Tristan and Isolde with Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra on CD
On November 20, Navona Records released a CD with a recording of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde.
Juyeon Song Isolde
Roy Cornelius Smith Tristan
Tamaro Gallo Brangäne
John Paul Huckle King Marke
Brian Davis Kurwenal
Alexander Kaimbacher Melot, Hirt, A young sailor, the Shepherd
Siarhei Zubkevich A steersman
Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus
Jurij Galatenko choirmaster
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra
Robert Reimer conductor
The Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra stuns with a new recording of Richard Wagner’s three-act opera TRISTAN AND ISOLDE. Skillfully conducted by German conductor Robert Reimer, this new, vibrant performance is likely to claim its place as one of the reference recordings of Wagner’s innovative work.
As novel as the opera was in its time, it didn’t go down well with all of the composer’s contemporaries. Rossini quipped that while Tristan had great moments, it also had terrible quarter-hours. Worse yet, the author of Wagner’s main inspiration was even less impressed: Arthur Schopenhauer, the ingenious German philosopher whose stoic advice to rebuff the animal Will to Live for happiness’s sake underpins large parts of the opera, sided with Rossini (incidentally the thinker’s favourite composer). Unluckily for Wagner, it was impossible to discredit Schopenhauer’s opinion as that of an amateur: the philosopher played the flute with virtuosic skill, understood music like few others, placed it at the top of all art forms in his philosophy, and justly became a favourite among musicians for his perspicacious assertion that music was one of the few things in which the essence of Being could very briefly be perceived, even if doing so wasn’t possible otherwise.
Modern-day Wagnerians will be happy to hear that conductor Robert Reimer and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra have a more favourable opinion of Wagner, performing the volatile composer’s opera with great verve and conviction. It’s a splendid pairing to be sure: a much sought-after conductor familiar with orchestras all across Europe, and a wonderful ensemble to do his bidding. This arrangement works to the favour of everyone involved.
Some might wish this recording had existed 160 years ago. To show his appreciation, Wagner had given Schopenhauer a copy of the libretto – and the philosopher liberally made annotations. At one point Wagner writes “The curtain falls quickly”, on which the thinker comments in ink: “For it is high time.” If Schopenhauer had known this new TRISTAN AND ISOLDE as it is released today, he would likely have reconsidered.
Remy Franck’s review
When an American independent label launches a recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one might raise the eyebrows as a sign of scepticism. An opera that hardly any opera house can cast satisfactorily, with an orchestra that has hardly any Wagner experience, a petite Korean woman as Isolde and an American Tristan who sang the role for the first time in 2018? But it doesn’t take long, once the recording is started, for scepticism to turn into amazement, all the more so as this is a live recording.
The integrity and gripping power of this Tristan cannot be denied. Of course, this recording, which was made in the Penderecki Centre in Luslawice, does not reach the level of the absolute reference recordings of the opera, but it is undoubtedly one of the very good recordings (in my opinion, the top of the list is headed by Karajan-Vickers-Dernesch, Böhm-Windgassen-Nilsson, Furtwängler-Suthaus-Flagstad and Karajan-Vinay-Mödl).
The conductor Robert Reimer can undoubtedly take a larger share of this great success. Thanks to his suggestive conducting, the music is powerfully engaging during three and a half hours. With good dynamic control, many nuances in the colours and an excellent balance, the conductor achieves a lot but also shows how much he can influence the orchestra, how strong the power of his charisma is on the musicians.
The Janacek Philharmonic responds with a very committed, colourful, well-balanced and attentively intense music-making throughout the opera.
This is already a good basis for an atmospherically dense, deeply breathed and gripping performance.
The American tenor Roy Cornelius Smith is a very sovereign Tristan, who sings vocally so confidently and effortlessly that he can fully concentrate on the interpretation of the role. He loves passionately and dies feverishly, with secure and extraordinarily brilliant top notes and a lot of emotion.
Juyeon Song’s Isolde is no less good: her voice may be a little tight and lack the usual timbre qualities for the role, but she is a highly dramatic singer who is completely absorbed in her role and sings a strong, passionate Isolde. You really wonder where this petite singer gets the strength to sing the demanding role with such great vocal power and expressivity.
Tamaro Gallo is a great, dramatically impressing Brangäne, John Paul Huckle a good Marke, Brian Davis a reliable Kurwenal.
The supporting roles are no less well cast, the choirs are impeccable, and so, as already mentioned, we are dealing here with a quite outstanding recording, also in terms of sound.