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Richard WAGNER (1813-83)
Tannhäuser (1845)

Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) Tannhäuser; Gré Brouwenstijn (soprano) Elisabeth; Josef Greindl (bass) Hermann; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) Wolfram von Eschenbach; Josef Traxel (tenor) Walther von der Vogelweide; Toni Blankenheim (bass) Biterolf; Gerhard Stolze (tenor) Heinrich der Schreiber; Herta Wilfert (mezzo) Venus; Volker Horn (treble) Young Shepherd;
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/André Cluytens.
Rec. by Bavarian Radio at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth on August 9th, 1955. AAD
ORFEO BAYREUTHER FESTSPIELE LIVE C643043D [197’49: 68’05 + 70’22 + 59’28]

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This has to represent one of the wonders of the Wagner discography. Time and time again as I listened I kept asking myself if there is a weak link anywhere in this Tannhäuser – time and time again the answer came back in the negative. The recording is mono but is nevertheless rich and faithful, rendering the burnished Bayreuth orchestra’s sound faithfully. Cluytens leads as if inspired right from the beginning – listen to how the overture moves from prayer-like devotion to pure, gushing joy (around seven minutes in), brimming over with energy and positively blazing towards the end. Neither does Cluytens disappoint in the bacchic first scene; tremendous string playing here, along with a simply gorgeous sense of the Romantic.

Windgassen is very recognisable in his heroic assumption of the title role. His shading of lines is intrinsically stylish and he is every inch the incarnation of lusty youth. Only in the short track 7 (‘Stehts soll nur dir ..’) is there the impression that Windgassen wants to rush, with Cluytens absolutely sticking to his guns. Even here one can only admire his huge reserves of power. Windgassen’s calls of ‘Elisabeth’ (CD1 track 11, around six minutes in) are pure magic.

Herta Wilfert’s Venus is very much Windgassen’s match in their scene (Act 1 Scene 2). Wolfert’s attack is astonishingly true, yet she can be amazingly seductive (CD 1 track 6, with the orchestra no less inviting). More, she can match her Tannhäuser, and all comes together (Tannhäuser, Venus and Cluytens) at the end of Act 1 Scene 2, where her ardent answer is only matched by the Bayreuth orchestra’s authority.

Gré Brouwenstijn introduces her Elisabeth in the most powerful of ways with ‘Dich, teure Halle’ at the beginning of Act 2 (after a simply lovely prologue). She must have been imposing to watch, for her presence even through compact disc is overwhelming. She opens out magnificently towards the end of her solo. She could not hope for a more ardent answer, surely, than that provided by her Tannhäuser (who enters with Wolfram immediately thereafter), his ‘O Fürstin’ almost trumpet-like in tone. Yet Brouwenstijn is not as impressive in her Act 3 Prayer - sliding up to the second syllable of ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’. Her voice has an edge I am not sure appeals, and there is a slight beat to sustained lower notes.

The great Josef Greindl takes the part of the Landgraf Hermann. Despite fair stage noise at his entrance (Act 1 Scene 4), he reveals amazing presence. His contribution to Act 2 (Scene 3, ‘Dich treff’ ich hier in dieser Holle’ and the longer ‘Noch bleibe denn unausgesprochen’) reveals his big, resonant voice to perfection. It is a joy to revel in his very sound, yet he also brings superb identification with the material. No less a great singer (some may disagree!) is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, here evidently at the height of his powers as Wolfram. His sense of line is surely without parallel even in such august company as on this recording. Even his detractors, surely, cannot resist his contribution here. Perhaps his Act 3 ‘Wie Todesahnung’ demonstrates his strengths best, where diction is beyond criticism, the text is imbued with meaning yet there is not the slightest suggestion of anything being overdone.

Toni Blankenheim is a convincing Biterolf. Volker Horn is an excellent shepherd - so strong for a boy; the chorus in this scene (as pilgrims, Act 1 Scene 3; CD 1 track 9) is itself amazing in its supreme balance at lower dynamic levels. All choral work is exemplary even in terms of distancing – try the end of Act 2. As remarked already, it is hard to find fault with Cluytens. I especially enjoyed the way he was keen to underline the score’s more prophetic moments. Bits of Act 2, for example CD2 track 17, sound amazingly like late Wagner here.

The photos show a production (Wieland Wagner) marked by its beautiful simplicity - modern decorators would refer to its minimalism. But for present purposes it is the music that is under consideration. In a production that was originally ear-marked for Eugen Jochum, who pulled out at the last moment, the Belgian André Cluytens triumphed.

Orfeo provides a plot synopsis but no text or translation.

This is now the best currently available Tannhäuser by a considerable margin. By all means hang on to your Sinopoli on DG, but this Cluytens demands an airing on any Wagnerian’s system.

Colin Clarke


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