When one hears an Esa-Pekka Salonen interpretation one expects no less than a keen and original approach tempered by an incredible ear for accuracy. This no doubt comes from his prolific work as a composer, work which has of late dominated his professional life.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Sonja Werner
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Sonja Werner

The sound he pulled from the cello section to open tonight’s concert of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was breathtakingly withdrawn. I could certainly count the number of times I have heard such delicate string playing on one hand, the restraint was so stunning, in fact, that the tension it caused actually overshadowed that famously ambiguous “Tristan chord” which followed, wrought in such harmonic uncertainty as to illustrate that very twisted and tragic love of Tristan and Isolde.

In addition to the mesmerizing quietness of the opening, Salonen seemed to wait motionlessly for eons between each phrase. This was Wagnerian pacing at its best. It was simply impossible to listen to this music comfortably – there was so much inner direction and potential energy that one could scarcely breathe.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played effortlessly and with their usual lush sound; this they do in their sleep, but the influence Salonen had on their playing was an incredible clarity of ensemble and accuracy. His gestures are, if not conventional, fierce in their accuracy and force of will. His palette of intensity ranges from subatomic to supernova, and the CSO turned on a dime to follow his direction.

A powerful barrage of offstage horns heralded Isolde (Linda Watson) and her maid Brangäne (Michelle DeYoung), who entered the stage from opposite sides to begin the performance of Act II. DeYoung’s voice was the first to sound – rich in tone though with a vibrato spanning the interval of a whole step which didn’t seem controlled at all times. Watson had a smooth tone, as water, and a more tempered Wagnerian style, though neither of the women managed to project over the orchestra during thickly orchestrated moments. This surely is a fundamental requirement of any Wagner singer.

Tenor Stefan Vinke in the role of Tristan had a similar problem with projection. His first cry of “Isolde!” was scarcely audible at all over the joyous orchestral tumult. He often approached each new note with a little dynamic scoop, which can be quite effective as an expressive tool, but is less convincing as a habit.

Some very fine singing happened as the two potion-bound lovers rejoiced at the word “and”, which now was so romantically positioned between their names, though I was struck at the lack of convincing drama in their voices and demeanors. Of course there is a limit to the drama that can be portrayed without any movement or blocking on stage, but even the tone of their voices lacked that kind of mad love-delirium which would inspire them to die together in order to be joined in the afterlife. I also found myself wondering what Wagner himself would have thought of these modern concert versions of his operas, which hardly embody the idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “complete work of art” which was his overarching philosophy and lasting contribution to all art forms.

As I was musing on this point, the music suddenly erupted, and three characters entered the stage in a maelstrom of sound: Melot (Sean Panikkar), King Marke (John Relyea) and Kurnwenal (Daniel Eifert). Though his lines were very brief, Sean Panikkar’s voice ripped through the hall with a kind of intensity and sheer volume which hadn’t been reached by any of the singers tonight. I wished very much to hear more from him.

If Panikkar’s short-lived performance was refreshing, John Relyea’s opening lines were positively jaw-dropping. His voice, though written the lowest by far, projected with near double the power of the other soloists. He had incredibly rich and resonant tone, seemingly with enough power to shake the rafters in the Symphony Center. His performance was absolutely riveting, and reminded me that a singer in a concert version of an opera can, with vocal inflection and demeanor alone, retain a great deal of drama and character. No-one else achieved this half as well as him this evening, except for the CSO itself led by Salonen. When you sing of love and longing for periods spanning over one hour, it must be convincing.

There were many fine solos this evening, most notably from bass clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, who received special recognition from Salonen. Longtime principal horn Dale Clevenger was not at his best this evening, after having just announced publicly that this would be his last season with the CSO. He will assume a teaching position at Indiana University next year.

Salonen was a masterful accompanist tonight and led an athletically responsive and refined CSO. He is not a conductor known for performing an exhaustive span of repertoire, like Simon Rattle, and is often most comfortable in the 20th century or late Romantic periods, but when he does reach further into the past, he chooses works which still retain the flavor of innovation and originality to this day and brings that very essence to the forefront of his interpretation. This was truly riveting Wagner.

****1