This was the kind of performance I would rather not rate, its constituents ranging from the unforgettable to the unfortunate. No one performance of Tristan and Isolde can illuminate the work’s full complexity, but the best ones shine a light on certain facets and deepen our experience of them. Here conductor Jaap van Zweden revealed how seductively the score’s nocturnal colours spin the siren call of death. What he accomplished with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, who responded with agility and vibrancy, save for a couple of missteps inherent to live events, deserves five stars. So does Jennifer Wilson, incredibly fulfilling all the vocal demands of Isolde, from glowing middle voice to shining, pealing top As and Bs, plus the two high Cs in the love duet.

Jennifer Wilson © IMG Artists
Jennifer Wilson
© IMG Artists
The Concertgebouw audience was palpably grateful to Ian Storey, who flew in at the eleventh hour to replace Clifton Forbis, silenced on doctor’s orders, without rehearsal. Sadly, despite his sensitivity in hushed moments, Mr Storey was not in good voice. Of modest volume, his tenor sounded capped at the top and was completely submerged by the orchestra at full force. By the middle of Act III, Tristan’s feverish cries were little more than yelps. Stepping in for an ailing Matthias Goerne, with the benefit of a longer notice, Falk Struckmann made a sonorous King Marke. Barring the very lowest notes, Mr Struckmann’s bass is in fantastic form. On discovering the adulterous lovers, he cranked up the onstage drama, concert format notwithstanding. His Marke was a furious parent disappointed by his adopted heir rather than a betrayed husband. He remained outraged to the end, when he belatedly arrives in Brittany to exculpate the lovers, despite his generosity of spirit. Jochen Schmeckenbecher also surpassed the theatrical expectations of a concert performance. As Tristan’s loyal retainer, Kurwenal, he was an engaging hothead on the ship to Cornwall in Act I, when his blustery baritone was not under complete control. It became more rounded during Tristan’s deathbed as his character became greatly affecting in his despair.

Cello-voiced Marina Prudenskaya gave a frustrating performace as Isolde’s confidante Brangäne. On the one hand, there were the rich depths of her mezzo-soprano, contrasting beautifully with Jennifer Wilson’s light-infused sound, her amplitude, and her even voice emission. On the other hand, her diction was nebulous at times and she sang mostly forte, attacking the Warning to the lovers full-on, rather than floating it gently. Earlier, while Isolde waits impatiently to meet Tristan in secret, Ms Prudenskaya’s subtler way with both volume and text displayed the Brangäne that she could be. The short roles of the Steersman and Tristan’s killer, Melot, were very ably filled by Lars Terray and Paul McNamara. Fabio Trümpy was exquisitely musical as both the Sailor and the Shepherd and the men of the Netherlands Radio Choir excellent as the roisterous crew.

Above all, there was Jennifer Wilson’s thrilling Isolde. Her steady technique enabled her timbre to stay bright and untarnished until the final scene. The warmth in her lower and middle voice and the youthful freshness at the top make her instrument ideal for this role. The Narration and Curse in Act I could perhaps have used more venom, but Ms Wilson is not a singer for those expecting shouty invectives and love-crazed ululations. She does good old acting-with-the-voice, expressing temperament through tonal beauty, and her Isolde borders on the miraculous.

Jaap van Zweden, finely attuned to the singers, provided the space for her refulgent voice to pour freely. Equally ravishing were the sounds he drew from the musicians, with pride of place for the caramel swirls of the oboes, clarinets and bassoons. Precise attacks, utmost finesse in dynamic transitions, and masterful crescendo build-ups, such as in the surging undercurrents of the prelude – it was all technically imposing. What rendered his interpretation memorable, however, was the way he played with the hues in the score, refracting them within the harmonic complexity, lightening and darkening them at will. How fragile was the gauzy tenderness of the love music, how alluring the onyx shine of the aggregrated strings as Tristan invites Isolde to follow him into the night.

Nowhere were the inky orchestral colours so tantalising as in the third act, giving Tristan's longing for death, rather than the lovers’ erotic desire, thematic primacy. Tristan, who grows up parentless, knowing that his birth killed his mother, suffers from a psychic wound so deep, nothing in life can heal it. “For what fate was I born?”, he asks. For death, that is with him from the beginning. Even Isolde’s love cannot decant its healing power until death transfigures them both. And when death sounds like Mr Van Zweden’s Wagner, it is impossible to resist.