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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Tannhäuser opera in three acts (1845)
Robert Dean Smith – Tannhäuser
Nina Stemme – Elisabeth
Marina Prudenskaya – Venus
Christian Gerhaher – Wolfram
Albert Dohmen – Landgraf Hermann
Peter Sonn – Walther
Bianca Reim – Shepherd
Rundfunkchor Berlin; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. live, in concert, Berlin Philharmonie, 5 May 2012
PENTATONE PTC5186405 [3 CDs: 55:09 + 65:13 + 50:25]

I haven’t always been impressed by Marek Janowski’s unfolding Wagner cycle, but this instalment is a hit on almost every front. The conductor’s vision of the work is wholly convincing and all the performers give of their best to create a performance that is exciting and musically brilliant.
Let’s begin with the soloists, who are led by an excellent titular knight in Robert Dean Smith. I’ve said before that I really admire his tenor, but Tannhäuser isn’t the perfect role for him. Admittedly, you could say that about almost anyone because Tannhäuser is probably the most thankless tenor role in the Wagner canon. All the same, Smith lacks the lyricism that makes the role sound interesting in the Venusberg scenes. This, however, is my only criticism, because he has heroic ardour in spades. His duet with Elisabeth is really exhilarating, particularly the point where they sing Gepriesen sei die Stunde, helped by Janowski’s exciting tempo and the brilliant soprano of Nina Stemme, more of which later. He also manages to sound properly deflated for his appearance in the final act, and it’s obvious from his vocal acting why Wolfram doesn’t recognise him. The Rome Narration is a brilliant piece of vocal story-telling, climaxing on an admirable snarl on the word verdammt, and his transcendent redemption at the end comes as a climax to a brilliantly conceived take on the part. He isn’t the most exciting or vocally thrilling Tannhäuser on disc – for me that’s still Peter Seiffert for Barenboim – but he sings the role extremely well, and that puts him a cut above most other Wagner tenors.
His pair of lovers is also excellent. Nina Stemme is a pretty unique Elisabeth. She has none of the girlish innocence that characterises most sopranos’ take on the part: instead there is a regal quality to her singing and her commanding vocal tone reminds us that Elisabeth is, after all, a princess of royal blood. Dich teure Halle is brilliant, the excitable quavers in the winds underpinning a performance that is excited without losing control, and her plea at the end of the act is most moving, as is her great prayer to the Virgin in Act 3. Marina Prudenskaya, in contrast, is a sultry, alluring Venus. She has an entirely different character to her voice and she convinces not just as the goddess of love but also as the repository of all sensual pleasure. She is winningly lovely in the Venusberg scene and even quite vampish when she returns at the end of Act 3. It’s a lovely performance, with all the right aspects of the role and none of the overplaying that can sometimes damage it.
The other parts are very well sung, too. The Landgraf’s part suits Albert Dohmen’s deep, slightly bluff voice very well indeed, much better than did Hans Sachs in Janowski’s Meistersinger, and he is a very fine vocal presence. The minstrels sing well, with an effectively bitter Biterolf from Wilhelm Schwinghammer, and there is a most appealing Shepherd from Bianca Reim. However, everyone’s thunder is just about stolen by the sensational Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher. I’ve praised this singer to the skies before, and this isn’t the place to repeat those plaudits, but he makes this role come alive in a way that few singers can manage. Wolfram is humane, self-sacrificial and sympathetic, but ultimately quite one-dimensional. Gerhaher, however, makes him a complex character, full of contradictory emotions and thoughtful sensitivity. Listen, for example, to his first contribution to the song contest. It’s often a fairly unexciting moment when one’s fingers can tend to drum in the opera house, but Gerhaher invests it with all the thought, care and attention to language that he brings to his song recitals, transforming it into a profound meditation underpinned by his sensationally lyrical voice. His monologue at the start of Act 3 is deeply moving, and his Abendstern solo will reduce you to tears. What an extraordinary singer!
Janowski and his orchestra also up their game when in the company of such a brilliant cast. By this point in the series you can take Janowski’s quick tempi for granted, but here he uses them to inject an extra element of excitement into a score whose plot can sometimes drag. It is this that he uses to such exhilarating effect in the opening scene of Act 2, and I noticed an extra element of energy to the entry of the guests, as well as to the final ensemble of Act 2. When he does broaden out, therefore, it is to very calculated effect, such as in the theme of the Pope’s love-feast in the prelude to Act 3. Throughout, Janowski underpins the singers with instrumental colour that is sensitive and utterly appropriate, bringing out the very best in them. Listen, for example, to the opening of Act 2 or, even better, the winds that accompany the end of Elisabeth’s Act 3 prayer, tender, pleading, sensitive and deeply moving. The orchestra play like gods for him, and they are helped by brilliant Pentatone sound that picks up every aspect and opens up the inner textures of the ensemble, particularly those at the end of the second act, which can often get lost in the overall sonic fog. The chorus are outstanding too, and they even manage the off-stage elements very well: the pilgrims of both the first and third acts sound as though they have approached from off-stage and move off again, even though this must have been impossible in the context of the live concert performance that constituted this recording. My only complaint is that the off-stage instruments, such as the hunting horns in Act 1 or the Act 3 Venusberg music, are too far away and, therefore, difficult to hear.
That’s no reason to turn from this issue, though, which has an enormous amount going for it. I’ll still turn to Barenboim for his hero and to Sawallisch for the overall excitement of what must have been a tremendous performance in the theatre at Bayreuth, but Janowski comes close behind them in terms of theatrical excitement and some outstanding singing. Parsifal was previously my favourite in Janowski’s Wagner cycle, but I think Tannhäuser has just taken the crown.
Simon Thompson