Perceptive Insights in Runnicles’ Tristan Act Three

R Strauss, Wagner: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Glasgow City Halls, 11.04.2012 (SRT)

R Strauss: Metamorphosen
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Act 3

Robert Dean Smith – Tristan
Petra Maria Schnitzer – Isolde
Matthew Best – King Mark
Markus Eiche – Kurwenal
Jane Irwin – Brangäne
Ben Johnson – Shepherd
Benedict Nelson – Helmsman
Andrew Rees – Melot

Runnicles’ Tristan project, one of the centrepieces of this year’s BBC SSO season, has also been one of the musical highlights of this year in Scotland. Tonight’s companion piece took us right into the dark regions of Strauss’s Metamorphosen. This piece encompasses lamentation as intense as anything in Tristan’s delirium, and the rich, endlessly suggestive sound world conjured up by the BBC SSO strings (guest-led by Reinhold Wolf, the leader of the Deutsche Oper, another of Runnicles’ key stomping grounds) was a thing to marvel at. Strauss’s threnody for the destruction of German culture (or was it?…) was sometimes dark and morose, sometimes shot through with shafts of light, but always moving towards the same desperate ending, partly due to Runnicles’ unified vision of the piece. This felt like a specially assembled crack team, a group of people who have thought long and about this piece and its context, and their insights paid perceptive dividends.

Moving straight from Strauss’s lament into Tristan‘s Act 3 Prelude serves to remind you just how influential Wagner’s new sound world was. The heavy string sound and leaden atmosphere sounded even more weighty and full of moment, and it was easy to forget that a full four months have passed since Act 2! Top class playing from the orchestra made the whole 75 minutes of the act fly by. The solos were superb, especially James Horan’s beautiful cor anglais, delicately placed offstage, but the attention to detail was everywhere, such as in the spine-tingling sound from the trombones when Tristan first mentioned his sojourn in the realm of night.

I’ve sung Robert Dean Smith’s praises elsewhere in these pages, but I’ve never heard him sound better than he did tonight. It helps, of course, that he comes to this most punishing of tenor scenes fresh, without the burden of the other two acts, but even with that in mind, Smith’s voice sounded clean, beautiful and always deeply sympathetic. He used every nuance in his voice to superb effect, beautiful in his vision of Isolde approaching over the waves, hair-raising in the climax of the curse on the drink, and he evoked genuine sympathy for the hero’s plight in a way that few tenors can manage. Helped by the grateful acoustic of Glasgow City Halls and the sensitive accompaniment of the players, it’s wonderful that, for once, you could really hear the part!

Petra Maria Schnitzer had, of course, the same advantage of freshness, and she sang the Liebestod well, managing a lovely pianissimo on the final phrase, but she seemed a little pushed on top and lacked the refulgence that this climactic scene really needs. Markus Eiche seemed a little unsure on stage of how far he should act his part, but his voice was virile, flexible and full of beautiful tone. Matthew Best and Jane Irwin made a big impact with their brief appearances, and the smaller parts, featuring some very estimable young singers, were all sung very well.

But the hero of the evening was Runnicles himself. He paced the unfolding of the great span of the act like a psychological thriller, knowing exactly when to tighten the tension and when to relax. As a result, Wagner’s still remarkable score ebbed and flowed like the waves bearing Isolde’s ship, and everything sounded organic and natural, even the very final chord, which swelled with passion and then receded into the distance. This was a majestic climax to Runnicles’ Tristan project, and a triumphant vindication of bringing the idea to Scotland. As I listened, I thought to myself that what I was hearing would not be out of place on the lyric stage of, say, Vienna, Berlin or Munich. A few years ago who would have ever thought it would be possible to say that about Wagner in Scotland?

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. You can hear it here until April 18th.

Simon Thompson