Some while back, I promised to embark on a project to survey the discography of Donald Runnicles (since he's sufficiently young for the task to be conceivable in a way that it isn't with other baton wielding heroes of mine, such as Charles Mackerras). It seems vaguely appropriate to start with Runnicles' most recent recording: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. And what a competitive field it is. Certainly one of the most crowded amongst Wagner's operas and with such titans as the incomparable Furtwangler/Flagstad recording (which had the interesting feature of Schwarzkopf being drafted in to sing the high notes) and Carlos Kleiber which featured the advantage of the Dresden Orchestra and, as with Furtwangler, the incomparable Kurwenal of Fischer-Dieskau.
How then, can Runnicles hope to compete? Certainly he has his work cut out for him. His forces are the BBC Symphony Orhcestra, the Tristan of John Treleaven, the Brangane of Dagmar Peckova and the Kurwenal of Boaz Daniel. But he does have one ace: Isolde is sung by Christine Brewer, one of the finest Wagnerian singers of her generation and, for many, a key reason for investing in this set. Indeed, one of the reasons, other than the conductor, I was looking forward to it, since I had heard her sing the role for Nott and the Bambergers back at the 2005 Edinburgh festival (the review of which I shall be posting in the future). It's worth noting that this set (at mid price on Warner) comes from a series of live concerts given for broadcast on Radio 3 in December 2002 and February 2003. As with Bernstein, he gave an act on each occasion (though the question of how live that recording was is a valid one).
The prelude is taken slowly. Indeed this is a slow set and, at over 4 hours, fits comfortably onto 4 discs, as opposed to the 3 taken by Pappano or Kleiber. Runnicles draws wonderful playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, though I do find myself wishing that he had had the Dresden Staatskapelle with whom he has recorded a sublime disc of Wagner chunks or even the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has greatly impressed me in Edinburgh. The slow tempo fits much better than it did on his recent disc with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra that also opened with the prelude. As one would expect from Runnicles, he builds the prelude wonderfully. With the first voice he shows his genius for placement that has been so evident in his concert performances: the distance of sailor is perfect. Brewer is superb and rides the orchestra well. There is vibrato, but not offensively so (I'm particularly averse to excessive vibrato in my singers). Brangane is good too, and not the problem that, for me, Brigitte Fassbaender is for Kleiber. And in Boaz Daniel, we find another set that has a strong Tristan. True, we are not in Kleiber territory where Fischer-Dieskau is in danger of stealing the show, but that is probably just as well. The Tristan of John Treleaven is a little rough, but this is no bad thing. Certainly, for example, I find Kollo rather too nice. Again and again Runnicles shows his strength as an accompanist, giving his singers the support they need without trampling them. But there is no shortage of power when required and the sheer drama he creates when Isolde calls for the ship to be wrecked is frightening. Brewer is impressive, the bitterness of "Todd uns beiden!" (death to us both), is chilling as is Brangane's horror at "Der Todestrank!". Tristan lacks fire in his first encounter with Isolde. But the sailors (the Apollo Voices) are wonderful, especially for their "Ho, He". Tristan and Isolde are both strong in the climax, though I would like more power from Treleaven.
Act two begins well enough, and the horns of the hunting party going out are nicely done, though they do not fade gradually away so perfectly as on other recordings. The second scene is both exciting and erotic, though not to the same extent as Kleiber's recording. But I prefer the more tender interruptions of Runnicles' Brangane. Again, his command of the score is wonderful as he keeps bringing out echoes of the Ring. Brewer's and Treleaven's voices blend well in the duets and while the eroticism isn't as powerful as it might be, they find instead a wonderful otherworldlyness. Scene three is even finer, marked by some excellent string playing and Peter Rose's Konig Marke.
Eugene Ginty's shepherd opens the final act well enough. Treleaven's performance as Tristan, while not in perfect voice, is superbly acted (the more so when compared with Kollo's dramatically rather limp efforts), the several climaxes as he wakes from his delirium are quite something. Again (as with both Kleiber and Furtwangler) this proves to be a set with an exceptional Kurwenal though, unlike Fischer-Dieskau on the Kleiber set, Boaz Daniel is not in danger of upstaging the eponymous hero. But there are two stars here, the emotional weight Runnicles brings to the score, not least for the arrival of both ships (the horn that announces the first of them is particularly well played) and, of course, Brewer. The drama and chaos of all the deaths is also effective, though Kurwenal's is not so heartbreaking as Fischer-Dieskau. But Marke's "Tot den alles" is suitably chilling. It is left to Runnicles and Brewer to take us magically through to the close. I can't wait for the pair to repeat this at the Proms with Gotterdammerung, and I wish she'd had Runnicles for an accompanist when she sang this in Edinburgh.
Overall, then, a fine set. Worth buying both for Runnicles and Brewer (and a number of creditably performances in the more minor roles). However, excluding Brewer, none of the singers really rival the greatest performers in the roles, and remarkably well though the BBC Symphony Orchestra play, they are not of the calibre of, say, Kleiber's Dresdeners. Which leaves what, for many, will be the set's biggest flaw: John Treleaven's Tristan. Actually, I think this is unfair. He acts the part well enough (disappointingly rare, these days) and his voice is certainly not poor. But neither can it be pretended that he is in the same league as the likes of Windgassen (but then, who is?), particularly in terms of the power he has to call on.