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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser, opera [Paris version]
Sigismund Pilinszky (ten) (Tannhäuser), Maria Müller (sop) (Elisabeth), Ruth Jost-Arden (sop) (Venus), Ivar Andrésen (bass) (Wolfram)
Bayreuth Festival Choir and Orchestra/Karl Elmendorff
Rec. Wagner Theatre, Bayreuth; August 1930
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110094/95 ADD [CD1 74.04 CD2 78.20] superbudget

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After the success of Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), Wagner was convinced that legend must be the source of his operatic material. For Tannhäuser, his 5th opera, he produced his own libretto based on 19th Century medieval legends. After a disastrous première in Dresden (1845), the work gained popularity and over the next ten years was performed throughout Germany. During this time the composer made many amendments, the final so called ‘Dresden’ version being eventually published in 1860.

Wagner was invited by Napoleon III to present the opera in Paris, where it was customary to provide a ballet scene. The composer took the opportunity to rewrite whole sections. The major result of these changes was to enhance the role of Venus and extend the bacchanal, providing an ideal opportunity for the required ballet. The première of the Paris version was given in March 1861.

The various alteration made for, and after 1861, enabled Wagner to move further away from ‘number’ opera towards his ideal of music drama and involvement with the psychological states of his characters. The solo line is often declamatory, and to allow the part of Tannhäuser in particular to dominate the ensemble, Wagner needed a new breed of tenor with a voice heavier than that in Italian opera – the heroic or ‘heldentenor’ and henceforth this voice would be important in all his works.

Tannhäuser is now accepted as one of the great operas of the 19th Century and these days both the ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions are performed, albeit often with the casting of the title role proving difficult. This recording is an abridged ‘Paris’ version of the opera, with Act 2 Scene 3 omitted, together with a reduced Act 3 and other minor cuts. The reductions were as suggested by the musicologist and critic Earnest Newman. The cuts are not unduly serious and none of the best known music is affected. Most importantly, Act 1 is complete, allowing the inclusion of the most significant of Wagner’s ‘Paris’ amendments to be included. It was first issued on thirty six 78rpm sides by the Columbia Gramophone Company who, in 1927, had made the first recordings from Bayreuth (excerpts from Parsifal), returning the next year for extracts from Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Karl Elmendorff. These recordings, like Tannhäuser, were not of live performances but used the spacious empty Festspielhaus.

Following favourable reviews of the Parsifal and Tristan recordings, Columbia determined to return in 1930 and record the new production of Tannhäuser to be conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, with singers selected by him. However, the maestro was contracted to Victor records (later RCA) and he was unable to participate. Columbia turned to their own highly experienced Wagnerian, Elmendorff.

Columbia’s accumulated technical expertise ensured that the recording was, in its period, a marker and whose sonic qualities are realised in this re-issue which, as for others in this Naxos series, is realised by the remastering guru Ward Marston whose work has received acclamation on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly the orchestral music in particular is superbly caught, being well balanced with the voices; the whole in a forward clear acoustic that in many ways belies its age.

One can only imagine how a Toscanini performance would have differed from what we have. To my ears Elmendorff, without undue haste, allows the music to unfold with full dramatic impact; long phrases encompassed with elegance and no lack of vitality. With the orchestral sound undistorted and clear, this is a major plus point for the set although there are times when the voices get close to distortion. Surface noise is not evident nor are significant variations in level. Of the singers, four were making their Bayreuth debuts in this production. For the role of the eponymous hero, Toscanini had chosen the Hungarian Sigismund Pilinsky (1891-1957). He sang for only two seasons at Bayreuth. His strong, essentially lyric tenor of pleasing tone and diction is certainly no heldentenor and there are times when his lack of vocal heft is audible, albeit that the strain is never unmusical or ugly. The Venus is sung by Ruth Jost-Arden (1899-1965), again chosen by Toscanini. She later sang Isolde, Brunnhilde, Kundry, Electra and Salome. She also appeared in Paris, Milan and New York. The part is nowadays usually cast for a dramatic mezzo with a full tone and high top. Jost-Arden’s bright fresh-toned dramatic soprano, caught before any deleterious effects of the heavier roles, makes an interesting contrast. She has good breath control, adequate power and a fine legato line, although ultimately she lacks the ideal seductive tone the Paris version, in particular, calls for. The Elisabeth is the soprano Maria Muller (1898-1958) who appeared at the New York Met. (1925-35) singing Mozart, Verdi, Strauss as well as Wagner. She also appeared in Berlin, Covent Garden, Milan and Paris. Her clear lyric soprano, warm and vibrant, is ideally suited to the part, a good vocal actress she conveys the emotions of the part to near perfection.

Both the lower voiced men are cast from strength. Ivar Andrésan (1896-1940) sings the Herman. He sang 10 seasons at Bayreth (1927-36) as well as Wagnerian roles internationally. His beautiful sonorous, noble sounding voice is heard to good effect here (CD1 tk11). Likewise the Wolfram of Herbert Janssen (1892-1965): he made his debut at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1992 and sang there until 1938 when he went to the USA, singing in the Met from 1939-51. He was greatly admired as Amfortas, Wolfram, Gunther and Kurwenal, all of which he sang at Bayreuth, Covent Garden and the Met. With a warm sympathetic baritone he deserved international success as preserved here. All the smaller parts are well taken. Of particular note is the Hirt (shepherd boy) of Erna Berger (CD1 tk2) where her pure tone and even legato are well caught and indicative of the career to come.

The issue is accompanied by a leaflet with a track-related synopsis and brief notes on the recording and the singers.

Robert J Farr


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