Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and ‘Liebestod’
Yuja Wang (piano)
A little morning light music by Wagner and Messiaen proved a fine way to round off my visit to this year’s Salzburg Festival. Esa-Pekka Salonen is by now quite an experienced Wagnerian, especially for one not so associated with the opera house. His association with Tristan und Isolde goes back many years by now; I have heard him conduct it both in Paris and (in concert) in London. This performance of the first-act Prelude and so-called ‘Liebestod’—Wagner’s ‘Verklärung’ is surely closer to the mark—spoke with the wisdom of long acquaintance, yet not the slightest hint of staleness. The same, of course, could be said of the Vienna Philharmonic—Wagner’s abortive planned Vienna premiere notwithstanding. Indeed, both conductor and orchestra took care to ensure that there was much more to the sound than string-saturated ‘voluptuousness of hell’ (Nietzsche); the Viennese woodwind in particular had considerable bite. Salonen’s ears seemed focused on the century to come, whilst remaining rooted in Wagner’s own. Taking all the time that was needed, the performance nonetheless always moved, always evolved. Climaxes shattered and thrilled. One could lose oneself, but it would have been a pity to have done so.
The Prelude’s after-glow or -shock proved especially inviting, ushering in Isolde’s transfiguration as if it were telescoping the action in between. It appeared as if out of a dream, a neat solution to what remains tonally a problematic non-connection between the two movements. Under Salonen, the music truly teemed with life; it was not done for yet. The VPO shimmered, almost as if it were Liszt’s piano. And what a final climax ir proved to be.
Messiaen’s vast Turangalîla-Symphonie followed without a break. Two apparently affronted audience members left within a minute or two; I wonder what they had been expecting. Whatever divine and/or diabolical force was at work in the Introduction, it certainly made its immanence felt. As did Yuja Wang, whether solo or as part of the ensemble, for instance in dizzying duet with xylophone. The crazy imagination of Olivier Messiaen—almost as crazy as that of Richard Wagner—had been unleashed: awe-inspiring.
It did not take long before the two ‘Chants d’amour’ revealed Tristan-esque yearning and languor. Cécile Lartigau’s ondes martenot worked its weird and wonderful magic, slightly beyond yet never dissociated. Wang’s piano glistened and shuddered. This is not subtle music, and why should it be? In between, though, lay something far more inscrutable, the beguiling, even forbidding ‘Turangalîla 1’. It seemed, to return to Nietzsche, to lie beyond good and evil, beyond morality; it simply ‘was’.
A duly wacky ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ fully embraced its big-heartedness, the whole of Creation seemingly in motion. Its successor, the ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ offered a welcome, even necessary change of piece. The ‘rightness’ of Salonen’s tempi almost had one fail to notice them; on that account, it is all the more important to recognise them. There were darker, or at least less sweet, undercurrents, but undercurrents they remained. ‘Turangalîla 2’ in turn offered relief and contrast, before a ‘Developpement de l’amour’ designed to test the limits. Dynamic contrasts and moods of introversion and extroversion (albeit biased towards the latter) pushed each climax further. Apart from anything else, it was quite a noise. The close sounded, even tasted, as if an antidote we suspected might actually be a variant of the same witches’ brew.
‘Turangalîla 3’ extended the ambiguity of that close, erupting in hieratic, hypnotic mystery, as if aurally tasting—that sense again—a Boulezian sorbet. Hand on heart, I sometimes wish more of the work were like that; but then, it would be a different work. The final movement certainly functioned as such, motivically and in mood. It did not just happen to be last; it culminated.