Tristan and Isolde in Concert at the CSO

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  • Wagner Tristan and Isolde, Prelude to Act I
  • Wagner Tristan and Isolde, Act 2

Additional Dates for this Performance: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 8 pm

Esa-Pekka Salonen Conductor

Sublime Disaster at the CSO

Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera Tristan and Isolde is without a doubt one of the greatest works of art ever presented on stage.  It represents, in many ways, the height of innovative harmony in the Romantic period, which reached a sort of apotheosis of emotive quality, never over-stepping the bounds of good taste. Merely to hear the very first chord, the famously enchanting ‘Tristan Chord”, is to enter into an infectiously melancholic realm of Romantic idealism.  And yet I have never quite made up my mind if I would prefer to hear a well-done performance of an execrable piece, or a stiff-necked, shallow, and un-musical performance of a sublime classic such as Tristan. After last night’s fiasco at the CSO, I am very nearly inclined to say I would prefer the former.


Salonen and the CSO conceived of making a concert evening out of Wagner’s famous prelude to Act I, and all of Act II, which contains the famous love duet between Tristan and Isolde. The trouble is that all of the back-story, presented in Act I, about who these people are, and why we should feel any sympathy for them, is completely lost.  Wagner is of course famous for writing operas of prodigious length, usually in excess of four hours long; but he only manages to unite his scores musically, into a coherent whole, by pacing the action, and the musical development, at a very slow rate indeed. When taken as whole, this tends to work very well; when excerpted, as the CSO has done here, the music sounds diffuse and diluted.  For this reason, I cannot think of a single whole act of a Wagner opera that is regularly excerpted and preformed by a symphony orchestra on the concert stage other than Act I of Die Walkure, which, as an introductory act, needs very little back-story.  Frankly, I would have much preferred if Salonen and the CSO had chosen to excerpt Act I instead, which, though it does not contain as much famous music as Act II, would at least be presented roughly as Wagner intended.

All caviling with program aside, there is nothing that can justify this ignominious performance by a well-respected orchestra.  One knew something was a bit strange when Salonen began the prelude at a tempo so slow it would have made Furtwangler sound brisk (though this performance had none of that maestro’s signature poeticism) To be sure, I have often expressed a hope that the CSO strings might develop a warmer, more luscious sound; and I understand Chicagoans are getting a bit tired of winter in late February, but last night the CSO strings were as dry as summer’s dust.  Rather than being swept up by Love’s passion, one feels as if one is being swept under by a high-speed cohort of Eighteen-wheelers.

Moving directly in to Act II, as we have said, Wagner’s idea of love, given almost cosmological significance, sounds utterly ridiculous. And there is even something very awkward about the physical presentation of it: The singers are not sitting in chairs when, “off-stage”, as in the typical performance of an oratorio,  but move around, as if on the opera stage, except with out physically interacting in any meaningful way. The voices don’t help much either: Linda Watson is a tolerably good Isolde, though a bit labored at times;  Stefan Vinke, as Tristan, sounded as if he had a stomach ache the whole time: In the orchestral tutti sections I could not hear him; in the more lightly accompanied passages, I was painfully aware of his wavering below the right pitch; and in general one heard a tint of panic in the tone quality produced. The saving grace of the evening (if only it was that) was John Relyea as King Marke, whose confident and rich voice shone throughout.  Sean Pannikkar is also rather good as Tristan’s betrayer Lord Melot.

But the orchestra never redeems it self. The wind lines might have been produced by instruments with leaden weights attached, for all I could tell, and the musician’s themselves might have been robots. At Salonen’s excruciating tempo the performance very nearly came across as an early run-through by an amateur orchestra with unusual technical proficiency.   Indeed, the Lyric Opera’s stings sounded much more polished, and self assured, four and a half hours in to Die Meistersinger, across town, than the CSO strings did at any moment last night.

If the CSO wants to play Wagner is has to start to take the musical challenge seriously. It is likely that Asher Fisch, a regular opera conductor, will offer up something slightly more palatable in next months’ “Mahler and Wagner” program, but, in truth, I am loath to trust this orchestra with Wagner’s music any time soon.

Not Recommended

Gabriel Kalcheim

Date Reviewed: February 22, 2013

At Orchestra Hall Chicago

2 thoughts on “Tristan and Isolde in Concert at the CSO

  • Ann Raven

    Mr. Gabriel Kalchiem,

    It would have been a terrible idea to do only ACT 1 of “Tristan Und Isolde” at the CSO this weekend. I know that the audience could have researched the music to find out the background plus, it is in the program. You give our audience too little credit. I have seen Tristan many times and,of course, know the story and the music. I think many others there have the same experience. We are starved to hear more Wagner here in Chicago. I wonder about your own understanding of Wagner’s music. I think this is a silly review and I’ll bet that many other Wagnerites will agree.

    Thanks for listening,

    Ann Raven

  • Ms Raven,
    You do me a great injustice in assuming I am not a great votary of Wagner’s music. I say in the opening paragraph that Tristan is one of the greatest works of art ever put on stage. My criticism was of the performance, plain and simple. And I also say, that although I thought it worked poorly to simply excerpt Act II (the whole work, which the orchestra did in 1935, or even act I would have been better), such criticism is a mere trifle compared to the main import of what I had to say: The performance did great injustice to the sublime music of Wagner. I am all for the CSO playing more Wagner; but playing it as it should be played, with more luscious, emotional strings, more personality in the winds, and in general greater musicality. The performance sounded absolutely leaden. You may feel differently, but as a critic I can only relate and expound upon the experience I had. And that experience was really quite painful. If you think I am prejudice against Wagner, or the CSO, I commend to you my last two reviews, of Die Meistersinger at Lyric and last weeks CSO concert, both very positive.
    Gabriel Kalcheim

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