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Guest vocalists stumble in CSO’s ‘Tristan’ program

Conductor-composer Esa-PekkSalonen (handout pix)

Conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (handout pix)

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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday; “Beyond the Score,” 3 p.m. Sunday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $10-$243

◆ (312) 294-3000,

Updated: February 22, 2013 8:36PM

‘This sweet little word ‘and’ . . .” the eternally smitten Isolde sings in the seemingly eternal Act II love scene of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” It’s what binds the title characters together and makes them more than just two names.

It’s also the key to a successful presentation of the great mid-19th century work that changed music history forever. Especially in a concert version, because Wagner requires great orchestral playing and direction and great singers to realize his massive yet highly communicative works.

Thursday night at Orchestra Hall, guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has been presenting a highly acclaimed “Tristan” worldwide since 2004, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came close to offering the first half of the equation in a concert performance of the famous Prelude to Act I and the entire 75-minute Act II, played together without a break.

But the second half, the “and,” along with great singing, were not present, with a particularly unmusical Tristan making it hard in long stretches of the sung-through work to concentrate on Wagner’s overall creation and concept or the playing going on behind the tenor, the German Stefan Vinke in his CSO debut.

The lack of chemistry between Vinke and debutante American dramatic soprano Linda Watson made for another sorely missed “and.” (Watson at some point in the last few months replaced the previously announced Evelyn Herlitzius, who will be Salonen’s Elektra in a highly anticipated new production in Aix-en-Provence, France, this summer.)

Were it not for the rolling sound and dramatic and psychological insight of American bass-baritone John Relyea as the betrayed King Marke, and several fine moments by CSO favorite mezzo Michelle DeYoung as Isolde’s companion Brangaene (including some sung, with an hypnotic nonchalance, from the hall’s lower balcony seats), the performance would have been a total vocal washout. (Tenor Sean Panikkar was a fine and creepy Melot, but this is a tiny Act II part.) Remarkably, Relyea, who has appeared successfully at Ravinia with the CSO, is making his downtown subscription debut as well.

Castings are hard, particularly in this Wagner bicentennial year when his operas are being presented globally non-stop. And no one anywhere today can match the CSO’s first Tristan, Lauritz Melchior, who sang the part here with Frederick Stock in 1935. But it’s not easy to take the measure of the singing of the orchestra itself with this sort of thing going on downstage.

That said, after what impressed as a particularly stretched Prelude, Salonen led the act itself with the clarity, flexibility and attention to sound quality that are his hallmarks at his best. Surely the connection will be even greater by the repeat performance Saturday night. Although only bass clarinet J. Lawrie Bloom was given a much deserved solo bow — his part is another “and” (he’s almost an additional character in the opera) — oboe Eugene Izotov and bassoon William Buchman also deserve kudos.

It may be no one’s fault, but for the main Wagner salute in two seasons by one of the world’s great orchestras, one wished for — and audiences and musicians were entitled to — much more “and” here.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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