BBCSO/Runnicles – 12 December

Le martyre de St Sébastien – symphonic fragments
Tristan und Isolde – Act One

Isolde – Christine Brewer
Brangäne – Dagmar Pecková
Tristan – John Treleaven
Young Sailor – Mark Le Brocq
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel

Apollo Voices
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 12 December, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This is an intriguing idea, the three acts of Tristan und Isoldeplayed over three – quite widely separated – evenings preceded by music which has been influenced or inspired by Wagner’s epic music-drama. For acts two and three, respectively, Strauss’s Metamorphosen and a new work by William Mival. Even more daring might have been the inclusion of Henze’s remarkable Tristan for piano, orchestra and tape.

Debussy’s debt to Wagner was one that he was not at all willing to acknowledge and yet is there for all to hear in his dramatic works – particularly the opera Pélleas et Mélisande and the difficult to categorise Le martyre de St Sébastien. The latter is a combination of dance, mime, and orchestral and vocal music and proved to be Debussy’s last completed work for the stage. Working under the pressure of time, he was assisted in the task of orchestration by his friend and colleague André Caplet, who was responsible for devising the ’Symphonic fragments. I have often wondered whether Debussy, had he been more actively involved, might have re-thought some of the orchestration, which is uncharacteristically heavy in places, with the thick doublings he tended, as a rule, to avoid.

Donald Runnicles and the BBCSO certainly played the score with lushness of tone. Indeed the combination of strings and horns in places was positively luxuriant, creating sonority that was more recognisably Wagner than Debussy. There were some problems with wind intonation and ensemble, and the passage for divided cellos towards the end verged on the sentimental. There were moments to savour too, such as the conclusion of the second movement with its reminiscence of the plusher moments of La mer. The cor anglais solo in the ’Passion’ section, accompanied by eerie tremolo strings bears a striking resemblance to the shepherd’s pipe in the third act of Tristan’ and was well realised. As a whole, however, there was a certain lack of conviction that did not wholly dispel the feeling that this is not entirely top-drawer Debussy.

The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde needs to evoke, initially at anyrate, a sense of timelessness and another world, as indeed it does musically through its ambiguous harmonies and protracted silences. The cruelly exposed opening cello phrases were notplayed unanimously, and there were other moments of imprecision – none of the double bass pizzicatos were together, for instance. The music thus felt restless for the wrong reasons, but as the Prelude progressed, a greater sense of cohesion ensued, even if it became too loud too soon and the slow tempo was not maintained. Coarse brass at the climax was not encouraging and I felt we were in for as bumpy a ride as Tristanaboard his ship.

However, as the act proper got underway, initiated by Mark Le Brocq’s mellifluous singing of the sailor’s song, the orchestral playing became more disciplined and focused, and there were some stirring moments, especially where Wagner depicts the stormy seas as a reflection of Isolde’s torment. Christine Brewer was a thoroughly convincing heroine. In this first act, Isolde runs the whole gamut of emotions, from defiance to vulnerability and Brewer encompassed these with ease. Her fiery curses were chilling – backed by a vehement accompaniment – and her eventual yielding to Tristan, albeit under the influence of the fatal love-potion – was extremely moving. Both the top and bottom of her vocal register were firm and impressive – the former thrilling and clear, and the latter suitably dark.

As Isolde’s trusty servant and confidante, Brangäne, Dagmar Pecková relished her words, and the warmth of her tone was appealing. She was not entirely able to override Wagner’s tempestuous orchestral writing, but she is an impressive and sympathetic artist. It was good to hear a comparatively young voice as Kurwenal. This is a role often given to a superannuated baritone. Boaz Daniel is anything but, and his utterances (brief though they are in this act) were solid and authoritative.

John Treleaven does not have the heaviest of voices, but his diction was exemplary, and he conveyed the ambiguity of Tristan’s character very well. In quieter passages he needs to guard against a tendency to descend into almost whispering, which was a bit disconcerting, but his rapturous response to Isolde’s seeming-capitulation was ardent and energetic. Runnicles directed this passage most effectively, carefully judging the moment when the ’real world’ intrudes upon the lovers’ privacy. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case, the conclusion of the act became something of a mad dash – no such indication is given in the score – and the offstage brass were too distant to make necessary impact.

Whatever reservations there may have been – including an undersized chorus – Runnicles prevented any hint of lingering and directed a convincing and urgent performance. I hope he will be able to relax more in the raptures of the second act duet and that Treleaven will be equal to the challenge of Tristan’s mad ravings in the third.

What was less convincing was the ’staging’, with male and female singers placed firmly at either side of the platform – rendering Tristan and Isolde’s final duet ludicrous. No libretto was provided, but surtitles were projected at the back of the stage, with the inevitable result of mis-matching the sung text and translation, and the latter was not always rendered accurately. Wagner did not write “what a lark” or “your eye sized me up” – but it was good to be reminded that he did compose some of the most incandescent music ever, and I look forward to the remaining concerts in this interesting series.

  • Further concerts on 5 & 19 February, Barbican, with BBC Radio 3 broadcast on 17, 18 & 19 February at 7.30

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