There's no way to discuss this matter without its seeming to come off appearing a thoroughly petty complaint when measured against the larger achievement, but it's so remarkable a matter that we simply can't let it pass absent remark.
We're talking about the absolutely wrong and wrongheaded realization, musically and dramatically, of the critically important opening two-measure phrase of the opening ten-measure paragraph of the Vorspiel to Act III of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and the two-measure phrase's following second statement (as well as the second statement of the entire paragraph some six measures after the first) as they were realized by Daniel Barenboim in his debut on the Met's podium on 28 November; a realization repeated this past Saturday for the broadcast matinée.
That opening ten-measure paragraph is one of the small wonders in an opera filled with manifold wonders of magnitudes large and small, and which paragraph is perhaps the most concise, deeply affecting, and profound evocation of utter desolation and despair, external and internal, to be found in all of opera, perhaps even in all of music. And much of that paragraph's effect (and affect) can be attributed directly to its opening four measures — i.e., its repeated opening two-measure phrase — ergo, the critical importance of those measures, and the reason for this article which by its very nature cannot help but be somewhat technical, for which, our apologies.
Wagner notates the tempo for the Vorspiel, Mäßig langsam (moderately slow; the German, langsam, is roughly equivalent to the Italian, largo), and the meter, common time (4/4). The Vorspiel's opening ten-measure paragraph is played by the orchestra's string choir (violins, violas, cellos, and contrabasses) alone, and its opening four measures are hugely and hollowly dissonant the hollowness of that dissonance due largely (but not entirely) the violins sounding its prolonged, dissonant major-second G against the F tonic sounded in the rest of the string choir using the G of the violin's lowest open (i.e., unstopped) string. That open-string G is so important to the sound and sense of the Vorspiel's opening paragraph and of the Vorspiel itself that we'd almost be willing to declare that Wagner chose the nominal minor key of the Vorspiel (f-minor) precisely in order that the strongest dissonance of its opening paragraph would be produced using that hollow-sounding open-string G.
And what does Wagner write for the opening four measures of that opening ten-measure paragraph to produce its magic? It's utterly simple. The violas, cellos and contrabasses sound a chordal pedal using the tonic, sixth, fourth, and fifth degrees of the f-minor scale, while above, after a quarter rest, the first violins join them by first sounding a hollowly and hugely dissonant tied half-note and eighth open-string G, with the second violins joining at the same time sounding a dotted half-note open-string G which is tied to another dotted half-note open-string G in the following second measure of the two-measure phrase the entire string choir resolving at phrase's close in an f-minor triad, the triad's uneasy fifth degree sounding prominently on top.
When taken at Wagner's indicated tempo, the prolonged, major-second dissonance of that hollow-sounding open-string G produces a sense of desolation that's all but unbearable which is precisely the effect it was intended to produce. In fact, experienced Wagner conductors typically prolong that hollow open-string dissonance slightly beyond the notated time value of the notes by introducing a slight rubato or quasi-fermata on the open-string G in the first measure of the two-measure phrase.
Which brings us to Mr. Barenboim's realization of those critical four measures.
First, he ignores Wagner's tempo marking entirely, and takes that opening ten-measure paragraph almost Alla breve. As if that weren't wrongheaded enough, he treats the tied half-note plus eighth open-string G in the first violins in the first measure of that repeated opening two-measure phrase almost as if it were a tied eighth plus sixteenth, thereby destroying utterly the effect intended by Wagner as indicated in the score.
Now, nothing could make those opening four measures and the remaining six of that ten-measure paragraph sound anything but doleful. That's a function of the notes themselves no matter what the tempo taken. But Wagner didn't intend to express the merely doleful. He intended to express an external and internal landscape of utter desolation and despair as we've noted above. A sympathetic reading of the score tells us that, and all one need do to realize in performance what Wagner intended is to follow his notation as written. Mr. Barenboim, however, and for reasons which elude us entirely, chose not to do so, and instead of evoking a landscape of utter desolation and despair, ended up evoking a landscape merely doleful which robs the Vorspiel of its special genius, and this closing act of the opera a fair measure of its opening gravitas which is a matter not to be taken lightly (NPI); ergo, this complaint. And if the complaint appears petty measured against the larger achievement, well, then, so be it. We lodge it that notwithstanding.