Wagner
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan – Thomas Moser
König Marke – Robert Holl
Isolde – Deborah Voigt
Kurwenal – Peter Weber
Melot – Markus Nieminen
Brangäne – Petra Lang
Ein Hirt – Michael Roider
Ein Steuermann – In-Sung Sim
Ein junger Seemann – John Dickie

Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Christian Thielemann

Recorded live in May 2003 at the Vienna State Opera
CD No: DG 474 974-2 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 55 minutes
Reviewed: November 2004
It is invidious to make claims that a musician is comparable to – or better than – another, but Peter Blaha (Chief Dramaturg of the Vienna State Opera) places Christian Thielemann alongside the names of Gustav Mahler, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber – amongst others – in his booklet note introducing this live performance of Tristan und Isolde from the Vienna State Opera. Herr Blaha suggests that, at the Staatsoper, Tristan has been “the preserve of the leading conductors of their day”.
Claims of this sort, naturally, lead one to expect great things. We cannot, of course, know how Mahler conducted Tristan (though it's a tantalising thought!), but we can experience Furtwängler, Karajan and Kleiber, along with Karl Böhm – another name on Blaha's list – since all of their interpretations are readily available on CD.
Tristan und Isolde has a distinguished discography, and turning to whatever version one might choose, one invariably will find interest and, in many instances, revelations – be they conductorial or vocal.
I suspect this particular DG release will be of primary interest to devotees of Christian Thielemann, who conducts with considerable purpose, and secures a dedicated performance from his forces.
His is not a lingering reading, dwelling on this or that moment; on a mundane level, the fact that this performance is contained on three discs, rather than the customary four, is evidence of this. Thielemann is impetuous, fiery even, which lends considerable histrionic thrust and momentum to the drama. The tempestuous music of Act One, for instance, is splendidly depicted, and the conductor is rewarded by a fine response from the Staatsoper orchestra – the Vienna Philharmonic in all but name.
The long love-duet of Act Two, consequently, does not have the 'slow-burn' favoured by Bernstein (Philips) and Goodall (Decca) – both of whose versions, sadly, appear to be currently unavailable.
The lonely, bleak landscape – physically and psychologically – at the start of Act Three is certainly evoked, though no-one quite manages the sense of utter desolation as Goodall does at this particular point.
Welcome though constant impetus undoubtedly is, there are passages where relaxation – however brief – is axiomatic. The effect of these is nullified if the conducting is restless or fidgety as Thielemann often is. In fact, his conducting often reminded me of Solti in Wagner – with all its strengths and downsides.
The cast, on paper at least, would appear to be a fine one. In practice, the two leads were performing their roles for the first time. It was surely questionable to capture Thomas Moser and Deborah Voigt for posterity in these circumstances. Virtually all their recorded predecessors were well-seasoned in their parts, and such experience and confidence undoubtedly tells.
Although he has been tackling heavier roles, Thomas Moser is not perhaps the obvious choice for Tristan – one of the heaviest of them all. His tone has become somewhat dark and burnished, and his utterances are surely delivered. But, often, he sounds somewhat dwarfed by the proceedings, though this may well be due to the recording which finds him receding in and out of the picture and places him at a disadvantage – most damagingly towards the end of the love duet. Ultimately, he doesn't command the range that the part of Tristan demands, from his initial appearance, which is too timid, to his death throes. His depiction of madness has a degree of conviction, though in the heat of the moment, pitches and rhythms fall by the wayside.
Thomas Moser's translation from Ein junger Seemann for Bernstein, to principal for Thielemann, is not, therefore, an unqualified success.
Deborah Voigt's assumption is rather more compelling. She impresses with her haughty, outraged princess, and her curses and vindictive outbursts in the first act do not pale in comparison with other recorded portrayals. In the more tender episodes, however, she remains a degree unyielding and, regrettably, her performance overall is marred by moments of under-the-note singing which would surely have been corrected in the studio.
Her ‘Liebestod’ is full of good intent, but at the end of a long evening, Deborah Voigt is sorely taxed by Wagner's demands.
Petra Lang is a redoubtable Brangäne, audibly supportive of her mistress but, like her, subject to flatness at odd moments – her warning to the lovers is, unfortunately, blemished by this shortcoming.
Robert Holl, an experienced Wagnerian, relishes his words – rather more than some of his colleagues – and his suggesting of wounded pride is affecting. Holl's tone is not that of a dark bass, but his is a good realisation of a part not at all easy to bring off.
The recording is from Austrian Radio and, inevitably, the sound is not what would be achievable in ideal studio conditions. Indeed, there are a number of bumps, bangs and crashes that are quite alarming at first hearing; similarly, some infelicities of ensemble (most noticeably, numerous pizzicatos which are not together) which will have the capacity to irritate on repeated listening.
I've suggested that perspectives are variable with certain singers, and the on-stage chorus and brass in Act One sound too distant.
I have little doubt that this would have been an absorbing experience in the theatre, but candour forces me to suggest that there are too many other recordings around which will, ultimately, prove more satisfying and rewarding in the long run.

 

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