In this Wagner recital, the Dutch soprano, Charlotte Margiono, proves herself to be the Wagner heroine par excellence. The title choice points to a well thought-out concept. The three combined "romantic operas" - Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and the "plot in three acts", Tristan und Isolde - have an important common denominator: the heroine dies as a result of her doomed love for the hero of the opera. Thus Elisabeth's death contributes to the salvation of Tannhäuser, Elsa pays with her life for her lack of trust in Lohengrin, and Isolde - surely the most sublime of Wagner's female characters - seeks certain death in order to be eternally reunited with her lover Tristan.
Although Wagner had already completed the work on his score for Lohengrin by the end of March 1848, his sudden, politically motivated flight from Saxony in 1849 delayed the première until August 28, 1850. This took place in Weimar, under the baton of Franz Liszt, yet without the presence of the composer: at the time, Wagner was in exile in Zurich. Liszt also noted the two major achievements of the score: Wagner had broken new ground, both in his employment of the orchestra and in the manner in which he had set the libretto to music. The prelude has a programmatic- symphonic character and the special orchestral techniques employed by the composer immediately grab the attention of the audience. The blending of sound so typical of Wagner - a new and individual soundtone created by the simultaneous mixing of the unique sound of two or more instruments - is achieved here by various high string groups and woodwind. The motif of the prelude exudes the Grail-like atmosphere of Montsalvat.
Wagner assigned specific instruments to the characters in his operas: for the depiction of Elsa, for instance, he employed the entire woodwind section. The key assigned to her is A flat major, which changes at times to A flat minor. After having been accused of fratricide, Elsa is called upon by King Henry to defend herself. But she speaks with dreamlike ecstasy of a knight who has appeared to her and promised to help her ("Einsam in trüben Tagen", = Alone in dark days).
The Wesendonck Lieder were set to music between November 1857 and the beginning of May 1858. They were written more or less during the same period as Tristan and thus bear much of the essence of this extremely unusual work. During his exile in Zurich, Wagner had met Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a businessman, who was to become his muse and great love. Towards the end of April 1857, she arranged for him to move into a house owned by her husband Otto Wesendonck, located near the Wesendonck villa. In his new home, which he called his "asylum", Wagner completed the libretto for Tristan und Isolde: this encouraged Mathilde Wesendonck to write five poems, which Wagner later set to music. The first version was for female voice and piano, and was later orchestrated by Felix Mottl (followed by another orchestration by Hans Werner Henze in the 20th century). The songs fulfil a double role: on the one hand, they were used as preliminary studies for Tristan (in fact, Wagner had specifically subtitled "Im Treibhaus" and "Träume" as Studien zu Tristan und Isolde); and on the other, they were the musical expression of his close relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck. "Der Engel" was the first song, completed by the composer on November 30, 1857 and followed four days later by "Träume" on December 4. Two months later, on February 22, Wagner finished work on "Stehe Still" and concluded the cycle with "Im Treibhaus" on May 1, 1858. He was highly satisfied with his work, as is evidenced in a letter sent to Mathilde on October 9, 1858 after revising the songs. "I have never written anything to surpass these songs: in fact, only a few of my works could stand shoulder to shoulder with them". The version by Felix Mottl which was used for this recording is closely based on the instrumentation and orchestration of Tristan - which does not always entirely benefit the intimate mood of the original songs.
The unrequited love affair between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck is particularly reflected in Tristan und Isolde. The work was written between October 1854 and summer 1859, and is one of the most personal confessions - albeit cast in an "objective" mould - ever made by an artist. It is a work of artistic escapism: it corresponds profoundly with Wagner's beliefs concerning "musical drama", as put down in his book Oper und Drama, and breaks with the opera conventions of the day. It would be hard to find a braver pioneering venture than Tristan, with its erotic poetic fervour and its distinct melodic and harmonic chromaticism, which advanced - thanks to the ideal matching of this combination - into the spiritual sphere, which lies deeply hidden away under the surface of human relationships. Wagner had recognised this, admitting that "my music will be horrific, a quagmire, an abyss". The at times overwhelmingly intense musical expression can already be heard in the Prelude, in which the reinterpretation, alteration and false closes cause havoc with the harmony (for example, in the Tristan chord), which surely heralds the beginning of "modern music". That which is impossible to articulate or convey within the world of emotions is transmitted by the pure and inwardly focussed absolute music of Wagner. It is important to note here that Wagner abstains from the use of chromaticism in any part of the opera which, from a psychological point of view, deals with death wishes or the readiness to die - take, for example, the use of the key of E (horns) in "Tristans Vision", or "Isoldes Liebestod".
From July 1843 to April 1845, Wagner worked on the musical realization of his fifth opera, Tannhäuser. Although the formal structure of the opera still largely followed that of grand opera, he created a dramatically bonded story-line from the separate pieces. What is new, is the transformation of the recitatives into separate pieces and the musical language in itself. Here are already included special chromatic appendages, which function according to the principal of the most direct route, without however cancelling the tonal foundation. Elisabeth's aria from the third act ("Allmächt'ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen") is a tranquil resting point within the story flow, a point of self-recollection before death: here, the music is purely diatonic.
For more than a quarter of a century, between 1848 and 1874, Wagner worked on his opus magnum, Der Ring des Nibelungen, thus creating one of the greatest tetralogies in the history of opera. From the first act of Die Walküre comes Sieglinde's "Du bist der Lenz", her answer to Siegmund's "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond". Lynn Hart wrote the following with regard to this scene: "It doesn't matter who first says ‘you are the picture that I carry within me', because it's the same for them both: ‘you are the springtime'. A fine young, as yet totally immature love blossoms, in which each one really only loves himself or herself in the other - a narcissistic mirroring. But the mutual recognition and confirmation is overwhelming."
English translation: Charles Kenwright