Tristan und Isolde

Franz Welser-Möst
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
The Cleveland Orchestra
18 April 2018
Severance Hall Cleveland
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanGerhard Siegel
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneOkka von der Damerau
KurwenalAlan Held
König MarkeAin Anger
MelotSean Michael Plumb
Ein junger SeemannMatthew Plenk
Ein HirtMatthew Plenk
SteuermannFrancisco X. Prado

Stupendous “Tristan und Isolde” in Cleveland with Stemme and Welser-Möst

A most wondrous miracle occurred in a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde on Sunday at the Severance Hall of Cleveland. Nina Stemme sang a magnificent Irish Princess, clad in green; her performance this afternoon was the definitive kind of which opera fans dream. She had help: a beautiful art deco hall with its intimate and resonant acoustics, a solid partner who rose to the occasion, an excellent ensemble of supporting singers. It was above all a love-fest between Stemme and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. When Stemme capped her splendid Liebestod with a soft pianissimo and the English horn sounded the final conclusive notes, the audience respected the conductor’s wish to hold silence. Only when he lowered his arms after prolonged hush did the hall erupt in ecstatic ovation. It was the performance of a lifetime.

Welser-Möst’s approach to Richard Wagner’s revolutionary opera was straightforward; no lingering over harmonies and chords that seem to lead nowhere; no exaggerated pause to create dramatic effects. He emphasized transparency and litheness of the score; the music flowed in a continuous, seamless and gorgeous waves. When the enigmatic “Tristan Chord” at the beginning of prelude was resolved several hours later, there was a sense of a journey coming to an end, not so much a relief as a regret of the end of a dream. We could have embarked on the journey all over again.

What Welser-Möst brought to the score that was revelatory was his tempo variation. He preferred fast but unhurried tempo in Act 1, including the prelude. At the very end of Act 1, as the chorus of men joined the orchestra to celebrate King Marke and Cornwall, the tempo became breakneck. These last moments were thrilling, with the Cleveland Orchestra strings players racing with exaggerated speed and precision. The brisk tempo continued early in Act 2. It was only when Tristan and Isolde began their extended (uncut) love duet that the music slowed down; the contrast then of “day” and “night” became stark and dramatic. The lovers’ endless and unrequited longing for one another and for death was presented as an antithesis of the mandate world; the slow and plaintive melodies floated timeless and mid-air.

The slow tempo began Act 3, starting with the prelude depicting the absolute despair and dissolution of Tristan. The music traced his mental and physical disintegration with relentless persistence, until it finally reached its resolution with the most sublime rendition of the Liebestod I have ever experienced. Stemme began from the edge of the raised platform as if to whisper a secret to the audience, and as the music rose in volume and intensity, she rose with and above it, her voice never wavering but blooming with ease, taking us to the end of the journey.

Stemme was in command throughout the afternoon, with her voice showing a remarkable variety of colors to negotiate a wide range of the role. In Act 1, she almost seemed to lead the music, as she varied her vocal color and intensity to express the complexity and chromaticism of the score. Her leadership continued in Act 2, with her low and middle voice rich and expressive. Okka von der Damerau, singing Isolde’s companion Brangäne, excelled with her warm and clear mezzo that blended with Stemme’s more complex timbre. The love duet and its aftermath, with Welser-Möst racing again to conclude the act, were devastating in their emotional intensity.

Gerhard Siegel, an experienced Wagnerian, rose to the challenge of one of the most demanding tenor roles of Tristan. His voice had remarkable agility, brightness and focus; his diction remained clear even when he was singing Tristan’s high notes. He had good stamina to portray Tristan’s agony and ecstasy in the act with frightening intensity. Yet at times his singing was also elegant and lyrical; he never resorted to loud shouting. Besides Ms von der Damerau’s exemplary Brangäne, Ain Anger as King Make and Alan Held as Kurwenal were essential contributors to the afternoon’s success. Mr Anger’s strong booming bass fitted the solid and remorseful character of the king, while Mr Held showed off his long Wagnerian career, singing Tristan’s loyal friend Kurwenal with nuance, sympathy, and gestures. One of the remarkable achievements of this Tristan was how each singer could portray and convey his/her character and mutual relationships by simple gestures, glances, and movements. No elaborate staging or props were necessary. The men and women of the Cleveland Orchestra demonstrated with their exquisite, accurate, and stylish playing that they deserve to be called the best American orchestra. Off-stage men’s chorus made a powerful impression.

Above all, however, I will long remember this performance as the best live Tristan und Isolde of my life, with Nina Stemme’s near perfect, complete, magnificent and emotionally wrenching Isolde.

Ako Imamura | 01 Mai 2018

A Wagner Skeptic Reports on a Stylish Tristan in Concert

How much is too much? It’s a question that every artist has to weigh before releasing his or her inspiration on the general public. Some keep their personal lives closely guarded and only hinted at in their creative work (a stance which in itself reveals a lot about the artist). Some try to balance the formal, public requirements of art with their inner world. But there are always some who plunge into their most interior depths and come forth bringing treasures to show the world, no matter how uncomfortable the confessions might potentially make their audiences.

Richard Wagner often fell into a middle group, striking a balance. But one time he went full-bore confessional, and ended up changing the course of European music history. Whether or not one cares for the final product, there’s no denying that the recent centuries of European classical music can be neatly divided up into before Tristan and after Tristan. Before Tristan und Isolde, the typical structure of music was in self-contained periods lasting from a few seconds to, at most, a few minutes. Then there would be a harmonic cadence to satisfyingly close off that section before a new one began. Wagner’s revolutionary discovery was how the delayed gratification of a satisfying cadence builds up tension. Expressively, this became a potent representation of unrequited love, which Wagner himself was suffering from in the late 1850s. This fount of never-ending melody that Wagner opened let him gush in an opera that runs nearly four hours (not including the two intermissions between acts). It’s the Mount Everest of opera, an undeniable fortress of the classical repertory.

But how well does it actually hold up? One can perhaps best appreciate the piece by keeping in mind its revolutionary new approach to musical language. And one should experience it at least once to get first-hand exposure to Wagner’s ‘endless melody’. The fine line with confessional art, however, is that it can easily cross over into indulgence. And in my estimation, Tristan is exhaustively indulgent, with 35 minutes of sheer genius and over three hours of indulgent padding. In performance, that becomes an endurance rite for both performers and audience. That said, while the crowd thinned slightly as the afternoon wore into evening during this concert performance by the Cleveland Orchestra, the vast majority remained and enthusiastically cheered the performers at the end.

The clear star was soprano Nina Stemme, who owned the stage as Isolde. Stemme has a rare and remarkable ability to project with such power that her voice sails out over the top of a full orchestra, yet she never sounds strained or ugly. Even at maximum volume, her tone remains rich and full. It’s a part she clearly knows well, as she often stepped away from the score on her music stand to sing out, unencumbered, on the ship-like platform built above and behind the orchestra.

Gerhard Siegel was not of the same vocal heft as Stemme, having to save his vocal firepower for his big moments later. He made his strongest impression in Tristan’s quieter moments, which were effectively expressive. Okka von der Damerau exuded warmth as Isolde’s maid Brangäne. Though her voice is clearly lighter than Stemme’s, Okka von der Damerau was almost as effective in projecting it over the orchestra and not getting buried by Wagner’s drenched sonorities. Alan Held was compelling as Tristan’s faithful aide Kurwenal, making each phrase he sang feel lively and spontaneous. Ain Anger’s King Marke was poised and imposing, while Sean Michael Plumb was incisive as the courtier Melot. Matthew Plenk was fresh-voiced as the Young Sailor and the Shepherd and Francisco X. Prado was solid as the Steersman. The men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus made lively contributions to the first act, abetted by brass instruments in the Severance Hall balcony, likely startling those in the dress circle who didn’t see the players slip in.

Franz Welser-Möst was in his element, quietly but commandingly moving things along without any expressive grandstanding. Here and there, one might wish that the conductor would linger a little more, such as in the heart-seizing torpor at the top of Act III, a passage recycled by Wagner from his own Wesendonck Lieder. But Welser-Möst achieved intensity from the orchestra with breathtaking quiet dynamics throughout. The ensemble was in fine form, matching the singers in long-breathed phrasing. Russ deLuna was forlorn in the offstage English horn solo, Michael Sachs mastered the offstage Holztrompete (a long herald trumpet), and Yann Ghiro filled the hall with his solo bass clarinet moments.

The performance was another strong installment in the thought-provoking series of semi-staged and in-concert operas that Welser-Möst has been offering in Cleveland in recent years—both connecting to the orchestra’s history of producing operas under Artur Rodzinski in the 1930s, and strengthening their stylish playing for the future.

Mark Sebastian Jordan | 29.4.2018

Classical Voice North America

Concert Tristan: Orchestra Raised, Voices Empowered

The Cleveland Orchestra is capping off its centennial season with two festivals. First was “The Ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde,” an ambitious set of performances culminating in Severance Hall on April 29 with the third performance of what Wagner called not an opera but eine Handlung. The festival’s itinerary also included a one-off performance of Messiaen’s transcendent Turangalîla-Symphonie and a concert titled “Divine Ecstasy,” a gathering of works that translate the notion of love-intoxication into the spiritual realm.

The second festival is a cycle of all the Beethoven symphonies under the banner of “The Prometheus Project,” celebrating the ensemble’s spécialité de la maison, to be presented in Cleveland from May 10-19 before the orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst tour the programs to Vienna and Tokyo.

The first festival owed its philosophical underpinning to Welser-Möst, who has written that once Tristan and Isolde was logged into the 100th Anniversary calendar — a longtime dream of his — he became excited to contemplate other music that embraces religious or personal ecstasy. “I think for many people, musical performances are often a channel to understanding and transcendence, of being more than yourself and at peace. And so I worked to develop a festival around the opera,” he noted in a program book article.

The orchestra gave Messiaen’s ten-movement Turangalîla-Symphonie an electrifying performance on April 25. Written just after World War II, Messiaen’s treatise on ecstatic, transforming love was conceived while he was studying the Tristan and Isolde legend. Welser-Möst drew dazzling, transparent sounds from the large ensemble, abetted by flawless virtuosity from pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and swooping commentary from ondes martenot soloist Cynthia Millar. The large percussion section ratcheted up the excitement with ebullient mallet work, bells, and chimes.

On April 28, the orchestra’s brass section joined the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and organist Paul Jacobs in Venetian ceremonial music by the Gabrielis led by assistant conductor Vinay Parameswaran. Lisa Wong conducted unaccompanied choral pieces — Arvo Pärt’s haunting Magnificat and a movement from Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations — and Welser-Möst led the expressive countertenor Iestyn Davies and a small orchestra in J.S. Bach’s cantata Vergnügte Ruh with organ obbligato by Jacobs. The organist finished off the evening with perhaps the most lucid reading you’ll ever hear of Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on Giacomo Meyerbeer’s chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.”

On the afternoon of April 29, a capacity audience settled into Severance Hall for the main event — a concert performance of Wagner’s four-hour-long Tristan und Isolde, sung in German by a distinguished cast headed up by soprano Nina Stemme and tenor Gerhard Siegel.

The stage served as the orchestra pit, while the singers performed from an elevated platform, making their entrances and exits through the center panel of the organ façade (pipes removed).

With the cast in concert dress, no scenery, no props, and only chairs and music stands for furniture, this Tristan performance resembled a Sitzprobe — that intermediate phase in opera production where the whole focus is on the music — except for some minimal, seemingly improvised acting.

Minus theatrical distractions, Welser-Möst and the orchestra were free to put Wagner’s musical innovations across in bold relief, beginning with the famous opening gesture that resolves one unstable chord by moving into another — the seed of an idea that permeates the opera and acts as a metaphor for yearning and desire.

Uninhibited by a pit, the orchestra could be heard in all of its tonal glory during a score that scarcely stops to breathe, and most of the lead singers had the physical wherewithal to project over the loudest orchestral tuttis.

Stemme brought alluring power to the role of Isolde. Siegel was a stentorian Tristan, indefatigable even in the daunting third act, although pitch sometimes sagged in his middle register.

The radiant mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau was not only Isolde’s handmaiden but her perfect vocal match. Bass-baritone Alan Held was a commanding Kurwenal and bass Ain Anger an arresting King Marke. Baritone Sean Michael Plumb (Melot), tenor Matthew Plenk (Shepherd), and baritone Francisco X. Prado (Steersmen) assumed their smaller parts with authority.

Mostly unseen, the men of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus brought sailors, knights, attendants, and soldiers to life, coming onstage to join brass — stationed in the dress circle — for a thrilling surround-sound effect at the end of Act 1. Later, in Act 3, superbly played offstage solos by English horn (guest Russ deLuna) and trumpet (Michael Sachs) brought a bit of theatricality to the proceedings.

Welser-Möst and the orchestra proved to be musical marathoners on Sunday afternoon, still generating energy at the end of this lengthy show — probably well beyond the point when listeners’ ears began to fatigue. But like challenging foot races, Tristan and Isolde isn’t an everyday experience. This was a priceless opportunity to experience the piece under optimal musical circumstances. And the application of a magical, plot-bending love potion offered a welcome change from the Real World, where nerve agents get planted on door knobs in Salisbury.

Daniel Hathaway | MAY 1, 2018

The Wagnerian spell works again

In recent years the Cleveland Orchestra has occasionally staged opera in its concert hall despite the limitations of not having the fully-equipped stage and pit. This season, though, their three presentations of Tristan und Isolde were straightforward concerts with the singers placed on a platform constructed above the orchestra toward the rear of the stage. This was certainly a factor in the terrific balance between the orchestra and singers, often a problem when the orchestra is not in a pit. (And there are good reasons why the pit in Wagner’s own theatre in Bayreuth is notably deep.)

A fully staged Tristan can often be lacking in action anyway. In Cleveland the performers indicated a sufficient degree of inter-relationship between their characters, and the orchestra provided the full measure of excitement at the climactic moments, such as at the end of Act I when eight brass players at balcony level gave an added jolt to the proceedings.

Even the cleverest arrangement in a fine hall would be unable to overcome weaknesses in casting, and in this instance there were none. Nina Stemme is my eleventh Isolde (heard live – and three of them Swedish) and her distinctive (and distinguished) warmth and expressiveness make her my favorite. Her Tristan, Gerhard Siegel, seems to have specialized in the role of Mime recently and I feared his voice might be more suited to character roles vs a lead role like Tristan, but throughout he displayed an attractive, youthful tone. His voice didn’t quite match Stemme’s in the love duet, but his big narration in Act III rose staunchly to great heights of intensity; he is one of the best I’ve heard.

Okka von der Damerau displayed a luxuriant voice as Brangäne, Alan Held was a forceful Kurwenal, Ain Anger an eloquent, rich-voiced King Marke, and Sean Michael Plumb a well-defined Melot. The male chorus was first-rate as well.

Last but not least, I must mention the orchestra, with “The Cleveland” living up to its daunting reputation. Franz Welser-Möst, whose experience with the work goes back awhile (I heard him conduct it in Vienna in 2006), led a nuanced account that ranged from delicacy to downright muscular at times. The running time was a bit under four hours, which is neither overly brisk nor self-indulgent. (Self indulgence would be an understandable pitfall with such a prodigious orchestra.) He tried to hold a silence at the end but one over-enthusiast bellowed “Bravo” and that ended that.

This was a very special project, part of the orchestra’s centennial season – and everything worked like a charm.

Michael Johnson | Severance Hall April 26, 2018

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1kHz, 517 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (WCLV) of a concert performance