Live recording in mono from
Metropolitan Opera, New York
December 19, 1942
Conductor: George Szell
Landgraf HermannAlexander Kipnis
TannhäuserLauritz Melchior
WolframHerbert Janssen
WaltherJohn Garris
BiterolfOsie Hawkins
HeinrichEmery Darcy
ReinmarJohn Gurney
ElisabethHelen Traubel
VenusKerstin Thorborg
Ein junger HirtMaxine Stellman
Metropolitan Opera
Orchestra and Chorus
Music and Arts, 664-3 3 CDs ???
Bonustracks: Excerpts from Walküre (San Francisco,
1936), Siegfried (New York, 1938) and Götterdämmerung
(New York, 1939) with Kirsten Flagstad.
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Review by Dalia Geffen

Tannhäuser is a difficult opera to stage, not least because of its inconclusive story line. Wagner was dissatisfied with it, in spite of having revised it. It is the story of a minstrel torn between his so-called profane love for the seductive Venus and his purer, more noble love for the self-effacing Elisabeth. Tannhäuser taunts his fellow minstrels with his sexual love for Venus, and when he is about to be killed, Elisabeth intervenes and saves him. He repents of his deed and makes a pilgrimage to Rome in the futile hope that the pope will absolve him of his sin. Tragedy is the inevitable result, but meanwhile we are treated to some beautiful music, the most famous of which is the thrilling overture.

Unfortunately, in this recording the thrill is missing. This is a fast-paced but pedestrian performance. Despite his much-vaunted perfectionism, Szell's conducting is unimaginative, blunt, and hard-edged. There is very little lyricism to be found here. And some of the singers seem miscast. For instance, Kerstin Thorborg, a singer I have admired for many years, seems to be longing for some heroic action that never materializes. Singing the role of a woman whose only aim in life is to seduce does not seem to be her forte, so she ends up sounding passive rather than lush and enticing. The same can be said for Elisabeth, who is supposed to be sweet and self-sacrificing. Traubel's singing, however, sounds anything but that. Imagine Brünnhilde singing Elisabeth and you'll get the picture.

With Kipnis and Janssen, however, we are in for a treat. I have yet to hear Kipnis sing badly. Here he sounds powerful and noble, as befits a Landgraf. And Janssen is sensitive to every nuance in the music. Wolfram is the ideal role for him and one he has made his own. Hearing him sing "Elisabeth, Elisabeth" so tenderly in Act 2 is a real pleasure. For me the high point of this opera has always been Wolfram's "Wie Todesahnung" and "O du mein holder Abendstern." Unfortunately, in this performance, the volume has an annoying tendency to alternate between loud and soft during these excerpts. It's not clear whether this is intentional on Janssen's part or whether someone was fiddling with the volume control. I haven't heard Janssen do this in other Tannhäusers, so I can only assume it's the latter.

Melchior at first sounds hurried and barely able to keep up with Szell. But he is a very convincing Tannhäuser, ardent and expressive. By the time we reach "Inbrunst im Herzen", however, he is starting to fade. He sounds tired and fitful. He seems to be making a valiant effort to inject some poetry into his narration, but the necessary orchestral support is just not there. This long excerpt contains not a single coherent flowing melody. 'Tis a pity.

This is a frustrating performance, with only a few redeeming features. If, like me, you have to have everything that Kipnis ever sang, well, you must get it. Otherwise this set is only for Wagner aficionados. I wouldn't recommend it as a first or even a second Tannhäuser. You might, however, want it for the bonus tracks (see below).

The liner notes, written by "Alberich von Fafner", are very entertaining. The division of the tracks, however, is not done very sensibly, making it more difficult to find a particular excerpt. In some places it is downright misleading. At the end of the first CD, Kipnis has hardly begun to sing "Dich treff ich hier in dieser Halle" (Act 2, Scene 3) when he is cut off. This is sloppy editing.

The bonus tracks contain an excerpt from Act 3 of Die Walkure (San Francisco Opera, 1936) starting with "War es so schmälich" and ending soon after the beginning of "Leb wohl" (conducted by Gaetano Merola). It's not clear why the whole excerpt wasn't recorded. The liner notes suggest that it may have to do with Schorr's problematic high notes. Nevertheless, Schorr sounds fine and fatherly, but Flagstad's singing is distorted.

The next bonus track finally regales us with a good conductor, and it's about time. Here I let out a big sigh of relief. I knew I was in expert hands (Bodanzky's). In this Prologue to Götterdämmerung, the Norns (Doris Doe, Lucielle Browning and Dorothee Manski) are lovely and musical, compensating nicely for the dull sound of the recording (Met, 1939). Flagstad and Melchior sing sumptuously, leaving me wishing for more. But all we get in this excerpt is thirty minutes, the time allotted for the broadcast honoring the first New York World's Fair. The liner notes claim that this is the only Flagstad/Götterdämmerung broadcast available from the Met.

The next two tracks are from Act 3, Scene 3, of Siegfried, also ably conducted by Bodanzky (Met, 1938). The first of these, "Heil Dir, Sonne", definitely passed the goosebumps test. Flagstad and Carl Hartmann sing very ardently. This is a gem.

The second track, "Oh, Siegfried, dein war ich von je", also with Flagstad and Hartmann, has considerable surface noise, which makes for frustrating listening. But the quality of the singing comes through nevertheless.

This set is strictly for collectors of historical performances. Those willing to put up with some mediocre conducting and singing will find many rewarding moments.

This review is from the now closed Wagner on the Web and it is published without the author's consent. I haven't been able to get in touch with him. If the author reads this, please contact me as soon as possible. If you don't want it here, I'll take it of the site immediately.