Tristan & Iseult (CD review)

Henri Ledroit, Anne Azema, Ellen Hargis, Richard Morrison, William Hite, and Andrea von Ramm; Joel Cohen, The Boston Camerata. Warner Classics Erato 2564 69634-0.

Tales of the brave Cornish knight Tristan (alternatively, Drystan, Tristrem, Tristram, depending on the country of origin and/or the translation) and his ill-fated love for the Irish princess Iseult (Isolde, Yseult, Isode, Isoude, Esylit, or Isotta) have been around at least as long as the Arthurian legends, maybe before them, meaning that bards, prose writers, poets, and singers have told and retold the legends many times over for the past 1500 years or quite possibly longer. Although the original storytellers set their accounts in Cornwall, probably nobody wrote them down (nobody we know of) until hundreds of years later, mainly French and German writers before the English took them up again.

What we have under review here is a recent Warner Classics reissue of the award-winning 1987 Erato recording (it won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1989) of medieval poems, songs, and music associated with the Tristan and Iseult legends, compiled by Joel Cohen and played by The Boston Camerata. It certainly makes for different and fascinating listening.

According to Maestro Cohen in a booklet note, "The Camerata has chosen to return to the oldest surviving sources for this program. You will hear some central elements of the story almost exactly as they were narrated in the Middle Ages in Germany and France. In our presentation, certain passages of the narration are spoken; others are sung to melodies of the same period, as was often the case with narrative poetry during the Middle Ages. All the music is drawn from manuscript sources of the early and later medieval period; about half of these songs were already associated with the 'Tristan' legend at the time, and the others are closely related in mood and content."

The music begins with an anonymous prologue, partly instrumental, partly recited, which sets the temper of the tragic romance in a lyrically atmospheric manner. From there we get an eclectic assortment of instrumental, ensemble, and solo pieces, mostly plaintive, melancholy, some bright and sprightly, each connected by narration, twenty-four selections in all, ranging from under a minute to over six minutes apiece.

The overall tone of the music, not surprisingly, sounds Celtic and most of the narration Germanic, French, and Old English. Countertenor Henri Ledroit is a particularly becoming Tristan, Anne Azema a tender Iseult, Richard Morrison a convincingly lusty King Mark, and Andrea von Ramm a sensitive narrator.

While I don't think anyone would mistake this collection of medieval music for Richard Wagner's celebrated opera, it does have the merit of at least some degree of authenticity. And you can hardly beat those ancient settings of the texts. It's fun in a fresh and pleasant way.

Erato recorded the program in September of 1987 at the Church of the Covenant, Boston, Massachusetts. Even though the sound is fairly close up and somewhat one-dimensional, it has the advantage of exceptional naturalness and clarity. Voices, which on many recordings can appear bright and forward, here seem just right--smooth yet vivid, with ensemble vocals given a small degree of room resonance for an effectively realistic ambience. Transient attack is quick and sharp, rendering the whole affair easy on the ear.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa