Runnicles’ Magnificent Tristan: Part Two

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz and Wagner: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.11.2012 (SRT)

Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette (orchestral excerpts)
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Act 2


Nina Stemme – Isolde
Robert Dean Smith – Tristan
Jane Irwin – Brangäne
Peter Rose – King Mark
Andrew Rees – Melot

Runnicles’ Tristan project continued with a thrilling reading of Act 2, preceded by an equally beguiling performance of excerpts from Romeo et Juliette. The point of spreading Tristan over three concerts is, partly, to combine it with music that has some sort of link with it. This is the only one of the three companion works that actually preceded Tristan, and Wagner admitted the huge influence that Berlioz’s score was on him. Hearing the two works in such close proximity, it’s easy to hear the link, and in that sense alone this was a revelatory evening. The throbbing strings of the Love Scene are cut from the same cloth as the strings in Tristan’s Liebesnacht, and it’s not going too far to hear King Mark’s night hunt in the horns that end the Queen Mab Scherzo. It helps when they’re played so persuasively as here, and the strings heaped glory on themselves with their hugely atmospheric scene painting. It was them, too, that anchored the Liebesnacht in its spellbinding atmosphere, though the winds added tremendous colour and life to the nocturnal garden scene, with an enormously characterful bass clarinet to accompany the grief of King Mark.

Nina Stemme continues to reign supreme as Isolde. This hugely punishing role holds no terrors for her, and it is continually astonishing to hear the confidence with which she sings. Her invocation to Frau Minne and anticipation of extinguishing the torch were so intense as to bring a prickle to the spine, and the sheer opulence of her tone in the love duet is one of the finest things I’ve heard in the Usher Hall in a long while. I mentioned in my review of Part 1 that her interpretation is now even finer than any of the recordings she has set down (and I include Janowski’s new version in that judgement) and it’s a privilege to witness her Isolde so close up. Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan was every bit as fine, and if anything even more ringingly exciting than Stemme’s performance. His bright, crisp tone has a trumpet-like authority, making the first, ecstatic section of the love duet a thrill to listen to, but he mellows his timbre remarkably for his invitation, at the end of the act, for Isolde to join him in the realm of night. Jane Irwin is also a thrilling Brangäne, with sumptuous beauty of tone and perfect German diction, and her off-stage warnings were bewitching in their beauty. Peter Rose boomed away convincingly as Mark, and Andrew Rees made a lot out of Melot’s brief appearance.

Holding it all together was Runnicles, who controlled the steady unfolding of the act with the masterful skill of someone with years of experience of the work in the opera house. He built the act like an arch, building and releasing the tension with just the right levels of control. The build-up to Tristan’s appearance was exciting without boiling over, and the Liebesnacht unfolded gently in a tone of controlled ecstasy. The stark chords that accompanied Tristan’s stabbing by Melot were sharp and oddly final. What a shame that we have to wait until April for Act Three!

The same programme was performed in Glasgow last Thursday night and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. You can hear it here until November 15th.

Simon Thompson