Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - the duet scenes

Deborah Polaski; Johan Botha; RSO Wien/Bertrand de Billy (OHMS OC626 - Hybrid SACD)

24 March 2008 3 stars

Tristan DuetsThis is the second disc from Oehms featuring extracts from Tristan and Isolde. The first concentrated on the scenes for just Isolde with Deborah Polaski. Here, she is joined by Johan Botha for the scenes the two main characters share; Betrand de Billy conducts the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

We are presented with the fifth scene of the first act, from 'Begehrt, Herrin, was ihr wüscht', and the bulk of the second act: the whole of their big duet starting 'Isolde! Geliebte!' running up to the moment of their discovery by King Marke is then followed by the final ten minutes or so of the act. I've not heard the first disc but given that for these extracts Oehms engaged a Brangäne (Heidi Brunner), a Kurnewal (Eros Strumazotti), and a Melot (Jerry S. Ziegler), it seems a shame that they couldn't have just gone the whole hog and engaged a couple more singers to complete the cast and produce a complete recording.

This decision was more than likely dictated by budget constraints or maybe by the fact that Botha, who has not yet sung Tristan in the theatre, was unwilling to set down any of that character's more psychologically difficult music from the third act. Whatever the case, we are left with a disc of 'bleeding chunks' that, regardless of the quality of the performance, is likely to leave the listener a little unsatisfied, even if at over 76 minutes in length, the disc is generously filled. There are no texts or translations included.

One advantage of this recording, though, is the fact that it's captured very cleanly and analytically as a hybrid SACD. However, under de Billy's direction, the Vienna Radio Symphony also produce a sound that's often rather too clean and objective for this music; this might make for a lean and almost classical account of the score but some of the sensuousness that defines the work is missing. Listen for example to rather heavy weather made of the shift into the hypnotic syncopations that that introduce 'O sink hernieder'.

Of the singers, it's perhaps to be expected that Polaski, who after all has been singing Brünnhilde for two decades and Isolde since the early '90s, should give something away in terms of vocal freshness to the younger Botha who, despite having sung a fair amount of Wagner on stage – Parsifal, Lohengrin, Siegmund and Walther in Die Meistersinger – has as yet steered clear of Tristan. However, the soprano sounds in remarkably fresh voice for much of the disc and her experience in the role brings rewards in terms of dramatic engagement. That said, there are a few moments of unsteadiness and shrillness above the stave and occasions where the vibrato broadens more than is ideal. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are also occasions where her diction becomes unclear.

Botha's contribution is as solid as one would expect. The vocal security he brings across the range is impressive but the basic sound of the voice can still be a little harsh. However, in the big second act duet it is refreshing to hear the role negotiated with such apparent ease, rare not only in the theatre but also on disc. However, in the quieter passages he sometimes struggles to produce anything to compare to Polaski's more luxuriously vocalised phrases, an example being in their hushed utterances after 'O sink hernieder'. He does, however, rise to some thrilling singing at the end of the act, at which stage de Billy also brings some exciting playing from the RSO Wien. Of the other singers, Heidi Brunner's Brangäne's has the most work to do and she equips herself admirably whilst on guard during the duet.

In all, although this is a well sung and well played disc, its appeal will be mainly to fans of Polaski wanting an additional souvenir of her performances as Isolde or fans of Botha wanting a taster of what his Tristan, if it makes it to the stage, might be like: as such, it's a self-recommending release. However, it makes a slightly less compelling case to demand a space on the shelf of a more general Wagnerian or opera lover.

By Hugo Shirley