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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
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 (mezzosoprano): Venus; Volker Horn (treble): Young Shepherd.
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/André Cluytens.
rec. live 9 August 1955, Festspielhaus, Bayreuth. Mono AAD
Plot synopsis but no text or translation
ORFEO C643043D [3 CDs: 197:55]

In the context of the canon of Wagner’s works, Tannhäuser has had a problematic history and a relatively thin, patchy discography. Many conductors have made some ill-advised cuts while almost randomly cobbling together an admixture of the so-called Dresden or Paris versions; then there is the problem of casting characters who exhibit considerable inconsistency in their behaviour, especially in the opera’s later form. Despite displaying some familiar Wagnerian tropes such the tension between the sensual and the spiritual, a yearning for death, and redemption through love, the opera is also musically inconsistent, the original Dresden version evincing the influence of Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Mendelssohn and, above all, Berlioz, whereas the later additions are pure, mature Wagner in Tristan mode grafted onto the earlier style.

There are in fact very few studio recordings: my preference for the Dresden has hitherto been the 1960 Konwitschny account and for the revised, Paris version it remains Solti’s superb 1970 account, which is miles ahead of the competition for thrills, intensity and great singing, but the performance score used here is a slightly cut hybrid of Dresden and Paris, and as good a compromise as any. There are also good live performances of amalgam editions conducted by Sawallisch at Bayreuth in 1961 and 1962, featuring a slightly more tired Windgassen and Grace Bumbry’s ground-breaking “Black Venus” in both, with Victoria de los Angeles and Anja Silja; another is from Perugia in 1972 with Janowitz and Kollo in great form. So how does this one measure up against those?

My MWI colleague Colin Clarke reviewed this live Orfeo recording back in 2005 and found it virtually flawless as a representative of the Dresden version (albeit with the Bacchanal imported into Act 1 and some of the later instrumentation), declaring it to be “one of the wonders of the Wagner discography”.

Cluytens stepped in when Eugen Jochum withdrew following his son’s unexpected death and introduced a new, Gallic sensibility to Bayreuth. He starts very steadily but his textures are essentially light and luminous, and tempi are swift; he comes closest to Solti in capturing the spirit of Dionysian revelry the Bacchanal demands and the orchestra is equal to his demands, playing the fiendish, Bacchic runs impeccably, while the instrumental prelude to “Dich, teure Halle” opening Act 2 - the passage in Tannhäuser most obviously inspired by, and indebted to Berlioz - is suffused with energy and passion. He is both lyrical and driven as the score demands. The mono sound presents little or no barrier to appreciating the thrust, grandeur and urgency of Cluytens’ conception.

I have always had an ambivalent response to Wolfgang Windgassen’s tenor: I admire his stamina, musicality and the subtlety of his delivery, while always regretting his rather dry, occasionally bleating tone, which never possessed the bronze effulgence of a true Heldentenor but compensated for that lack with every other virtue. For me, even at only 41 years old, relatively early in his career, he never sounds youthful, and he is audibly stretched by the cruel tessitura of his line at the conclusion of Act2, but he is generally stylish and in his best voice here – indeed better than I have ever heard him. I still prefer the extra virility of Kollo’s assumption of the role, despite his vocal tics, and even the vocal heft and security of Hopf, despite his lack of subtlety.

I had never heard Herta Wilfert before; she strikes me as a very competent artist, perhaps lacking the velvet allure of timbre we hear in Ludwig or Bumbry – but she has all the notes and assumes a suitably seductive manner in the Act 1 duet, knocking out some cracking top B flats.

Treble Volker Horn overcomes a noisy scene-change to sing a really impressive Shepherd Boy; his musicality is complemented by the stealing in of that wonderful Pilgrims’ Chorus, beautifully intoned by the chorus. Indeed, the first entry of the chorus in “Naht euch dem Strande” is magical and heralds their quality throughout.

Gré Brouwenstijn as the saintly Elisabeth sings her opening aria radiantly, her voice powerful yet delicate, with fluting top notes. She and Windgassen make an ardent pair in their Act 2 duet, and in her Act 3 Prayer ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ she capitalises on the slight tremolando in her tone to enhance its pathos. Only Elisabeth Grümmer and Gundula Janowitz rival her for suitability of their sopranos to the role.

There is a host of famous singers in the secondary roles, all very individual and recognisable, headed by the imposing bass Josef Greindl - occasionally rocky but always benign and authoritative - the expressive and versatile tenor Josef Traxel, and a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The latter is in sweetest, least affected voice with more resonance in his tone than was later the case; he sings most sensitively and attractively, with a superb sense of line and an acute, unexaggerated inflection of the text, making his ‘Evening Star’ a highlight. His Wolfram here, along with his Dutchman for Konwitschny four years later and his Telramund for Kempe in the studio recording of 1962-63, make up a fine trio of Wagnerian portrayals and, in my estimation, represent his best operatic work.

Mono sound notwithstanding, this remains a highly competitive and satisfying performance of an often elusive opera.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Colin Clarke

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