera; the love duet is a distillation of the relationship between Tristan and Isolde. Or so it seems, while you’re completely wrapped in this part of the work. Kempe and Kerl really do only have eyes for each other. The love duet is also highly believable. Yet Jurowski manages to infuse the progression of their fast-growing closeness with two qualities: a sense of questioning, “Maybe doom is attending us, is inevitable?” and an awareness that the essence of the passion only really actually has sense when it is situated in the “outside” world. Chiefly Brangäne, of course, represents that “outside”; but also the circumstances in which the lovers have met. It’s all too tempting, all too easy, to make the love of Tristan and Isolde all-consuming and nothing but hothouse indulgence. It’s not just that this Glyndebourne production is more measured (which it is); but that the love (and reactions of the other three principals to it) is ultimately very human. Not symbolic or representative. But something we can all relate to.

In fact, Jurowski turns up the heat in Act III and reveals that the consequences for the lovers’ actions are as pressing (though they never seem plainly inevitable, somehow) as whatever forces (love, potion, circumstance) draw the two lovers together in the first parts of the opera. The highly atmospheric opening as Tristan waits with Kurwenal for Isolde never overplays any sense of threat or doom. The low strings convey the intensity of lovers’ longings where nothing else matters. So does the singing. The (shepherd’s) oboe and other languorous woodwind suggest, perhaps, the paralyzation which such extreme concentration can engender.

It’s in passages like these, when Jurowski is drawing rich and meaningful color from the LPO, that you realize just how carefully-conceived is this production. Nuances (such as states of mind, such as ambiguity of motive, such as awareness of the “other” side of one’s own obsession… in Tristan’s dialogs with both Kurwenal and King Mark) remain nuances. They are neither made explicit nor pushed into becoming a kind of conscious subtext to the visible and audible action. They’re an integral part of the psychological complexity with which Wagner imbued his characters and story.

As the Third Act progresses – from 20 minutes or so in [CD.3 tr.4], the focus tightens. Yet again, it’s not a dramatic, showy, “set-piece” increase in tension designed to satiate the audiences’ eyes and ears. It’s whole, integral to the characters; it’s realistic, genuine and convincing. The pacing suggests that the lovers (and “onlookers”) are not acting a tragedy out to its conclusion. Rather, they are behaving consistently with their feelings and desires. This is just as it should be. But achieved very well in this production.

At the same time, there’s nothing even remotely perfunctory or low key, underplayed or deflated about the realism which this production seems to embrace, rather than to create. There’s all the emotion, anxiety and pressure. But it’s human, not theatrical. The yearning as Isolde’s arrival in Act III is repeatedly delayed is beautifully achieved. Tristan’s sighs and distress are conveyed well too. When they finally meet, they have become different people: more evidence of the sense of exact (and exacting) personal portrayal which characterizes this production. Although – as Wagner intended – the opera does reach its apotheosis in the Liebestod, there’s reserve and detachment in Anja Kampe’s voice. As much sadness and resignation as ecstasy. That is completely in keeping with the blend achieved throughout this performance between humans reacting to circumstance, and humans following very human forces.

The acoustic of the Glyndebourne theater is dry and close. There is little sense of space in this recording; this is not a disadvantage in any way. Applause at the end of each act is never intrusive; it adds a suggestion of the event. Enunciation and delivery are clear and clean. The presentation of the three CD set is excellent, each CD being individually wrapped; the whole is presented in a book-like container. The bulk of the book that comes with the CDs is the libretto in German and English; although there are also photographs of the production and a synopsis of the opera. If you don’t own one of the classic recordings of Tristan like the Karajan, Vickers, Dernesch on Emi (69319), this is definitely one to consider.

Jurowski has the gifts to strike all the right balances. His pacing, tempi, grasp of the work’s architecture and gentle but firm refusal to “zoom” in and out of the high points, or to let Wagner’s tonal clutch, grip, release and relaxation drive the drama are just what’s needed. Instead Jurowski elicits from his forces a view of Wagner’s personal, pessimistic yet compelling view of love, betrayal and loyalty which operates as a totality.

Tristan is a spectacular opera. Events do take their course relatively simply. But Wagner’s matching of psychological insight with the musical intricacies (leitmotiv, instrumental color, juxtaposition of orchestral/vocal dynamic) ranges from the intimate to the broad orchestral. It must be understood and implemented carefully for the opera not to become a melodrama without heart. In this year of bicentenaries, this is a German, not a Verdian, opera. Consider it carefully.

Mark Sealey | 2013

I was so overwhelmed by this ‘live’ Tristan, staged at Glyndebourne in August 2009, that I feel mean not giving it five stars. Unfortunately, though, it does have a dreadful cut of about 12 minutes in the love music in Act II. That is a common crime in performances, but makes musical and dramatic nonsense of an extremely carefully composed and utterly inspired central passage: it’s like cutting a few minutes out of a Beethoven Symphony. Having seen this production at Glyndebourne, I knew it was coming; but I don’t see why, when issuing the recording, the passage couldn’t have been inserted – supposing, as must be the case, that the cut was made to save the tenor’s voice rather than for aesthetic reasons.

Torsten Kerl is the Tristan, an impassioned performer, though not a subtle one, nor one who ever sings quietly. Still, he makes a great deal of the part and manages the huge climaxes in Act III, where he has to sing virtually alone for 45 minutes, to powerful and upsetting (in the right sense) effect.

His Isolde, Anja Kampe, is a singer of comparable merits and defects. Her voice is rarely beautiful, but she is involved and always expressive. Beauty is to be found, vocally, in the Brangäne of Sarah Connolly, a wonderful performance in all respects, and in the King Mark of Georg Zeppenfeld, who makes the long monologue of reproach and incomprehension extraordinarily moving.

Perhaps the greatest heroes of the occasion, though, are the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, whose superb performance makes this Glyndebourne recording an indispensable addition to a Wagnerian’s collection, however large it may be.


Michael Tanner | 7 November 2013

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 517 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff
This recording is not identical to the commercial CD release.