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30.12.10

Twelve Days of Christmas: Tristan et Iseult

available at Amazon
Tristan et Iseult, Boston Camerata,
J. Cohen

(re-released on April 29, 2008)
Erato 2564 69634-0 | 68'47"

available at Amazon
M. Gallaway, The Metropolis Case
(2010)
[Review]
Many people see the story of Tristan and Isolde only through the lens of the Wagner opera, a central work of art that Matthew Gallaway uses in his debut novel, The Metropolis Case, to unite four narrative strands. The legend of this doomed love goes back much farther than the 19th century, of course, to medieval epic literature, represented in German and French poetry and prose and numerous musical works, many of which were brought together in this single mosaic-like patchwork program. This classic recording, made by Joel Cohen and members of his Boston Camerata in the late 1980s, won the Grand Prix du Disque (in 1989) and much other critical praise. If you never bought it, it has been re-released in recent years (by Warner Classics) at an affordable price: the booklet has been stripped of its texts and translations, but they can be viewed online (.PDF file).

What stands out to my ears now, some twenty years after hearing this recording for the first time, is its austerity. There are lengthy recitations from literary versions of the story: Gottfried von Strassburg (Middle High German, c. 1210) and Thomas de Bretagne (Old French, c. 1170), generally to instrumental music in the background. Other texts are set to medieval melodies, like Marie de France's Lai du Chèvrefeuille, and many other musical pieces related to the Tristan legend (very loosely so, in some cases, like the aubade Rei glorios) are woven together to give the basic outline of the story, rather than being an actual complete "telling" of it. The musical performances are generally pretty, especially the work of the two sopranos Anne Azéma and Ellen Hargis. This was also, tragically, the last recording of pioneering French countertenor Henri Ledroit, who died in 1988 (the cause was AIDS, and its progress devastatingly fast). The instrumental accompaniment often is little more than a few supporting chords from lute (Cohen) or medieval harp (Cheryl Ann Fulton), backed by drones from rebec or vieille, with some evocative flute and recorder lines.

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