WAGNER Tristan und Isolde (Bernstein)
Leonard Bernstein’s seemingly ambivalent fascination with Wagner’s Tristan had begun as early as the 1950s with substantial televised excerpts with his New York Philharmonic, Ramón Vinay and Martha Mödl. Printed rumour tipped him to conduct the complete work at either Bayreuth or Vienna in the 1970s but a ‘full’ version only came once in concert, semi-staged an act at a time in Munich in January, April and November 1981. Bernstein himself and, unpredictably, Karl Böhm were ecstatic about the result; critics’ reaction to the first audio-only release (Philips) of the performance was more measured although Alan Blyth for Gramophone (10/83) was quite excited.
The now newly released visual side of the event adds little apart from distraction at varying levels. The singers stand on a platform at the back of the orchestra wearing clothes that may be self-chosen costumes or their own early-1980s fashion – hard to tell but, with respect, they look ghastly (Hofmann resembles a rock star trying to chill at a society party). There is no acting as such in terms of moves or props used – and in Act 3 this Tristan even resorts tamely to using a score.
But it is a strong cast. It’s good to be reminded of Hofmann’s big, deep tenor (perhaps more suited to Tristan than any contemporary save John Mitchinson), of Hildegard Behrens’s passionate use of the text and the sheer colour and accuracy of Yvonne Minton’s Brangäne. The last two seem the most able to convey their roles with face and gesture only.
Watching Bernstein – compulsive or annoying, according to taste – does confirm how amazingly well he knows and delivers a score, a majority of which was a personal premiere for him. However, his interpretation, or lack of it, can be frustrating. It seems over-reverential, unpredictably restrained at moments you might have expected this maestro to be at full Mahlerian blast. The lengthy pauses taken in the famous opening (to Act 1) promise a kind of creative intervention by the composer/conductor that sadly doesn’t happen. Generally there is no pain in this Tristan, little love and few expressive fluctuations of tempo or balance. Act 3, almost a full year after Act 1, is almost Boulezian in its refusal to dig into the most romantic textures. All of which seems a pity given the talents and interest of the conductor and the performance levels of cast and orchestra.
I must end with a plea. Where creative intervention definitely does happen in Bernstein’s rare complete Wagner outings is in the still (officially) unreleased concert tapes of the final acts of Die Walküre and Siegfried which, rumour has it, the Vienna Philharmonic insisted Bernstein lead as a kind of quid pro quo for programming his own music. The casts ended up a little more uneven than for this Tristan but you can really hear Bernstein the composer’s fascination for Wagner’s work in musical theatre. Is there a chance of an official release to mark the conductor’s centenary year?