Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lauritz Melchior – Tannhäuser; Kirsten Flagstad – Elisabeth; Herbert Jannsen – Wolfram; Kerstin Thorborg – Venus; Emmanuel List – Landgraf; Walther – John Dudley; Biterolf – Mack Harrell; Heinrich – Emery Darcy; Reinmar – John Gurney; Maxine Stellman – Shepherd
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 4 Jan 1941
PRISTINE PACO130 [3 CDs: 61:56 + 60:13 + 52:54]
A week or two before reviewing this set, I attended a performance of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, and having listened to this Pristine issue how I wish I could have swapped my Covent Garden seat for one at the Met in 1941.
The Tannhäuser in this performance is the supreme Heldentenor, Lauritz Melchior. Vocally he is, of course, in a league of his own, but as an interpreter he is also superb. He may not have been an intellectual singer in the way that a Fischer-Dieskau or a Bostridge are, but his musical instincts are almost always spot on, and in an early-Wagner role such as this, which lacks the complexity of a Tristan or Parsifal, he conveys all that the role contains. In Act 3, Wolfram calls Tannhäuser “Wahnsinn’ger” (madman) and Melchior’s Tannhäuser is indeed a manic creation; listen to the almost hysterical competitiveness with Wolfram in the Song Contest where Melchior (wonderfully abetted by Leinsdorf) takes the Hymn to Venus (Dir, Göttin der Liebe) at a frenetic speed. No wonder the Landgraf casts him out! The grovelling self-abasement of “Zum Heil den Sündigen zu führen” which follows confirms the character’s instability. Every word that Melchior sings is utterly alive, as the Rome Narration in Act 3 demonstrates. Melchior charts Tannhäuser’s re-living of his experiences in Rome with detailed verbal acuity, a wide variety of dynamics and a momentum which sweeps the listener along. Add to this the clarion tone which is also capable of superbly-supported soft singing, all with absolute steadiness, and you have a performance which it would be difficult to imagine improved.
Herbert Janssen’s Wolfram is absolutely in the same class as this. Wolfram has always seemed to me a sort of cousin to Kurvenal in Tristan und Isolde – a straightforward, decent, utterly loyal character who becomes embroiled in events which he cannot quite understand. Unsurprisingly, Janssen was also a supreme Kurvenal. He was also a great lieder singer (something by no means all opera singers are) and his way with the text is superb. Listen to his profound, quiet happiness in the delivery of his lines in Act 1 when he welcomes the stranger as his long-lost friend Tannhäuser, or the infinite tenderness when he watches a desolate Elisabeth praying for Tannhäuser in Act 3. He also makes something compelling of “Als du in kühnem Sange”, a piece which often fails to deliver. Exemplary.
The Elisabeth is also one of the supreme Wagner singers, Kirsten Flagstad, but here in a role which is not one with which we associate her. Flagstad was not one of nature’s Elisabeths; the tone is too commanding, the utterance too direct. She does a much better job than might be expected, however, scaling down the amplitude of the voice and finding an expressiveness and femininity, which was not always the case in later years. She certainly provides about the most exciting “Dich, teure Halle!” you are ever likely to come across, and there is sensitivity and inwardness in “Almächt’ge Jungfrau”, but we still do not really get the impression that this is a girl who could quietly die of grief. When she intervenes against the horrified court after Tannhäuser has sung in praise of Venus, we get the feel in her opening words that she could fell the whole lot of them if they fail to do as she wishes.
In our more “upfront” times, we expect a more overtly sexy Venus than Kerstin Thorborg provides. She is certainly no Grace Bumbry at Bayreuth in 1961, but, again, she offers an absolutely solid, steady emission of tone which seems to be largely a thing of the past today. She captivates Tannhäuser by the glory of her delivery rather than any kittenish seductiveness. I have never been much of a fan of Emanuel List, who sings the Landgraf. I usually find it difficult to take to his flat, lugubrious delivery, unsteady tone and dubious intonation. On the night of this performance, however, he shows his mettle in an unexpected way and uses what is basically a fine voice to fine effect.
When Artur Bodansky died suddenly in 1938, the 26-year-old Erich Leinsdorf was unexpectedly appointed Head of German Repertoire at the Met. He had a somewhat torrid time at first, with Melchior and Flagstad telling the newspapers that the Met really needed a more experienced hand in control, but by 1941 his qualities were fully accepted and he conducted many excellent performances, of which this is undoubtedly one. He manages to combine excitement and lyricism, and his Venusberg music has a sultriness which makes up for Thorborg’s lack of that quality. The piece never drags, but neither are its more spiritual moments short-changed.
As with his re-issue of the 1940 Met Walküre last year, Andrew Rose has been very fortunate in having discovered a new sound source for this superb performance, which knocks the source used by Sony in their “Wagner at the Met” box into a cocked hat. For a broadcast performance of 75 years ago, the sound really is quite stunning. There are a few times when there is distortion and congestion, for example during the Landgraf’s solos early in Act 2 and in track 9 later in the same act, but these sound like end-of-side distortion and nothing could be done to improve them. They are rare, however, and for the great majority of the time it is difficult to believe the age and source of the recording. One can only pay tribute again to Andrew Rose’s way with old recordings; he manages to get the very best out of the ageing grooves to the extent that the listener is able simply to be carried along by the performance. This is a performance I cannot recommend too highly; even if you already have the Met box or any other previous incarnation, buy it – you will find the improvement in sound quality worth every penny. The only disadvantage is that it will make anything you are likely to encounter today seem very small beer.