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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Tannhäuser – Highlights: Overture; Dich, teure Halle (Elisabeth); Freudig begrüssen edle Halle (Chorus); Blick’ ich umher (Wolfram); Beglückt darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen (Pilgrims’ Chorus); Allmächt’ge Jungfrau (Elisabeth’s prayer); Wie Todesahnung ... O du mein holder Abendstern (Wolfram’s song to the evening star); Inbrunst im Herzen (Tannhäuser’s Rome narration); Willkommen ungetreuer Mann (Finale. Venus, Tannhäuser, Wolfram, Chorus).
Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano – Elisabeth), René Kollo (tenor – Tannhäuser), Håkan Hagegård (baritone – Wolfram), Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano – Venus); The Ambrosian Singers, Philharmonia Orchestra/Marek Janowski.
Recorded in St Augustine’s Church, London, May/June 1990
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61738-2 [60:59]

 

There is no mention in the booklet of the origin of this recording. I seem to remember that it wasn’t a complete version, rather some soundtrack recording for a film I never saw. Some numbers end in mid-air. Were it recorded as a highlights disc from the beginning there would normally have been concert endings to some of these pieces.

Listening to a highlights disc can very often give a lop-sided view of the work and that is what happens here. There are several slow, soft, inward numbers in a row, for example. But this is probably of little importance to the intended buyers who want the plums in the cake. And they are all here. So far so good, then. What matters now is: is it good?

A look at the list of participants is promising. We have The Ambrosian Singers and The Philharmonia – hardly possible to find their superiors anywhere. We have the ever-reliable Marek Janowski at the helm, a conductor who knows his Wagner. On his list of merits is e.g. the first ever digital Ring-cycle and that belongs to the best. We also have four well-merited singers, two of which are renowned Wagnerians. In the sound department there are also reliable people, among them Mike Hatch. And that shows immediately when we listen to the first bars of the Overture. There is space around the instruments. There is a perfect balance between the different instrument groups. It’s the kind of sound that is unobtrusive and exists only to emphasize the music. So we can thankfully forget about the technical side and concentrate on the music.

Those first, hushed French horns and trombones, introducing us to the recurring Pilgrims’ theme, are finely blended and the strings, as usual with the Philharmonia, weave a silken carpet on whose surface the following action will take place. Janowski shows in his build-ups to the various climaxes that he is a sure-footed Wagnerian. His dynamic shadings are perfectly judged. And the big climaxes are never over-blown, as can happen in this overture.

There is also a rousing build-up in track 2, leading to Elisabeth’s greeting song. Ever since the mid-sixties I always expect the sound of Birgit Nilsson to leap out of the speakers after this intro. Most readers, I suppose, will know what that is like: razor-sharp, penetrating tone, very little vibrato and power that seems limitless. I have several versions of this aria with Nilsson in my collection and just for comparison I listened to a live recording from 1961, from a concert with The Swedish Radio Orchestra, and it all was there. She could also scale down her magnificent instrument to the more inward parts of the aria and then end it with flying colours. But, to be honest, Nilsson’s was never a true Elisabeth voice, and listening to a number of different legendary singers I finally selected Lotte Lehmann, recorded in 1930, as my ideal Elisabeth. She was also a famous Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, just as this Elisabeth, Kiri Te Kanawa, was. I suppose that Miss Te Kanawa is the main selling point here and therefore spent much of my listening sessions with the greeting song so that I would be able to place Dame Kiri in this illustrious company. Her first sounds were curiously disappointing. When the recording was made she was still only 46 and in other recordings from roughly the same period she is her creamy self, pouring out that golden tone effortlessly. Here it’s the effort that first catches your ear, there is a vibrato that I don’t recognize in her voice ... and I own, and have listened to, loads of her recordings. Temporary indisposition or just trying too hard? When we continue listening we soon recognize her well-known ability to float the voice. There’s even some steel in the final notes, even if it isn’t that Swedish stainless quality of La Nilsson. This is good singing: a little more fluttery than usual, but vocally well up to expectations. But not verbally. Even though I followed the text in the booklet (Congratulations, Warner, for giving not only full texts but also English translations in a mid-price-issue!), I couldn’t hear much German articulation. The same thing is true, even more obviously, in her second aria, Elisabeth’s prayer. But this is so lovingly sung, so beautifully, so celestially, that it doesn’t matter. She spins one golden thread seemingly in one long breath, leaving this listener breathless. This is more than compensation for the initial little disappointment.

If you want to hear some text, you must listen to this Wolfram. The Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård may be the least known of the four soloists but is in many ways the most accomplished. I often heard him at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in the early seventies when he, at the beginning of his career, was a member of the ensemble there. His Papageno, his Malatesta in Don Pasquale and his Rossini Barber were impressive readings, not just vocally but also dramatically. He was from the outset a natural actor. His international break-through came in the mid-seventies with Ingmar Bergman’s film-version of The Magic Flute and since then he has had most of his career in the United States. He is also a tremendously good lieder singer, which you at once hear when he starts the "Blick ich umher"-aria. You also notice the almost uncanny likeness to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the same ability to use the half voice - and his diction. When he returns with the song to the evening star we hear the same qualities. This is a noble reading and to my ears the best of many good reasons to buy this disc.

I should perhaps mention the Ambrosians once again, for they are at the top of their considerable form. The entrance of the guests (track 3) tells us from the very start that there will be a real party at Wartburg: the inviting trumpet fanfares, the eager guests walking youthfully with a spring in the step and then the thunderous culmination. In the Pilgrims’ chorus we get an almost dreamlike start, otherworldly, the male voices blending beautifully and when the orchestra creeps in and gradually pulls all the stops the choral sound is still noble and beautiful – but powerful.

The two Wagnerians in the cast list have to be dealt with very briefly. Waltraud Meier is splendid with her incisive tone but we hear very little of her – just in the final ensemble. Tannhäuser himself is sung by René Kollo – and I wish it hadn’t been. Kollo was a sensation when he first appeared in the late sixties, with his youthful-sounding tenor and good looks. He at once became sought-after and both Karajan and Solti used him for several recordings. Karajan’s by now legendary Dresden-recording of Die Meistersinger was his calling card on records and reviewers heaped superlatives on him. When he recorded the same opera with Solti a few years later he had already begun to show signs of wear, but he continued to sing for many years and he always had good insight in the characters he created. Here, in the Rome narration, the youthful timbre is still evident, as long as he uses the mid-register of the voice and sings mezzoforte. His declamation is full of the aforementioned insights and near the end of the narration he memorably expresses Tannhäuser’s desperation. But as soon as he has to put pressure on the voice an unpleasant intrusive beat appears and he sounds decidedly elderly (and he was a bit past 50 when the recording was made). To hear him in this part you have to seek out Solti’s recording (on Decca), made in 1971. There he is glorious.

As I hope I have made clear, there are numerous good reasons to buy this highlights disc. And the few blemishes, mainly the Rome narration, can easily be avoided with the help of the remote control. Playing time is not over-generous, 61 minutes, and maybe Warner was a little ashamed of this, since they have hidden the timing on the back of the jewel case, in the smallest imaginable print in white against a black background. But we do get texts and the price is OK.

Göran Forsling



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