Studio recording in stereo
October 17-21, 1960
Conductor: Franz Konwitschny
Landgraf HermannGottlob Frick
TannhäuserHans Hopf
WolframDietrich Fischer-Dieskau
WaltherFritz Wunderlich
BiterolfRudolf Gonszar
HeinrichGerhard Unger
ReinmarReiner Suss
ElisabethElisabeth Grümmer
VenusMarianne Schech
Ein junger HirtLisa Otto
Staatskapelle Berlin
Chor der Berliner Staatsoper
EMI, CMS 7 63214 2 3 CDs ADD
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Review by Scott Grunow

This set of the Dresden version is frustrating. Despite what looks on paper like a dream cast and with sound in bright, somewhat shallow at times early stereo, the performance veers wildly between two extremes: the exquisitely sensitive singing of Elisabeth Grümmer as Elisabeth, a famous interpretation preserved for the studio, and the burly, coarse singing of Hans Hopf in the title role.

Konwitschny, normally a sensitive Wagner conductor, gives us a stodgy, pedestrian reading of the overture, with little fluidity or notable detail. I must admit that at times in Tannhäuser some of the orchestral harmonies and vocal ensembles do tend toward stodginess and a lack of Wagner's later development toward a more fluid, rich orchestral writing, but I have heard much better versions of the overture (I am thinking particularly of Munch's version, which is the Paris one, or of Stokowski as well, what wonderful colors, but again, the Paris version) which does have its own grandeur and intensity. The scene in Venusberg offers us Schech's colorless, unseductive Venus, notable only for brilliant top notes which do tend toward shrillness. The lower and middle registers sound breathy and unsupported. Thank goodness the Dresden Venus doesn't have as many of the voluptuous passages in the middle register that the Paris Venus has. Hopf's invocation is clumsily executed and coarsely rendered.

When we emerge from Venusberg and later hear Fritz Wunderlich (what luxury casting in the part of Walther, which makes one lament the fact that he never sang Walther in Die Meistersinger), we do feel that Mai kommen, as sung by the Shepherd, here a bright-toned, fresh Lisa Otto, notable for her soubrette roles. Fischer-Dieskau's Wolfram is a bit overemphatic; he improves later. Elisabeth Grümmer's Dich teure halle at the opening of Act II is sensitive, with a lovely softening of tone on Geliebter raum, though she sounds uncomfortable on the high B. One wishes Wunderlich was singing the duet with her upon hearing Hopf's clumsy singing. Frick is sensitive and his short scene with Elisabeth seems to dance; the two really speak to each other in the most subtle of ways. Konwitschny's conducting finally seems to gain some vigor, if not the ultimate in detail, in the ensuing scenes and the choral singing is sure and generally controlled. Grümmer's voice is radiant but does not soar above the ensemble with her usual ease, though her plea for Tannhäuser is most affecting.

Act III is actually the best part of the recording. Konwitschny brings out the dark, autumnal colors in the Prelude and supports Fischer-Dieskau's smooth, sensitive singing sensitively in the Song to the Evening Star. Here he can just let out the basic lyric beauty of his voice and not have to put any added weight on it.

Fischer-Dieskau interacts wonderfully with Grümmer here in their mutual sadness. Grümmer makes the sometimes dreary prayer sound both heartbreaking and radiant at the same time. Even Hopf's Rome Narrative succeeds if nothing else but the desperation he conveys, and Schech in her brief appearance at the end uses her brilliant top effectively.

Solti's version is the Paris version, but his still remains the best Tannhäuser in the catalog. For Dresden, this set is still valuable mostly for Grümmer's Elisabeth. A live performance at Bayreuth of the Dresden version with the Paris bacchanale spliced in, dating from 1962, is better sung all-around than this one and boasts the exciting Venus of Grace Bumbry in a performance which made her a superstar.