Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (CD review)

Domingo, Stemme, Fujimura, Bar, Pape, Bostridge, Holt, Rose, Villazon; Antonio Pappano, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. EMI 7243 5 58006-2 (three CD's and one DVD).

With its stellar leads, passionate direction, superb sound, elegant packaging, and extra DVD, this new set of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde goes to the head of the class in my grade book.

Wagner's ultimate love triangle, based on the Arthurian legends of Tristan, Isolde, and King Mark, has never wanted for glorious recordings, the ones by Karajan (EMI), Solti (Decca), and Bohm (DG) springing quickly to mind. But, frankly, the competition tends to pale next to the sound and voices on this 2005 EMI release.

The composer based his opera on the medieval accounts of the traditional story by German poet Gottfried von Strassburg. It recounts the tragic tale of two people who fall in love, the knight Tristan and the Irish Princess Isolde whom he must deliver to her husband-to-be, King Mark of Cornwall. The story has every bit of the romance, spiritual imagery, ardor, and fire one could imagine, and Wagner matched it with the grand, fervent, romantic spiritualism of his music. Domingo, Stemme, Pappano, and the Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra capture the Wagnerian spirit in all its transcendent glory.

My first reaction upon seeing the cast list was that Placido Domingo seemed more than little old to be singing the part of the youthful Tristan. Yet upon hearing the set, I found Domingo's voice belied his sixty-odd years, coming through as strongly and as sweetly as it did twenty and thirty years earlier. My reaction upon seeing the name Nina Stemme was "Who's she?" OK, I'm not an avid opera buff, and I don't keep up with the latest artists in the field. Yet, upon hearing the Swedish soprano, I could understand her being chosen to sing next to Domingo. She not only holds her own, she equals his performance in every way, no small feat. This is singing of the highest caliber in all departments.

Needless to say, the whole enterprise would have gone for naught if the sound weren't up to par, and it is. EMI's engineers have given us a recording of splendid depth and breadth. Voices are natural and fluid, the orchestra well spread out between the speakers, dynamics strong; and the frequency response wide. Although the stage effects are not as pronounced as those on Decca's old opera recordings of the Fifties, EMI's are nonetheless realistic. When a character sings from the topmast of a sailing ship, the voice sounds as though it's coming from the topmast. When singers are fretting about on stage, their voices move across the sound field. This is no mere concert recital.

If I had to fault the audio in any way, however, it would be in the sound of the chorus, where the massed voices can on a few occasions seem overly bright, even fierce. I'm not sure if it was EMI's intent deliberately to brighten the chorus for added clarity or drama, or whether it was the accidental result of the miking, but in any case it's only a minor distraction in an otherwise flawless production.

What's more, in addition to EMI presenting the opera on three CD's, they include a fourth disc in the set, a music-only DVD of the entire opera as well, recorded in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, with a printed libretto that one can read on a TV screen, and subtitles in English, French, or German. To listen to the DVD, I left my main system, VMPS RM40s, and retired to my home theater, Boston Acoustics speakers, and a distinct diminishing of sonic quality; but it was interesting to note the increased musical ambiance afforded by the rear-channels. It didn't convince me it was an improvement, but it is different, and it's like icing on an already delicious cake.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa