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Wagner 2006

img  Tobias

On a short-term scale, musical works seem to turn more accesible, the farther they lie in the past: The radical clusters of Ligeti, Stockhausen’s sound colours or early Tangerine Dream’s raw electronic landscapes have lost a bit of their so-called visionary character and become part of the vocabulary of a language many will be able to understand. As the distance becomes longer, though, the line of communication between composer and listener is severed again and difficulties arise (if only for the fact that, at some point, it will be impossible to ask the artist). This is, simply put, the main reason why Classical music is facing a few difficulties in the 21st century. What once seemed obvious must now seem strange. What was once natural has become excentric. What could be recognised by everyone has turned into the knowledge of a few. The answer to this dilemma, according to many, must be education: Explaining the music to the uninitiated would surely do the trick. Pitty, though, that most people don’t like to be educated. That’s why “An Introduction to Wagner – Tristan und Isolde” by Christopher Cook (out on Naxos) does a tremendous job.

For how does one “explain” an opera of still colossal proportions (it fills four entire CDs with its mere three acts) and a tiny cast (which makes singing it a true physical survival test) to an audience, who will most likely feel bewildered by its thematic material? The story of Tristan and Isolde surely had its acme in the middle ages, where it served as a fertile ground of inspiration for many aspiring writers and poets, and the romantic era of Wagner, which adored the inescapable nemesis and the spiritual implications. But what can it for to a “modern”audience?

Christopher Cook’s answer is simple and strikingly convincing: Quite a lot! Cook, who works for the BBC’s Classical music department and has a knack for “demistyfying” Classical music at the right end, has set up his contribution to the “Opera Explained” series as a sort of deliberate counterpoint to its title: He doesn’t explain in the dry tone of an analyst, he doesn’t educate and he never allows his personal love for the piece (which is positively present in his effort) to lead him to give dogmatic statements. There is always room for the listener’s own emotions and fantasy to take over and this lends a breath of fresh air to a genre, which has suffered a great deal from strict teachers who claimed to know the truth. This, however, does’t mean that Cook isn’t capable of offering a theory of his own. In his opinion, the inception of “Tristan und Isolde” can best be understood by the parallels in Wagner’s life, that its impact is best described by the social turmoil of the times. And that its musical approach can be traced back to Wagner’s long and only partically unintentional period of rest.

Wagner had basically been forced into exile by his own curious and fiery nature. His attendance of rebelious political assemblies was certainly only partially down to a true desire of assisting in bringing about structural or even systemic changes. Whatever the exact curcumstances and whatever his motivations, authorities were unforgiving. Wagner left for Zürich, where he would once again solidify his reputation as a man of doubtful morality by accepting the monetary donations of Otto von Wesendonck and falling in love with Otto’s wife Mathilde. Mathilde subsequently serves as a muse for the opera, which circles around forbidden love as well: Tristan takes Idolde to his native Cornwall to be married to his uncle King Marke. Thanks to many confusions, they end up falling hopelessly in love with each other, enjoy a night of passion, before being discovered and dying in another set of racing hormones and confusion. Wagner, who was a married man himself, and lived on the same premises as the Wesendoncks, even went as far to include some songs he had written to the lyrics of Mathilde in the libretto. Just like in the legend, things came to a showdown and Wagner, after fleeing for Paris and asking his freind Lizt for help, finally returns to Zürich and settles with Otto. He continues writing to Mathilde, but as his work on the music is finished, he disposes of her as a lover. Their affair dies – albeit somewhat less dramatically.

The social implications are similiar – just like today, many were having either more or less secret affairs or indulging in relationships negtively sanctioned by society. The story suddenly seemed entirely contemporary and people could relate to the heroes Wagner presented them with. The musical concept mirrors this. For almost everything here is idea, the plot unfolds through the words (and muich less through the actions) of the characters. This thematic urgency opened the public to the indeed revolutionary concept behind the work. “Tristan und Isolde” breaks with the usual structure and instead offers a seamless flow of music, in which a string of motives are embedded, which make intermittant appearances during the course of events. It is them, rather than the typical arias, which organise the opera and serve as the new points of the compas. In his 15 years of “silence”, Wagner had thought a lot about the direction he wanted his music to take. And “Tristan und Isolde” is the perfect embodment of this theories.

Cook presents these historical facts as an exciting story in itself and he doesn’t shy away from the slightly shocking option that maybe the entire project was started for financial reasons – Wagner was in dire straits and needed money quickly. This explains the small cast of a mere six personae and the rapid time of development (even though it would take ages, until the piece was finally performed in Munich). Cook suggests that, in a way, “Tristan und Isolde” was a nothing more than a short break from the “Ring”. With crushing consequences, of course.For after it finally earned its well-deserved premiere, nothing stayed the way it was.

The largest part of this packed, 79 minute long CD is spent presenting the story and the music and here, the project also features a lot of carefully selected extracts from the accompanying release on Naxos (which, at a rediculously low 17 Euros is the ideal way to start your journey). There is enough to make this a worthwhile audio book and still waken the hunger for the “real thing” – the entire four hours, which now seem very close and appealing. And suddenly you can see the ongoing fascination, you can understand the attraction of all the different interpretations and the reason why what has been called the last big studio project in Classical Music was dedicated to this very work (out on EMI, with Placido Domingo). What Naxos and Cook have basically achieved is to bring back the time scale, to make this over 100 year old piece seem accesible again, while not telling all of its secrets. That is a revolutionary achievment in its own right.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos

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