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Richard Wagner: Tannhauser

Wagner / Vinay / Ramon / Dieskau / Fischer
Release Date: 01/28/2014 
Label:  Andromeda   Catalog #: 5162   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Conductor:  Joseph Keilberth
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 3 Hours 3 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WAGNER Tannhäuser Joseph Keilberth, cond; Ramón Vinay ( Tannhäuser ); Gré Brouwenstijn ( Elisabeth ); Herta Wilfert ( Venus ); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau ( Wolfram von Eschenbach ); Josef Greindl ( Landgraf Hermann ); Volker Horn ( Shepherd Read more class="ARIAL12">); Josef Traxel ( Walther von der Vogelweide ); Gerhard Stolze ( Heinrich der Schreiber ); Toni Blankenheim ( Biterolf ); Theo Adam ( Reinmar von Zweter ); Bayreuth Festival O & Ch ANDROMEDA 5162, mono (3 CDs: 183:10) Live: Bayreuth 7/22/1954

I’d really like to know why so many Wagner lovers have a bee in their bonnet over Josef Keilberth. So often in others’ reviews I read that he was routine, dull, unimaginative, etc., etc., yet I’ve always liked his conducting. Even as far back as my earliest years in college, when I was absorbing the Wagner canon from old LP recordings in the library ( Lohengrin with Steber and Windgassen, Fliegende Holländer with Varnay and Uhde, etc.), I always found Keilberth’s conducting well-paced, beautifully phrased and articulated as well as urgent in dramatic scope, and so I find it here. Even as early as the Overture (the Paris version, so it connects to the Venusberg music), Keilberth sounds as if he’s on a mission, and that mission is to make Tannhäuser’s story as thrilling as is humanly possible.

The problem with this release is the sound quality of the orchestra. I don’t know whether this recording stems from an in-house tape or a broadcast, but whichever it is the orchestral sound is harsh. The strings grate, the brasses spit, and the timpani sound like someone hitting a garbage can with mallets. And yet, this is an improvement over the one previous issue I’ve heard on Melodram, which was actually worse than this: The sound was both grating and muddy. At least Andromeda was able to clarify the sound and remove most of the surface noise, and happily the poor sound only affects the loud orchestral passages (like the Overture and the beginning of act II), not the singing. It should be noted that the cover of this release claims all-new 24-bit remastering, although like so many off-brand reissues of classic broadcasts, it has no libretto.

The only somewhat weak link in the cast is Wilfert as Venus. She is just OK. Her voice is not tonally pretty or very expressive except that she yells a good deal, and as I’ve said many times, yelling is not an interpretation. She also has a weak low range, which makes her descents in the scale disappointing. (Yet later on in the scene, the voice becomes less tense and she actually sings the written trills, something many Venuses ignore.) Vinay takes a while to warm up, sounding clumsy in Tannhäuser’s more elegant lines and lacking ease in singing the turns (mordents) in “Dir töne Lob.” Yes, he was an outstanding actor, both visually (which of course we can’t see here) and vocally, and that helps in many scenes of the opera, but I’d have liked a bit more suavity in the opening scene.

Once we leave the Venusberg, however, things brighten up considerably. A quick look at the cast list explains why. We have not only seasoned veterans Greindl and Traxel as Hermann and Walther and the still-young but already-legendary Fischer-Dieskau as Wolfram, but also several singers who would, within a decade, become important artists in their own right, namely Theo Adam, Toni Blankenheim, and Gerhard Stolze. As an extra bonus we get the great Gré Brouwenstijn who, along with Cristina Deutekom, was God’s gift to the soprano world from the Netherlands during the 20th century, as Elisabeth. (I should also mention that boy soprano Horn as the Shepherd is exceptionally good.) In addition, the microphone placement, which makes the orchestra sound so harsh, seems to be perfect for the voices, which all sound right and natural. As the opera progresses, Vinay’s voice brightens and loosens up a little, which is all to the good. (While listening, I kept trying to figure out whose voice he reminded me of; the closest I could come was Bernd Weikl if Weikl sang tenor.)

In act II, the vocal acting reaches new heights. Seldom have I heard Elisabeth sung with such nuance and attention to detail as she is here by Brouwenstijn; listen to the way she paints the words in “Was war es dann,” for instance, and as opposed to Vinay, her vocal elegance in singing the mordents is flawless. Griendl, who could at times sing with a loose vibrato and unfocused tone (as in his studio recordings of Tristan und Isolde and Die Zauberflöte ), is in excellent voice, particularly in the low range, and his singing in “Gar viel und schön ward hier” is both powerful and well-nuanced. I found it ironic that “Blick’ ich umher,” which is supposed to be sung somewhat clumsily by Wolfram (the reason he loses the song contest to Tannhäuser), is so elegantly and beautifully vocalized by Fischer-Dieskau that it almost sounds as if he were giving a Lieder recital. Yet, all in all, the drama builds during this act more suspensefully than I’ve heard it in any other performance of the opera. It’s absolutely hair-raising.

Happily, the Prelude to act III is recorded much better than most of the other orchestral music, possibly because it is mostly played softly. The Pilgrims’ Chorus, taken by Keilberth at a quicker than normal tempo, may sound a tad glib to seasoned Wagnerians yet it still manages to sound fervent, and Brouwenstijn’s ensuing aria (“Allmächt’ge Jungfrau”) is sung with rapturous feeling. Needless to say, “O du mein holder Abendstern” is sung beautifully, but what’s interesting to me about young Fischer-Dieskau is that it was his low range that was better than later on (a situation that made his mid-1970s recording of Die Meistersinger so disappointing). Vinay’s voice, ironically, sounds even deeper than Wolfram’s (later on in his career, he returned to singing baritone and then even sang bass!), but he is locked into the character here, so his “Rome narrative” is movingly and dramatically sung with full attention to words, and his death scene is indescribably moving.

The bottom line, then, is that if you really love Tannhäuser you need to own this performance. Because of the sound quality and lack of a libretto it’s not a first choice—that plum goes to the Dernesch-Kollo-Braun-Solti stereo set on Decca—but all things being equal, the singers are recorded so well that if you simply ignore the harshness of the purely orchestral passages (particularly the loud ones), you’re in for an extraordinary treat. This was a Wieland Wagner production, and somehow or other he and Keilberth got the whole cast to perform at white heat.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
Conductor:  Joseph Keilberth
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845/1861; Germany 
Date of Recording: 1954 
Venue:  Bayreuth 
Length: 20 Minutes 32 Secs. 

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