A highlight of [Barenboim's] 1995 "Tristan" recording is King Marke's Act II monologue, where he tenderly conducts a noble Matti Salminen. But at the pivotal moment earlier in the act, where the lovers are reunited, the music rushes impetuously through the scene without deeply taking hold. Mr. Barenboim, of course, doesn't have the Isoldes of the past. The truest emotional record of that moment remains, to these ears, that of Kirsten Flagstad on the 1952 Furtwängler recording (on EMI); despite less than ideal casting, with Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan, the music — to resort to Wagnerian cliché — achieves the kind of transcendence the moment requires [emphasis ours].Excuse us? A "Wagnerian cliché" to use the word transcendence here(!)? We of course understand Ms. Midgette's preemptive self-defensive apology for her use of the word as it's used often in connection with any number of things having to do with Tristan, but calling the word's use here a cliché does Wagner, Tristan, and, in this case, Furtwängler a deep injustice. What other word would serve better or even just as well? None we can think of. There's simply no help for it.
In the [Tannhäuser] overture's opening episode, the chorale (called the "Pilgrim's Chorus") represents merely the weary progress of Christian pilgrims, first toward, then away from an imagined physical point; i.e., a pretty much matter-of-fact affair. In the closing episode of the overture when the chorale reappears with a ff return to triple measure in the trombones rising above, against, and in opposition to the furious, frenetic, and insistent ff rapid runs of duple measure 16ths in the strings (representing the dithyrambic claims of the Venusberg), it's not merely a recap of the chorale of the overture's opening episode but its apotheosis, a declaration of the triumph and redeeming power of self-sacrificing love over the selfish, ensnaring claims of the flesh promoted within the Venusberg. In all the readings of this overture we've heard to date [now including the present reading by Maestro Nelsons], the chorale's appearance in the overture's opening episode is taken almost as broad, slow, and triumphant (in the trombones) as its reappearance in the overture's closing episode, which is, of course, rhetorically absurd, both musically and dramatically, and, further, serves to blunt that closing episode leaving it nowhere to go dramatically except into the dumper. The Venusberg episodes (the overture's center episodes) are then taken too slow as well, both as a matter of proportion (to the too-slow opening chorale), and also as a misguided attempt at the sensuous rather than the dithyrambic for the Venusberg center as a whole, which is also wrong rhetorically, both musically and dramatically.So much for Maestro Nelsons's reading of the concert's opening work. Next came the aria "In fernem Land" from Act III of Lohengrin with Mr. Kaufmann as soloist who here turned in his typically superlative performance both musically and dramatically and by so doing all but forced Maestro Nelsons to get his reading right as well. Closing the concert's first half was the famous (and famously misnamed) "Prelude and Liebestod" stitched together from Wagner's great(est) masterpiece Tristan Und Isolde with, of course, Ms. Opolais as soloist who here acquitted herself competently and most bravely as did Maestro Nelsons. The concert then undertook an abrupt descent from the sublime to the soapy and we were treated so some Italian opera goodies which delighted the audience no end and with which Maestro Nelsons seemed more at home. We were given, one after another, "Mamma, quel vino è generoso" from Act II of Cavalleria rusticana (Mr. Kaufmann); "Un bel di" from Act II of Madama Butterfly (Ms. Opolais); the "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria rusticana (the BSO); "Tu, tu, amore?" the love duet from Act II of Manon Lescaut (Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann); and "O soave fanciulla" the Finale from Act 1 of La Bohème (Ms. Opolais and Mr. Kaufmann). As we've only passing familiarity with all these works as with Italian opera generally we can say only that they all sounded just fine to us but, for the aforementioned reason, no great confidence can be placed in our judgment on this matter. The concert closed in spectacular fashion with Respighi's spectacular orchestral tone poem The Pines of Rome complete with auxiliary brass choirs placed in several strategic locations around the great auditorium's balcony. Most impressive, both the work (which has one of classical music's most stirring closing movements) and the performance itself albeit, again, Maestro Nelsons's tempi were markedly on the draggy side. All in all, an inaugural concert of which the BSO, Maestro Nelsons, and Boston need not be ashamed although it struck us as more than a little, um, curious that the inaugural concert of a symphony orchestra with its new music director on the podium should be programmed by that music director almost entirely with music of the opera and with opera stars as soloists.