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Wagner: Tannhauser / Janowski, Gerhaher, Smith, Stemme

Release Date: 03/26/2013 
Label:  Pentatone   Catalog #: 5186405  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Bianca ReimPeter SonnNina StemmeMartin Snell,   ... 
Conductor:  Marek Janowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Radio Symphony OrchestraBerlin Radio Chorus
Number of Discs: 3 
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SuperAudio CD:  $48.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

With complete libretto in German and English.

WAGNER Tannhäuser Marek Janowski, cond; Robert Dean Smith ( Tannhäuser ); Marina Prudenskaya ( Venus ); Albert Dohmen ( Landgraf ); Christian Gerhaher ( Wolfram ); Nina Stemme ( Elisabeth ); Bianca Reim ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Shepherd ); Peter Sonn ( Walther ); Wilhelm Schwinghammer ( Biterolf ); Berlin R Ch & RSO PENTATONE 5186 (3 SACDs: 170:47 Text and Translation) Live: Berlin 5/5/2012

From the first notes of the overture in this performance (and such it is, being recorded in concert in one day), one is aware of a superior musical mind at work, the mind of conductor Marek Janowski. The phrasing is intelligent and enlivened by little rhythmic “lifts” at key moments that keep the music moving forward. In addition, the orchestral sound as such is warm but not unduly heavy, and the texture transparent enough to hear every instrumental group in perfect sonic proportion to its neighbors. Occasionally, one even hears a solo flute chirp above its fellows, which adds piquancy to the overall sound. The triple-tonguing of the horns in the introduction to “Dich, teure Halle” is clearer than I’ve ever heard it before, even in Toscanini’s broadcast performance. Such details abound in Janowski’s conducting, which separates him from a long line of great Wagnerians, including even such giants as Kempe, Furtwängler, and Beecham (I speak in general terms now, not just specifically in regards to Tannhäuser ). It is a conducting job for the ages. And much to my surprise, considering the almost universal preference nowadays for the Paris version of this opera, this recording uses the 1845 Dresden version. I discovered this immediately at the end of the overture, which comes to a dead stop instead of blending into the Venusburg music, and that too is much shorter.

Moreover, the Berlin Radio Chorus directed by Nicolas Fink is superb in both its vocal blend and clarity of diction, the latter a detail often left untended to in contemporary choral recordings. The first problem emerges with the entrance of our Venus, Marina Prudenskaya. She is one of those singers possessed of a “Slavic vibrato,” meaning one that is fast and so insistent that it impressed itself on the sensitive listener as a bad flutter. The voice also has another problem, inherent in many Slavic singers, an acidic timbre. I might have found this voice more acceptable in such a role as Ortrud, Fricka, or Kundry, but as Venus (as, too, Brangäne or Magdalena), this sort of voice does not induce pleasant thoughts in the listener. On the contrary, her timbre is an irritant, although by the end of band 3 the insistent throb in the voice has become a bit more even and less “rattly.” In fairness, I should also point out that Prudenskaya is a fine vocal actress, and that in itself is a plus above so many generic-sounding mezzos nowadays.

Another plus is our Tannhäuser, Robert Dean Smith, who has an ear-ravishing lyric tenor voice. The liner notes say that he has a well-known Walther, Tristan, Lohengrin, Siegmund, and Parsifal, all roles to which I believe his voice is well suited. In the Venus-Tannhäuser duet, several differences arise between the Dresden and Paris versions. Here, for instance, there are far less words (and music) after Venus’s outburst of “Zieh hin, Wahnbetörter!,” which cuts this scene from roughly 26 minutes (in the Paris version) to a mere 17:24 (but this is at Janowski’s very fast clip—I think the “average” Wagner conductor would probably stretch it out to about 19 or 20 minutes). Later on, in act II, it is Tannhäuser’s solo song that is different from the Paris version, where two sections of Tannhäuser’s music were joined together by removing Walther’s solo.

Much to my surprise, since he has always impressed me as a very wobbly Wotan, Albert Dohmen is a solid and dramatically interesting Landgrave. Baritone Christian Gerhaher, better known for his concerts of Lieder than for his operatic work (or so say the notes), is a light-voiced but dramatically fascinating Wolfram, sort of a Fischer-Dieskau with a flicker vibrato. The well-known ensemble finale of act I surges forward like greased lightning, and the singers are all involved in the text.

After the splendid intro to act II, however, we hear Nina Stemme as Elisabeth. As is the norm for most of her post-2007 work, her voice is unsteady with an uneven vibrato (and a squally high B) all through “Dich, teure Halle,” and it remains unsteady for about eight minutes thereafter. I realize that this was a one-shot concert performance, but for posterity’s sake she should have rerecorded this crucial opening number, and the first seven minutes of her scene with Tannhäuser and Wolfram, once she was fully warmed up. The way it emerges here, her voice is so ungainly due to the slow vibrato that one cannot clearly distinguish the mordents in this scene. Sadly, just as Stemme improves somewhat (she is wonderful for a while but the uneven flutter re-emerges on and off throughout the opera), Dohmen picks up a wobble—but oddly, more in the upper and high ranges, his low range remaining as solid as a rock. This tells me that he is a true bass and not a bass-baritone, which probably explains his wobbly Wotans.

Yet inevitably, what strikes the listener strongly with this Tannhäuser, even more so than in Janowski’s excellent recording of Tristan und Isolde, is the sheer excitement and liveliness of this performance. Not one moment in this opera passes unnoticed or as if the singers were coasting. Every moment is telling, and in a specifically dramatic way that makes one want to hear the whole work in one sitting from first note to last. That, in itself, is a remarkable feat—a Tannhäuser in which the “Rome narrative” is not a “highlight” of the Third Act because the entire act lives and breathes, moment to moment, in such a way that it illuminates the entire work.

Strictly from a singing perspective, the 1972 Solti recording (which used the Paris edition with a few orchestral and choral passages restored from Dresden, such as the support of the chorus and soloists in “Zum Heil, den Sündigen zu fuhren,” and other orchestral passages found in even later manuscripts by Wagner) is more strongly cast, particularly in the roles of Elisabeth (Helga Dernesch) and Venus (Christa Ludwig). Hans Sotin, of course, had a 24-karat, golden bass voice as the Landgraf, but he did far less with the text than Dohmen does here. Yet if you are a true admirer of Wagner, you will undoubtedly want a good performance of the Dresden version to complement Solti’s (mostly) Paris version, and I believe that Janowski’s is the finest ever issued on discs. The other Dresden versions I’ve heard are the 1960 performance with Grümmer, Hopf, Fischer-Dieskau, and Frick, conducted by Franz Konwitschny with the Staatsoper Berlin, which was far more disappointing than its well-known cast would encourage you to think; a live performance conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch (with a few snippets of Paris thrown in) on Opera d’Oro; and the sluggish, uninteresting EMI recording conducted by Bernard Haitink. Compared to these, Janowski is Furtwängler or Toscanini reincarnate. Thus I give this recording a high recommendation. You really need to hear the wonders the conductor does with the music here!

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Bianca Reim (Soprano), Peter Sonn (Tenor), Nina Stemme (Soprano),
Martin Snell (Bass), Michael McCown (Tenor), Christian Gerhaher (Baritone),
Marina Prudenskaya (Mezzo Soprano), Sabine Puhlmann (Soprano), Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Bass),
Alberto Dohmen (Baritone), Robert Dean Smith (Tenor)
Conductor:  Marek Janowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Berlin Radio Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845/1861; Germany 
Date of Recording: Live 5/5/2012 

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