Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Tristan und Isolde – Act II
Isolde – Anja Kampe
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
König Marke – László Polgár
Melot / Kurwenal – Stephen Gadd
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 13 December, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Mahler’s valedictory symphonic statement – the emotionally-laden opening Adagio of his uncompleted Tenth Symphony is the composer’s reflective statement on the approach of death, a musical summation of his life’s experience of both tragedy and some fleeting happiness. It very much takes its lead from the ‘Liebestod’ of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. However, the programming of Act Two of the opera suggested that the later stages of that act could perhaps be Mahler’s inspiration as the episode following König Marke’s narration appear to address similar issues when Tristan invites Isolde to follow him to the land of darkness where no light shines. She willingly accepts this journey to the end of life. That moment ushers in a long-breathed mournful leitmotif that dominates the later stages of the opera.
Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO made that thematic connection most apparent with the clarity of their playing. The Mahler was played with intensity and abetted by Jurowski’s always-immaculate control of texture. The so-crucial violins (antiphonal) played with a luminosity that could alternately be glacial or offer a not-entirely-easy warmth when underpinned by the brass and horns, even in those bars of resolution that complete the movement (the first of five, the symphony now performable in several completions). The various thematic twists and turns were appositely unpredictable. The Adagio made a powerful opener.
The second act of “Tristan und Isolde” started with a wonderful sense of expectation – Isolde awaits Tristan for her night-time tryst and fails to heed the warnings of the trusty Brangäne. Their dialogue, set against an orchestral cushion evocative of a balmy night, was almost a whispered conversation. The off-stage hunting-horns came off well. The voices of Anja Kampe and Sarah Connolly, though quite similar in tone, have amazingly rich and expressive middle registers and were nicely differentiated, Kampe’s Isolde coloured with a sense of suppressed excitement and Connolly’s tones being the more urgent. Once Tristan had arrived, Kampe perhaps needed just a little more abandon in those fearsome leaps to high Bs and Cs, but she sang with unfailing beauty, without strain, and was a particularly feminine-sounding princess.
As Tristan, Robert Dean Smith showed why he is one of the current reigning interpreters of the part. When he walked on he adroitly removed to one side the music-stand that Connolly had employed to give himself space to sing out unencumbered.His is not the biggest nor heroic of voices, but it is refreshingly devoid of bark and is almost unfailingly lyrical even at the climaxes. If anything he dominated the duet – and that is unusual. He also knows exactly what the text is about and coloured and inflected the words well. Both singers were helped by Jurowski’s careful control of dynamics and considerate responsiveness. Connolly’s rendition of Brangäne’s ‘Watch’, sung from the choir area was absolutely gorgeous in its mellow and long-breathed phrasing.
László Polgár (a definitive Bluebeard in Bartók’s opera) was suffering from a bad cold. There were some moments in the higher reaches of König Marke’s ‘Narration’ that were slightly rough and breathless – but my goodness he has absolutely the right richness and darkness of tone for the role. Every word was audible, Marke’s predicament and self-delusion charted unerringly, his loss of honour being bleakly intoned. Stephen Gadd did what he could with his two outbursts as the duplicitous Melot.
The London Philharmonic was on fine form, Jurowski revealing details in Wagner’s orchestration afresh, not least the vividness during Tristan’s interjections in the discussion on dark and light and the vital contributions of the bass clarinettist, particularly in ushering in a sense of foreboding that links the act’s final minutes with the Mahler.