Tristan und Isolde

Robert Reimer
Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra
31 August/1 September 2019
Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music Lusławice
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRoy Cornelius Smith
IsoldeJuyeon Song
BrangäneTamaro Gallo
KurwenalBrian Davis
König MarkeJohn Paul Huckle
MelotAlexander Kaimbacher
Ein junger SeemannAlexander Kaimbacher
Ein HirtAlexander Kaimbacher
SteuermannSiarhei Zubkevich

Reviewing etiquette, respect for artists who put themselves forward in the service of music and common human decency all conspire to compromise my objectivity in assessing this recording but I struggle to comprehend why it was released by the small, specialist label Navona Records as I cannot imagine that it will generate much in the way of sales given its quality against the strength and depth of the competition – but I hope I’m wrong. As it has only just been issued I did not include it in my survey of recordings over two years ago, but even if it had been available, I would not have been able to endorse it.

It is a recording underwritten by the Claude Heater Foundation. If that name sounds familiar, he was a Met baritone who is best known for his Melot in the famous 1966 performances at Bayreuth. After his retirement, he took up teaching and the soprano here was one of his students. He died earlier this year so this issue acts as a kind of memorial to him – but whether it does him honour is questionable.

At nine-and-a-half minutes, the overture is the antithesis of Bernstein’s and the sound of the orchestra is lean and wiry – no plush, upholstered “Karajan-sound” here. This is no bad thing if you like your Tristan to be more propulsive like Böhm’s but to me it simply sounds rushed and rather perfunctory; the same is true of the hurried Liebestod a mere three-and-a-half hours later. Otherwise, there is no denying that Reimer’s urgent manner pushes the drama along excitingly and he secures passable playing from what can hardly have been a top band and who are clearly not accustomed to playing this music. His preference for swift tempi pays dividends at the start of Act 2, for example; nonetheless, some key orchestral passages, such as the ominous choral progression just before Tristan dares to accede to Isolde’s summons on board ship in the First Act, are seriously under-powered.

The next voice we hear is the strong, rather nasal tenor of the Young Sailor sung by Alexander Kaimbacher, who economically sings no fewer than four of the supporting roles, leaving only the Steersman to another singer. Neither the Isolde nor the Brangaene has much velvet in her voice; both tend towards a beat or wobble and their shared harshness of tone sometimes makes them sound oddly similar. Gallo is often sour-voiced and very matronly, making one long for Ludwig, especially at the beginning of Act 2, where she makes some really ugly sounds. According to one online reviewer, Korean soprano Juyeon Song is “an interesting interpreter, better in fact than either Flagstad or Nilsson, great as their voices were” – a bold claim which is hardly backed up by what may be heard here. She has some big, hooty top notes, is unafraid to try to use her lower register and enunciates the text feelingly but she hasn’t the rapt steadiness to deliver “Er sah mir in die Augen” as it should be and her intonation is wavery in that passage. She shirks the top A on “Nun hör, wie ein Held/Eide hält!”, of which Nielsen makes such a climactic point; the subsequent top Bs, shortly after, on “mit ihr gab er es preis!” and “mir lacht das Abenteuer!” are more sustained but turn shaky. She hasn’t really the sustained power of a true hochdramatische soprano in the middle regions of her voice; legato is weak, her intensity flags and her delivery is pinched and gusty. Time and again moments of high drama pass by, so “für tiefstes Weh, für höchstes Leid” goes for little and the overwhelming import and significance of the drinking of the Love Potion passes tamely. She is painfully flat in the Act 2 Love Duet “O sink hernieder” where again, intonation is a problem – and is in general throughout. The lack of body in the middle of her voice is particularly egregious in the Liebestod which is wobbly and unsteady – frankly, a bit painful rather than being the vehicle whereby the listener is elevated to heights of ecstasy. Her final note on “Lust” pretty much sums up the problem.

I find Roy Cornelius Smith’s Tristan to be similarly under-powered and lacking in both distinction and tonal beauty, his tenor having a husky, plaintive note to it and lacking centre and penetration. He tends to lunge and heave at phrases. The challenges of the Act 2 “Telegramme Duet” defeat both singers and he alternately croons and forces in the Love Duet. Like all but the greatest tenors who essay this killer of a role, he tires badly – a weakness not helped by the fact that apparently the poor singers sometimes had to rehearse, record and perform all on the same day. Nonetheless, he comes into his best form in Act 3 and there are extended passages in his delirium when he copes really well; oddly, his fatigue shows more via a beat when he sings softly, such as in his vision of Isolde’s approaching ship, which is lumpily delivered, without the rapt restraint it requires. This makes me fear that he is over-working his voice to maintain volume in the most strenuous passages – though of course there is always the get-out that Tristan should sound mortally wounded and perhaps comparisons with the likes of Melchior and Vickers are unfair. Just getting through this role as well he does deserves credit as a major achievement but when Tristan’s Act 3 ravings form the highpoint of a performance, that indicates the problems elsewhere.

No vocal balm or relief is forthcoming from John Paul Huckle, whose bass is sorely afflicted by a dreadful wobble. It always astonishes me that any young singer is encouraged or even allowed to pursue a career on the operatic stage when it must be obvious that his voice is afflicted by a pathological technical defect. Listening to him labour through his long lament makes it seem as tedious as its critics claim – yet when I listen to Martti Talvela or Gwynne Howell sing it, I experience no such ennui. Thankfully, Alexander Kaimbacher brings a nice, firm, resonant baritone to his wholly apt and convincing portrayal of a young, virile, Kurwenal, more like Tristan’s contemporary rather than the devoted uncle some make him out to be. His is the tonally purest, best produced and most satisfyingly Wagnerian voice here, in fact; he sings key phrases like “es kann nicht mehr lang säumen” with great control and tenderness.

Recording in a spacious venue has resulted in the sound being rather reverberant but not excessively so. This comes in a slimline, cardboard digipack and thus has no libretto – but the German text and English translation can easily be found online. Given its manifest weaknesses compared with established classic recordings this cannot be recommended.

Ralph Moore | December 2020

This is an exceedingly rare release for Navona Records, the boutique label which also includes Ravello and Parma Records: a complete opera, and not a one- or two-CD cheapie but one of the longest and most famous works in the standard repertoire. It’s daring for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Tristan und Isolde has a very long history on records—after the 1930 Columbia Tannhäuser, it was the first (near) complete Wagner opera to appear on disc—and thus is facing at least five and perhaps six legendary competitors: the 1935 Covent Garden live performance (somewhat abridged) with Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Sabina Kalter and Fritz Reiner; the 1950 Bayreuth live performance with Helena Braun, Gunther Treptow, Margerete Klöse, Paul Schöffler and Hans Knappertsbusch, the 1952 studio recording with Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the 1968 live performance with Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen and Karl Böhm, the even more famous (but in defective sound) 1974 live performance with Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry and Böhm, and last but certainly not least, the 1990 live performance and studio recording (two separate entities, but both excellent and with an almost identical cast) featuring Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem, Marjana Lipovšek, Falk Struckmann and Daniel Barenboim. This is some pretty heavy-duty competition to throw your hat in the ring against.

The conducting is clearly first-rate, tending towards the brisk and exciting side (á la Reiner, Knappertsbusch, Böhm and Barenboim) rather than towards the warmer, more amorphous sound achieved by Furtwängler, but since I like this approach I have no qualms. Our Steersman, Siarhei Zubkevich, has a firm voice and no problems, but our intrepid Isolde, Juyeon Song, has a very bright, almost metallic top range and, in the early part of Act I, a somewhat uneven flutter, but both come under control by Track 5. Tamara Gallo as Brangäne has an uncontrolled wobble early on. But I will say this about Gallo, she gives one of the most interesting and dramatic interpretations of her role I’ve ever heard and she, too, gets the voice under much better control by Track 6. Song is also an interesting interpreter, better in fact that either Flagstad or Nilsson, great as their voices were. Happily, our Tristan, Roy Cornelius Smith, has an absolutely lovely voice—albeit also with a bit of loose vibrato—as well as a superb legato, but although he sings his part clearly and with a little bit of oomph, he doesn’t quite match the interpretive excellence of the two women. Our Kurwenal, Brian Davis, is a real “find,” a singer with not only a dramatic approach to his role but a big, dark, firm and ringing baritone voice. I think he is destined for great things if he can hang onto his voice and not blow it out. One should also not overlook the superb singing of tenor Alexander Kaimbacher as Melot, the young sailor and the Shepherd. This is an absolutely lovely, ear-ravishing voice and another first-rate interpretive talent.

The big problem here is the sound. Apparently, the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Lusławice, Poland, which was the site of both the live concert performances and this studio recording, has a very open, almost cavernous sound. Although the voices and orchestra can be clearly heard, the voices in particular are not merely swimming in echo but kicking up tidal waves of it. It almost sounds as if the opera were recorded in an empty Grand Central Station, and this did annoy me. But by the time we reach Track 7 in the first act, everyone is in pretty good to excellent voice and the performance is swinging along with tremendous drive and enthusiasm from all concerned.

By the time I hit Act II, two thoughts crossed my mind: one strange and one not-so-strange. The odd thought was that Juyeon Song’s voice sounds like Roberta Peters on steroids. If Peters were a dramatic soprano and not a soubrette-coloratura, this is what she would have sounded like. The not-so-strange thought was that, for once, our Tristan and Isolde both sound young, as they are supposed to be—in their late 20s at the oldest—rather than like very good but mature singers trying vainly to sound young. For all that I love the Nilsson-Vickers performance, neither one sounds like a spring chicken. Song and Smith do.

The one fly in the ointment here is John Paul Huckle as King Marke. He has a wobble you could drive a Mack truck through, and if he is just in the warm-up stage he doesn’t stick around long enough to do so. Yet he, too, interprets the words in a meaningful manner. It should be pointed out, however, that this is his first ever Wagner role, and he may have been overparted.

In Act III, Smith interprets Tristan’s suffering and death vividly, but alas, here his voice shows a few signs of fatigue, moreso in the soft passages where an uneven “beat” came into play. In louder passages, his voice remained solid, bright, and well-focused. And when Isolde finally enters, Song achieves something that NO other Isolde I’ve ever heard does. She sounds frantic, a little unhinged, on the verge of a nervous breakdown—wholly appropriate to this scene, but as I said, no other Isolde sounds like this. Brava, Juyeon! Well done!

Huckle doesn’t sound any better as Marke when he returns in the last act, but Song actually interprets the words of the “Liebestod,” once again something I’ve rarely heard in the past. Yes, I’m sure that some veteran Wagnerians won’t like her tone—it’s very bright, almost a bit edgy, not warm and burnished like Flagstad or Braun or as big as a factory whistle at five o’clock like Nilsson—but if you can adjust to it, she’s a wonderful singer. Let’s just hope the voice holds up a few years and doesn’t fall apart in four or five as Nina Stemme’s voice did. Ditto Smith, who clearly has the goods. If he can hold onto his voice, he will surely become the successor to Siegfried Jerusalem as the best lyric Wagnerian of his time.

Update, November 19: Since Ms. Song reached out to me on Facebook to explain the many stresses that surrounded this recording, I felt it was only fair to include her comments here. They explain a lot:

“We had an excruciating rehearsal schedule and traveling schedule for this performance…No other Tristan und Isolde casts could have gone through this much of an excruciating rehearsal schedule as we did due to limited orchestra’s availability. We rehearsed every day, plus after the rehearsal, we drove 3 hours to get to Poland from the Czech Republic, immediately went into the recording session. After 2 hours of break, on that same day, we sang in the performance. Knowing this, Orchestra never played Wagner’s music in Public [before], with many of the cast debuting; this performance was a remarkable accomplishment for all involved.”

Considering this, I am of course willing to forgive some of the vocal flaws mentioned above. A voice is not a mechanical instrument; it is subject to stress that can impair its production, and in an opera as demanding as this one, I can certainly understand what happened here. But of course, as a listener unaware of these stresses beforehand, all I could do was to describe as accurately as I could what I heard.

* * * * * *

Yes, this performance has flaws. Being a live performance, both the soprano and mezzo take time to warm up; Huckle’s vocal control is unquestionably fourth-rate; and both the tenor and soprano have a few “iffy” moments in the last act. But as a live performance of a major repertoire work that is unquestionably difficult to sing, it is surprisingly good, and in terms of dramatic interpretation is, overall, the best I’ve ever heard, thus I recommend it highly. There is more “frisson” in this Tristan than in most of the others I own, legendary performances though they may be.

Lynn René Bayley | NOVEMBER 17, 2020

Wenn ein amerikanisches Independent-Label eine Aufnahme von Wagners Tristan und Isolde auf den Markt bringt, dann versursacht das zunächst einmal ein Anheben der Augenbrauen als Zeichen der Skepsis. Eine Oper, die kaum ein Opernhaus noch zufriedenstellend besetzen kann, mit einem Orchester, das kaum Wagner-Erfahrung hat, einer zierlichen Koreanerin als Isolde und einem amerikanischen Tristan, der die Rolle 2018 erstmals gesungen hat? Aber es braucht nicht lange, wenn man dann die Aufnahme startet, bis sich Skepsis in Erstaunen wandelt, und das umso mehr, als es sich um eine Liveeinspielung handelt.Die Integrität und packende Kraft dieses Tristans kann man nicht leugnen. Klar, das Niveau der absoluten Referenzaufnahmen der Oper erreicht diese Einspielung, die im Penderecki-Zentrum in Luslawice entstand, nicht, aber sie ist zweifellos zu den sehr guten Aufnahmen der Wagner-Oper zu zählen (Angeführt wird das Spitzenfeld des Angebots m.E. von Karajan-Vickers-Dernesch, Böhm-Windgassen-Nilsson, Furtwängler-Suthaus-Flagstad und Karajan-Vinay-Mödl).Von diesem großartigen Erfolg kann sich zweifellos der Dirigent Robert Reimer einen größeren Teil abzweigen. Dank seines suggestiven Dirigierens gibt es dreieinhalb Stunden lang erlebte und gelebte Musik, kraftvoll vereinnahmend auch im leisesten Piano. Mit einer guten dynamischen Kontrolle, vielen Nuancen in den Farben und einer exzellenten Balance erreicht der Dirigent ein Maximum an Wirkung, zeigt aber auch, wie sehr er das Orchester beeinflussen kann, wie stark mithin die Kraft seiner Ausstrahlung auf die Musiker ist.Die Janacek Philharmonie antwortet mit einem sehr engagierten, farbigen, bestens ausgewogenen und die ganze Oper hindurch aufmerksam intensiven Musizieren.Das ist schon eine gute Basis für eine atmosphärisch dichte, tief durchgeatmete und packende Aufnahme.Der amerikanische Tenor Roy Cornelius Smith ist ein sehr souveräner Tristan, der stimmlich so sicher und unangestrengt singt, dass er sich voll auf die Gestaltung der Rolle konzentrieren kann. Er liebt leidenschaftlich und stirbt fieberhaft, emotional zutiefst involviert. Seine kräftige, warme Stimme bleibt immer klangschön mit sicheren und außergewöhnlich leuchtenden SpitzentönenJuyeon Songs Isolde ist nicht weniger gut: Ihre Stimme mag etwas eng sein und vom Timbre her gewöhnungsbedürftig, aber sie ist eine hochdramatische Sängerin, die völlig in ihrer Rolle aufgeht und eine starke, eine leidenschaftliche Isolde singt. Man wundert sich wirklich, wo diese zierliche Sängerin die Kraft hernimmt, um die anfordernde Rolle mit so großer stimmlicher Kraft und sehr ausdrucksstark zu singen.Tamaro Gallo ist eine großartige, darstellerisch beeindruckende Brangäne, John Paul Huckle ein guter Marke, Brian Davis ein zuverlässiger Kurwenal.Die Nebenrollen werden nicht weniger gut bewältigt, die Chöre sind tadellos, und so haben wir es hier, wie schon gesagt, mit einer ganz hervorragenden, auch klangtechnischen guten Aufnahme zu tun, in der neben den Sängern auch das Orchester singt.

Remy Franck | 20/11/2020

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