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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tannhäuser (1845, performed in ‘Dresden’ version, 1860)
Tannhäuser - Klaus König (tenor)
Elisabeth - Lucia Popp (soprano)
Venus - Waltraud Meier (soprano)
Wolfram von Eschenbach - Bernd Weikl (baritone)
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia - Kurt Moll (bass)
Walther von der Vogelweide - Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor)
Biterolf – Walton Groenroos (bass)
Reinmar von Zweter – Rainer Scholze (bass)
Bavarian Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink.
rec. 2-13 January 1985, Herkulensaal, Munich. DDD
Includes bonus CD with synopsis and libretto with translation.
EMI CLASSICS OPERA 6408002 [3 CDs: 56:07 + 66:51 + 50:41]

Experience Classicsonline

Though Mark Twain recommended Tannhäuser as ‘music to make one drunk with pleasure’, it’s taken me longer to absorb than the Ring cycle and Meistersinger: despite exposure initially to the well-regarded Franz Konwitschny recording (EMI, no longer available), I had always thought of the work as too episodic. Despite, too, my love of the Middle High German works of the Minnesänger (literally ‘love-singers’), the poet-musicians among whom were numbered Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walter von der Vogelweide, real historical characters who feature in the opera, as indeed was Tanhûser himself – the CD cover shows his depiction from the 14th-century Codex Manesse. The legend which underlies Wagner’s opera derives via the Brothers Grimm from his own Bußlied, or poem of repentance.

I recently recommended the Plácido Domingo/Cheryl Studer/Giuseppe Sinopoli recording of the Paris version of Tannhäuser (DG 427 6252 – see April 2010 Download Roundup), the version which finally convinced me. If you can accept Domingo’s rather mangled German, this is the Tannhäuser to have, on CD or as a download. Domingo’s singing more than compensates for his poor diction; the rest of the cast are almost equally ideal and the direction superb. All in all, this recording makes the strongest case for regarding Tannhäuser as Wagner’s masterpiece, the Ring cycle only excepted.

That DG version remains at full price, around £35, unless you download from Passionato.com. The mp3 transfer is good and the price (£17.99, temporarily reduced to £13.49 at the time of writing) represents quite a saving on the CDs. Though there is no libretto or synopsis, these are easily available from the web. Now that EMI have reissued their recording with Bernard Haitink at a price (around £22) which is competitive even with the download of the Sinopoli, the question must be asked if it’s still preferable to pay more for the DG recording.

There is, in fact, an even less expensive way to obtain the Haitink reissue, as a download at the maximum mp3 bit-rate from HMV Digital for £10.49. You’ll miss out on the bonus disc with the synopsis, libretto and translation, but substitutes are not hard to find online.

The first consideration must lie with the version chosen for this opera with a most complex stage history to match Glück’s Orfeo or Verdi’s Don Carlo/Don Carlos. Sinopoli recorded the most complete, Paris version, Haitink the so-called ‘Dresden’ version which is some 15-20 minutes shorter. The EMI booklet, not surprisingly, praises the ‘relative economy and stylish consistency’ of the 1860 version, but there are considerable losses, not least that of the extended Venusberg Bacchanal – and I really like that extra music.

Daniel Barenboim whose version has also been reissued recently (256480207, around £18), and who shares with Haitink Waltraud Meier as Venus, offers the ‘Dresden’ version with the addition of the Paris Venusberg music. This is something of a compromise, a patchwork even, but it works and Terry Barfoot recommended this version with confidence – see review.

Georg Solti’s 1972 recording is still at nearly full price, recently reissued in 24-bit digitisation (470 8102, around £31). He employs the Paris version, has a strong team of soloists, including René Kollo (Tannhäuser), Christa Ludwig (Venus) and Helga Dernesch (Elisabeth) and the recording still sounds very well. The mp3 download of this version from Passionato.com, normally £17.99, was reduced to £13.49 at the time of writing.

You might wish to supplement the Haitink reissue with Solti’s energetic 1961 account of the Overture and Venusberg music on Decca Originals 475 8502 (around £8.50 or download from Passionato.com). This also contains Solti’s surprisingly sensuous account of the Siegfried Idyll plus the Rienzi and Flying Dutchman Overtures. The 2-CD Double Decca which previously included these is apparently deleted, though still available as a download. This is not to be confused with the Decca/Eloquence reissue of a mixed batch of Solti recordings with Zubin Mehta and Edo de Waart, the latter contributing the Tannhäuser excerpts on a 2-CD set which Tim Perry made Recording of the Month – see review. (442 8283, currently out of stock at Buywell, the main suppliers, at the time of writing, though due to be available again soon).

Haitink takes the Overture at a broad tempo, as does Solti in both 1961 and 1972. In fact, Solti 1961 takes a little longer than Haitink, yet the effect is of greater drive and power and the ADD recording (John Culshaw) still has plenty of impact. By 1972 Solti had shaved a few minutes off the combined Overture and Venusberg music – from 27:21 overall to 21:39 – but the excitement is there in plenty in both versions. By comparison Haitink is more refined, but I’d swap that refinement any day for the power of either Solti version.

Sinopoli also begins at a broad tempo. Though his overall timing is faster than either Solti 1961 or Haitink, he never sounds rushed; his version combines Haitink’s precision with the drama of Solti. There’s some really soft and delicate playing at times, too. His Venusberg is a little faster than Solti 1961 – his overall timing for these two tracks is very similar to Solti 1972, where the two are combined on one track – but he makes an equally strong case for the inclusion of this music. If anything his bacchanal is a little more wild and stormy than Solti’s.

Plácido Domingo’s Tannhäuser is both the glory and the weakness of the Sinopoli recording. Though René Kollo (Solti) and Klaus König (Haitink) could never be accused of letting down their sides vocally, and both leave Domingo far behind when it comes to German pronunciation, I willingly overlook the diction on this occasion. König has been regarded in some quarters as a little too heavy for the part; certainly he seems so by comparison with Domingo, but it’s the usual case of the outstanding placing the very good in the shade.

All three Elisabeths are very good, though each brings something different to the role. Taking Dich, teure Halle as the test-piece, Cheryl Studer is potentially stretched by Sinopoli’s slow tempo – half a minute longer than either Haitink or Solti – but this doesn’t seem to cause any problems for her. Her singing of the role is often seen as the ideal compromise between Lucia Popp’s ecstatic voice (Haitink) and Helga Dernesch’s Wagnerian credentials (Solti), a judgement with which I’m not going to argue, but I could happily live with any one of the three.

I was less impressed by Waltraud Meier’s Venus, finding her less of a temptress than I had expected in the light of Terry Barfoot’s review of her later appearance on the Barenboim set. Agnes Baltsa (Sinopoli) is preferable, though she takes a little time to warm to the part; neither quite effaces memories of Christa Ludwig (Solti) or Grace Bumbry (Sawallisch, Philips, download only from amazon.co.uk, or highlights from passionato.com).

The playing of the Philharmonia offers Baltsa an ideal platform from which to launch her invitation to the grotto (Geliebter komm!) and she takes full advantage, despite Sinopoli’s typically slow tempo. Solti is slower still and Haitink is much more fleet of foot here.

None of the other soloists on the Haitink reissue gave me any cause for complaint – Kurt Moll’s Landgrave and Siegfried Jerusalem’s Walter especially worthy of note – and the Bavarian Radio Choir and Orchestra offer excellent support. Listen to the chorus greeting the entry of the guests in Act II, Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle (CD2, tr.5), to see what I mean. Once again, however, the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Philharmonic (Solti) and, perhaps even more, the Covent Garden Chorus and the Philharmonia (Sinopoli) excel. The orchestral playing on the Sinopoli set is particularly successful, helping to make the (mainly) slow tempi seem most natural. Not that Sinopoli is incapable of taking things with a swing: exceptionally, in that chorus Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle, as in the Overture, he’s actually a few seconds faster than Haitink.

Having scratched enough on my critical Beckmesser slate, I sat back just to listen to the third CD. I enjoyed it thoroughly, finding nothing to make me leap up to scratch away again, which proves yet again that it’s sometimes a mistake to make close comparisons when a particular performance makes perfect sense in its own terms. The only thing that you will notice if you are used to the Paris version is the shorter ending of the ‘Dresden’ text employed here.

The Haitink, Sinopoli and Barenboim recordings are all offered in digital sound, and you need have no reservations about the EMI reissue on that score. Decca have recently refurbished the Solti and I imagine that has left what was already an ADD version for which no excuse needed to be made sounding even better.

The EMI booklet is skimpy but the libretto and translation are available on screen from the bonus CD. That’s still not the same thing for stick-in-the-muds like myself who really prefer to have the words in print in our hands, but it’s better than having to search online.

Solti, then, is still hard to beat, Sinopoli harder still. This Haitink reissue is well worth having if price is a consideration, though Barenboim is even less expensive. It isn’t quite in the same league as some of the other opera recordings which have been reissued in this lower-mid-price series – Karajan’s Rosenkavalier (9668242), Giulini’s Don Carlo (9668502) or Klemperer’s Fidelio (9667032) – but it certainly doesn’t let the side down. Sinopoli’s version remains my prime recommendation as the recording which finally made Tannhäuser click for me, but I think Haitink might well have taken me some considerable way along the Road to Damascus if I’d encountered his version first.

Brian Wilson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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