Wagner's TannhäuserWagner's Tannhäuser

The Gramophone Choice

Peter Seiffert (ten) Tannhäuser Jane Eaglen (sop) Elisabeth Thomas Hampson (bar) Wolfram Waltraud Meier (mez) Venus René Pape (bass) Hermann Gunnar Gudbjörnsson (ten) Walther Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-bar) Biterolf Stephan Rügamer (ten) Heinrich Alfred Reiter (bass) Reinmar Dorothea Röschmann (sop) Shepherd Berlin State Opera Chorus; Berlin Staatskapelle / Daniel Barenboim

Warner 2564 68020-7 (3h 15' · DDD · S) Buy from Amazon

This must be one of the most opulent recordings made of any opera. The truly remarkable range, perspective and balance of the sound is most appropriate for a work conceived on the grandest scale, yet it retains its focus in the more intimate scenes. The achievement of Barenboim’s Berlin chorus, so important in this opera, and orchestra could hardly be bettered. The results are, if nothing else, an audio treat, surpassing the DG version’s rather hit-and-miss engineering and the now slightly dated feel of the Decca. Indeed, it’s Konwitschny’s 1960 set (EMI) that comes closest to the Teldec in terms of sonic breadth.

Domingo recorded Tannhäuser for DG but shied away from it onstage. The title-role, as many tenors admit, is a real killer. Seiffert is probably its most telling exponent: his performance combines vocal assurance and emotional involvement to create a vivid portrait of the hero torn between sacred and profane love. The objects of Tannhäuser’s attention are impressively portrayed by Waltraud Meier and Jane Eaglen. Meier makes the most of the bigger opportunities and brings her customary tense expression to bear on Venus’s utterance, while not quite effacing Christa Ludwig’s voluptuous reading for Solti. Eaglen launches herself into the Hall of Song with a rather squally ‘Dich teure Halle’; thereafter she sings with much of the inner feeling and prayerful dignity predicated by Wagner for his Elisabeth. 

Hermann is a gift of a role for most German basses and René Pape takes his chances with his accustomed feeling for notes and text. Thomas Hampson delivers Wolfram’s solos with the expected blend of mellifluous tone and verbal acuity, but his manner is a touch set apart and self-conscious, as if he has had to record these at separate sessions. One reservation about this Teldec set: Barenboim’s penchant in meditative passages for very slow speeds. But he paces the Prelude, the huge ensemble at the end of Act 2 and all the Pilgrim’s music with unerring skill. 

It’s unlikely that we shall ever hear a totally convincing account of what was, after all, Wagner’s problem child among his mature works, but this new one has about as much going for it as any in recent times. If you want the Dresden version unaltered by later revisions, and there’s something to be said for that choice, the Konwitschny has much to offer in terms of its conductor, sound and much of the solo work.


DVD Recommendations

Spas Wenkoff (ten) Tannhäuser Gwyneth Jones (sop) Elizabeth, Venus Bernd Weikl (bar) Wolfram Hans Sotin (bass) Hermann Robert Schunk (ten) Walther Franz Mazura (bar) Biterolf John Pickering (ten) Heinrich Heinz Feldhoff (bass) Reinmar

Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Colin Davis

Stage director Götz Friedrich

Video director Thomas Oloffson

DG DVD 073 4446GH2 (3h 8’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s)

Recorded live 1998. Buy from Amazon


Tannhäuser (Paris version)

Robert Gambill (ten) Tannhäuser Camilla Nylund (sop) Elisabeth Roman Trekel (bar) Wolfram Waltraud Meier (sop) Venus Stephen Milling (bass) Hermann Marcel Reijans (ten) Walther Tom Fox (bar) Biterolf Florian Hoffmann (ten) Heinrich Andreas Hörl (bass) Reinmar Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Philippe Jordan

Stage director Nikolaus Lehnhoff

Video director Patrick Buttmann

ArtHaus Musik DVD 101 351 (4h 23’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo, 5.1 and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s) Recorded live 2008. Buy from Amazon

Thirty years separate these performances of Tannhäuser. The original video of the 1978 revival of Götz Friedrich’s 1972 production was, we’re told, ‘the first complete film from Bayreuth’, and this is its first DVD release. You’re soon aware that it has not had the benefit of the latest technology: the lighting is not always well suited to the action and shifts between relatively close and relatively distant shots can appear awkward and arbitrary. The sound, too, is basic in its fixed focus, giving the voices too much prominence. All of this hardly matters, however, since the performance is electrifying, managing the difficult feat of doing justice to Wagner’s inspiration without seeking to gainsay its gloriously hybrid nature.

Jürgen Rose’s setting is austere, and one of the work’s greatest moments, the astonishingly abrupt transition in Act 1 from the Venusberg to the idyllic countryside near the Wartburg, goes visually for too little. But the combination of Friedrich’s tightly focused production and Colin Davis’s supremely flexible and energised conducting more than compensates. Davis is particularly in his element in the early stages of Act 2, to which he brings a Berliozian buoyancy, and what can sometimes seem almost comically tedious repetitions in the long processional chorus are anything but.

Adding to the lustre is the central trio of star performances. In 1978 Gwyneth Jones was at her peak, taking time out from her definitive Bayreuth Brünnhilde to show how the roles of Venus and Elisabeth can be equally affecting, given maximum vocal and dramatic conviction. She weeps real tears in the mime that accompanies the Prelude to Act 3, as well she might, realising perhaps that she would never be better than this. Less sympathetically filmed, Spas Wenkoff still scores with the dogged power of his singing and acting, never out of character, never off the note, while Bernd Weikl is caught at his ardent, mellifluous best. With a fine supporting cast and the Bayreuth chorus and orchestra on top form, even those who resist the stylised eroticism of John Neumeier’s choreography for the Bacchanale should find this set a memorable and moving experience.

The 2008 Baden-Baden version on ArtHaus is, of course, technically superior as the film of a stage performance. It is not strictly comparable with the DG release anyway, since it offers the full post-Tristan Paris version, with the extended Venusberg music, while Bayreuth uses its own favoured hybrid – the Paris Bacchanale, before the singing starts, then the original Dresden version. Performances of the full Paris version are more likely to use different sopranos for the roles of Venus and Elisabeth, and it is one of the strengths of Baden-Baden 2008 to have two such different but excellent singers in these roles. Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund (like the Danish bass-baritone Stephen Milling, who comes close to upstaging most of his male colleagues as the Landgraf) is clearly a singer-actor of huge potential in this repertoire.

The solo singing is the outstanding feature of this new recording. Robert Gambill might have more of the ‘mad axeman’ about him than Bayreuth’s Spas Wenkoff but he has immense stamina and the presence to command the stage, especially during the big ensembles. Roman Trekel is a less spontaneous Wolfram than Weikl, his voice recorded with a degree of edginess that reduces its actual lyrical beauty. As with the remastered DG, the ArtHaus sound balance favours the voices at the expense of salient orchestral detail, but this drawback is much less bothersome than certain details of the production. In a setting even more austere than Bayreuth in 1978, Nikolaus Lehnhoff seems determined to drain the work of its Christian iconography and to nudge the audience with such deliberately incongruous props as a (non-functioning) microphone for the contestants in the Hall of Song. The production gets off to a bad start with a robotic, anti-erotic Bacchanale, and it is here that conductor Philippe Jordan’s unsteady tempi, replete with pseudo-expressive over-emphases, first become apparent. Though it recurs, this problem is less pervasive than it might be, and Jordan is an alert supporter of his singers. But it is Colin Davis who has the fuller measure of this extraordinary score. 

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