As part of its series of Wagner works conducted by Marek Janowski, Pentatone Classics has released a recording of a live concert performance of Tristan und Isolde that took place in the Berlin Philharmonie on March 27, 2012. I enjoyed all of it very much and a great deal of it was revelatory.
Janowski seems to have gone through this thick score with a comb, relieving us of what can often be a sticky, goo-ey mass of erotic sound. He reveals, instead, a transparently clear work of passion and remorse. The recording abounds with delights usually reserved for chamber orchestra. Wagner’s unerringly surprising orchestration is nowhere more apparent. His love for each instrument — but particularly the cor anglais, the cello and the bass clarinet — is made brilliantly clear as the body of the orchestra yields the usual “wall of sound” in favor of a series of quiet, urgent, pathetic strains. To think that this is not a studio recording, but rather a one-off record of a live concert, makes Janowski’s achievement all the more mind-blowing. It must have been quite a night.
The cast is of international calibre. Nina Stemme is familiar to all who (like me) first came upon her smashing performance in Domingo’s recording, then at the Glyndebourne production, and two summers ago making a sumptuous meal of Brünnhilde at the San Francisco Ring. Her performance here is thrilling. Kwangchul Youn’s King Marke shines out unencumbered by the onstage nonsense that he was forced to compete against in the recent Bayreuth production.
I have previously revealed my enthusiasm for the artistry of Stephen Gould, whose Siegfried I first encountered in the Bayreuth Ring in 2006. I knew he had prepared a Tristan and first performed it in Tokyo, and I was eager to see — or at least hear — it. This recording fulfills every hope I possessed. The singing seems effortless and Gould’s reading is acutely musical and without compromise. A peculiar and ineffable sense of dramatic narrative infuses his performance uniquely — it is as if his Tristan is communicating with Isolde, rather than singing at her. There is an immediacy to his words, something that goes far beyond mere clarity of diction. One gets the sense that this is sung drama, rather than dramatically performed music. Although his posted itinerary doesn’t include any upcoming performances in America, Gould is scheduled for several Vienna Rings and he will perform Tristan in the new Bayreuth production planned for 2015. I intend to be there when it happens.
Since first encountering Mr. Gould, I have seen him in other performances of Siegfried — a Met Götterdämmerung and a Vienna Siegfried — and an Eric at the Met. And over the course of those seven years I have had the privilege to experience the work of other new and impressive heldentenors — notably Lance Ryan (whose Siegfried Siegfried in the Fura Dels Baus DVD really rips the roof off) and Jay Hunter Morris (terrific both at the Met and in San Francisco). But there is something different about Gould that one cannot shake, that lingers well after the performance. It’s as if he knows something about the role — something simple and clean and unadorned — and he is letting us in on one of the great secrets of art. It may be that, as Robert Frost reminded us,
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.