Although this recording has been issued on many labels, this is the first time for me. Its reputation is considerable and I was very much looking forward to hearing it. Initial impressions however were very disappointing. This is largely due to the very poor recording quality. I am usually prepared to put up with, even enjoy, all of many possible defects but the vague, unclear, poorly balanced and sometimes distorted sound found here made it difficult to gain much pleasure from Act 1 in particular. The sound of the orchestra is not too bad when heard on its own but as soon as the singers join in the result tends to become confused. The whole of the first scene between Tannhäuser and Venus is particularly badly affected in this way, and unfortunately this is where the two lead singers are not at their best.
Fortunately things improve considerably for the last part of this Act, when the Landgraf and his followers appear, although even here memory has to be used to fill in much missing detail. I do not know whether the sonic defects are specific to this particular issue (labelled “New re-mastering”) or applied also to earlier versions. I would very much like to hear what might be made of the recording in the hands of one of the several extremely ingenious and subtle reissue engineers to whom devotees of recordings of this and earlier periods owe so much.
The performance, and to a lesser extent the sound quality, improves as the work progresses. Ramón Vinay appeared in many justly prized recordings but for the first two Acts his performance here is too effortful and approximate to give much enjoyment. In the final Act however he sounds appropriately tormented and shows real involvement. His long solo and his duets with Fischer-Dieskau are gripping, aided by Keilberth’s urgent conducting. Fischer-Dieskau - who recorded the role of Wolfram several times - and Keilberth are indeed the main reasons for hearing this performance, along with Gré Brouwenstijn’s Elisabeth. Her confident and careful treatment of the music is impressive even if at times she sounds somewhat mature for the role. Josef Greindl is a convincing Landgraf and Josef Traxel appropriately sweet sounding as Walther.
As usual Archipel have done little to draw the intending purchaser on. The only photograph is of the conductor and there is merely a list of the contents of each disc. Surely it would have been possible to have found pictures of the production and to have found contemporary reviews or notes of it. These would have added to the listener’s enjoyment, as would a synopsis, text and translation. These can be found online, but not easily for the edition used for this performance which uses a mixture of the Dresden and Paris versions.
Nonetheless despite my reservations there is pleasure to be had from this set, mainly in the second and third Acts. It should be approached with caution but is worth hearing for the performance provided that you can tolerate the poor sound and presentation.