The Wagner Journal

Stretched to Oblivion: John Warner finds Bernstein’s glacial ‘Tristan’ unconvincing

Stretched to Oblivion: John Warner finds Bernstein’s glacial ‘Tristan’ unconvincing

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Review of Tristan und Isolde (concert perf.), conducted Bernstein, Munich, 1981 (C major/Unitel, 1 Blu-ray disc / 3 DVDs).

November 2019, Volume 13, Number 3, 89–91.

When Carlos Kleiber said of the end of Tristan und Isolde that ‘only the audience must weep’, he hit upon a potentially lethal pitfall of performing the work. Self-indulgent though the two protagonists are, the role of the performers is to represent this, not to be it. With such a long and demanding piece, the stakes of such a pitfall are high. Many great live recordings have ‘errors’ and weak points, but these are unimportant in the context of a fundamentally persuasive performance. Intonation issues in recordings by Hans Knappertsbusch or wrong notes by Vladimir Horowitz detract very little from the broader impact. A potential trap as serious as the one identified by Kleiber, though, is make-or-break. Leonard Bernstein’s rendering doesn’t so much fall into it as jump. His larger-than-life personality dominates to the detriment of the musical drama. The latter is obscured by an excessively ‘expressive’ approach to every corner of the score. It is the height of the self-indulgence that Kleiber warned of. Tristan has to compete with Bernstein’s performance rather than benefitting from it.

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