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Tannhäuser (äänite)

– tekijä: Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner (1813–1883)

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg
Paris version

Tannhäuser – Hans Beirer
Elisabeth – Grè Brouwenstijn

Wolfram von Eschenbach – Eberhard Wächter
Walther von der Vogelweide – Waldemar Kmentt
Hermann – Gottlob Frick
Venus – Christa Ludwig
Biterolf – Ludwig Welter
Heinrich von Zweter – Kurt Equiluz
Ein junger Hirt – Gundula Janowitz

Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Herbert von Karajan

Live Recording: 8 August 1963, Vienna State Opera.
Stage direction: Herbert von Karajan
Sets and costumes: Heinrich Wendel

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998. 3CD. 65’49+67’56+54’26. Liner notes by Karl Löbl and Gottfried Kraus. Libretto (Ger). Mono sound.

CD 1: Act 1
CD 2: Act 2
CD 3: Act 3


Tannhäuser is the only one among Wagner’s ten mature music dramas of which Karajan never made a studio recording. He conducted the work 23 times in the theatre between 1932 and 1964. This live recording from January 1963, captured by the Austrian Radio (ORF, Österreichischer Rundfunk), is the only complete performance of Karajan conducting Tannhäuser released officially. It was the opening night of his own production at the Vienna State Opera, the second time he had directed the opera after La Scala in 1950. Five performances more followed, the last one next season on 28 May 1964, and then the opera dropped from Karajan’s repertoire. I don’t know why he never staged it later at his own Easter Festival in Salzburg. I guess he simply didn’t have time[1].

Two problems seriously downgrade this historically important recording. The lesser problem is the sound. It’s rather a scrappy mono, with limited dynamics and frequently poor balance between singers and orchestra. But the sound is good enough to know that the audience in Staatsoper was lucky to hear Karajan conducting on that night. Much the bigger problem is Hans Beirer. He is not just wobbly and strained. He is fonder of bleating and barking than of singing. Unfortunately, Tannhäuser is not a title character for nothing. He is the central figure in all three acts – and Beirer is insufferable in all three acts. When he has to sing his own theme or that of the pilgrims (Act 1), the result is abominable. I wish I could say he improves in the song contest (Act 2) and the “Rome narrative” (Act 3). But if he is slightly easier to endure, this is because the music is more dramatic and less unsuitable to his limited abilities. All in all, this is a lesson how not to sing Wagner. Even Plácido Domingo has done better – much better indeed – in that role.

All this is a pity because the rest of the cast is rather fine. Christa Ludwig is the standout as a seductive and sinister Venus in stupendous vocal form. Poor Beirer! He is hopelessly outsung in the first act. Grè Brouwenstijn takes care that the eponymous hero is overshadowed in the second act as well. She certainly sounds much more at home with Elisabeth than with Elisabetta. It’s hardly the most grateful Wagnerian part, but Brouwenstijn makes the most of it. If she is a bit stiff in “Dich, teure Halle”, she quickly improves and easily dominates the climax of Act 2. The prayer in the final act is beautifully sung. Eberhard Wächter has a few shaky moments, but nothing really worth complaining for. Gottlob Frick’s cavernous bass and impeccable diction are special bonuses in the small but important part of Hermann. It’s an extravagant luxury to have Gundula Janowitz, then quite young and virtually unknown, in the miserable part of the Shepherd Boy. It was Karajan who brought her to Staatsoper, thus starting her distinguished career, and she remained one of his favourite singers until the late 1970s[2].

The edition is handsomely presented in an old-fashioned triple jewel case. The booklet contains several fine photos (Act 2 on the cover, portraits of the principals inside) and two charming essays. Karl Löbl provides a nice overview of Karajan’s revolutionary time (1957–64) at the helm of Wiener Staatsoper. Today we take guest singers and opera in original language totally for granted, but in Vienna from the 1950s this was not the case. The Viennese, great opera lovers as they pretend to be, didn’t even know the Italian repertoire very well before Karajan. The essay by Gottfried Kraus is dedicated to the “awe-inspiring voice of posterity” (Maugham) in regard to this particular production of Tannhäuser. As usual, the critics liked Karajan’s conducting a lot more than his staging (too dark, too static, etc.), but on the whole they agreed it was a memorable occasion. They praised the singers, but noted that Beirer “was suffering slightly from indisposition and nerves” on the opening night. I bet he was suffering from something more serious! The libretto is complete but without translation: a nice opportunity to brush up your Wagnerisch.

Unless you’re seriously interested in Karajan, I can’t imagine why you should want this recording on your shelves. By no means is it unlistenable, on the whole, but much better ones are easily available. Tannhäuser has been tacitly recognised as musically and dramatically the weakest among Wagner’s mature works and has received comparatively little attention in the recording catalogues, but at least the studio productions with Solti (Decca, 1970) and Sinopoli (DG, 1988) can be recommended. The first has the young and ardent René Kollo in the title role, the second has the surprisingly enjoyable Plácido Domingo. Both have fine all-around casts and superb conducting recorded in excellent sound. I wonder why I have never bothered to acquire permanently at least one of them. I guess I’m not that fond of Tannhäuser.

[1] The Tannhäuser Overture stayed in Karajan’s repertoire for 31 performances in the course of 44 years (1943-87), including five official recordings: 1957 (BP, EMI), 1974 (BP, EMI, Paris version), 1975 (BP, Live, video), 1984 (BP, DG, Paris version), 1987 (WP, DG, Live). As you can see, in concert Karajan usually played the Dresden version, while in the studio he usually recorded the Paris version with the Venusberg Music (which he also conducted, of course, in the opera house). The 1957 recording is an exception and there may be others (i.e. the Paris version in concert) of which I am unaware. Curiously, Karajan never recorded the overture with the Philharmonia, but he did make two recordings of the Venusberg Music alone with this orchestra (1954 & 1960, EMI).
[2] It was an immensely productive partnership. Janowitz can be heard on quite a few Karajan recordings, both live and studio. For example: Bach’s Matthäus-Passion (1972) and Mass in B Minor (1974); Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (1966, 1974) and Ninth Symphony (1962, 1968 video); Brahms’ German Requiem (1964, 1978 live/video); Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (1972) and Die Schöpfung (1968); Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1968 live, 1969 live, 1970 live; Donna Anna); Strauss’ Four Last Songs (1973); Wagner’s Die Walküre (1966, Sieglinde) and Götterdämmerung (1970, Gutrune). ( )
  Waldstein | Apr 1, 2020 |
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