Live recording in stereo from
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Conductor: Wolfgang Sawallisch
Landgraf Hermann Josef Greindl
Tannhäuser Wolfgang Windgassen
Wolfram Eberhard Wächter
Walther Gerhard Stolze
Biterolf Franz Crass
Heinrich Georg Paskuda
Reinmar Gerd Nienstedt
Elisabeth Anja Silja
Venus Grace Bumbry
Ein junger Hirt Else-Margrete Gardelli
Chor und Orchester der
Bayreuther Festspiele
Philips, 434 607-2 3 CDs ADD
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Review by David McKee

This Tannhäuser represents a curious equivocation on the Green Hill. Prewar performance practice had favored Wagnerís so-called Paris edition, while the 'New Bayreuth' era saw a reversion to the original, Dresden version that holds to this day. For a 1961 production incorporating a sensational Bacchanale, choreographed by Maurice Béjart, Wieland Wagner attempted a middle course, playing the expanded Paris version up until the entry of Venus and Tannhäuser, whereupon the edition reverts to Dresden for the duration. This flip-flop is usually rationalized with the argument that the styles of Dresden and Paris donít match, as if this were something Wagner was too naive to realize.

However, the more chromatic, Tristan-influenced music grafted on for the Paris and Vienna productions reflects a stroke of genius. The musical language of the Wartburg is essentially as before, but Wagner has dazzling heightened the contrasts between those straightlaced harmonies and the musical blandishments of the Venusberg. He strengthens his argument, rather than undercutting it.

Here we have a performance typical of the anti-rhetorical, slimmed-down aesthetic of the New Bayreuth, as well as of its often baffling casting practices. The lineup of principals mixes the near ideal (Venus, Wolfram, Biterolf) with those whose interpretive intelligence may or may not compensate for nubby, penetrating voices of little allure.

Josef Greindlís Landgrave exemplifies this, in a portrayal limned with considerable imagination and sensitivity of phrasing (No stentorian proclaimer, he.) but delivered only by dint of great struggle with his corrosive and unwieldy basso.

Likewise, Wolfgang Windgassen scores near the top of his class for attaining the role of Tannhäuser via discernment rather than brute force. However, youíll want to find one of his earlier outings in the part: Sounding tired and short-breathed, Windgassen is clearly exerting all his veteran wiles to get through the show and his tone takes on a worn, whiny cast. By the Rome Narrative, with the end in sight, he can throw caution to the winds and rouse himself to a forceful account of the monologue.

By the standards of three decades later, Anja Silja doesnít sound half-bad as Elisabeth; certainly her tone is steader and better-collected than that of Hildegard Behrens or even Eva Marton, and Silja has positive ideas about the role. In the end, though, her sound is insufficiently ingratiating and a size small, too boot. This sounds more like the understudy filling in until the real Elisabeth shows up.

[A Digression: For the record, Silja was preceded in the production by Victoria de los Angeles and succeeded by Leonie Rysanek. Similarly, she took over for Rysanek as Senta, and from Rysanek and Elisabeth Grümmer when Lohengrin was recorded by Philips. All three roles were also in the quiver of Régine Crespin, who was Wielandís 1958/60 Kundry and Wolfgangís 1961 Sieglinde. Whatever the reason: whether Silja was a utility or desperation choice or the beneficiary of her relationship with Wieland, posterity suffered.]

Eberhard Wächterís Wolfram ranks with the greats of the prewar period (Hüsch, Schlusnus, Janssen), a rapt portrayal of such sensitivity of phrasing, intimacy of affect, poetic sincerity and emotional availability that one regrets all the more a tendency for Wächterís voice to lose focus under pressure. Fischer-Dieskau may offer more sheer polish, but only Victor Braun (on the Solti recording) rivals Wächter for making Wolfram's seemingly impossible selflessness and purity vividly real. His contributions to the Song Contest do much to keep Act II going.

Save for a bothersome over-reliance on the glottal stroke, itís hard to imagine Grace Bumbryís Venus being substantially better. Given her lustrous, coppery voice and its impressive displacement, she and we are shortchanged by Wielandís eschewal of the more brilliant and extensive Parisian Venus.

Another Dresden-derived liability is Waltherís contest song, as yowled by Gerhard Stolze (yet another adherent of the straight-toned blare). The nap, volume and bite of Franz Crassís luxuriant Biterolf might have been better employed in Landgrave duties, while Else-Margrete Gardelliís edgy Shepherd is, at best, ordinary. Gerd Nienstedt (Reinmar) is basically inaudible but Georg Paskudaís Heinrich, alas, is not.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, a regular presence in the Bayreuth pit, was just one of the many exemplars (culminating in Pierre Boulez) of the fast/light-textured/lyrical approach favored in postwar Bayreuth Hans Knappertsbusch and Clemens Krauss being notable exceptions. His rhythms have plenty of spring and he moves things along, but his avoidance of rhetorical afflatus becomes too much of a good thing, as in the maddeningly poker-faced treatment of the Pilgrims Chorus and Elisabethís Act III exit.

The Song Contest progresses without building or culminating (a characteristic failing) and, with these principals, Act II feels very long indeed. The orchestra sounds to be in quite well-balanced estate, with scarcely any overblowing from the brasses (the horns, in fact, are superb), although Wagnerís more intricate writing exposes the ensembleís limits.

Itís hard to reconcile the tired-sounding and tonally threadbare chorus in this opera with the fine group on Knappertsbuchís Parsifal from that same summer. For those seeking a more sybaritic Tannhäuser, Herbert von Karajanís broad, Paris-plus version from the Vienna State Opera (DG) offers much, including another magnificent Venus (Christa Ludwig), plus Wächter, Gottlob Frickís Landgrave, and a surprisingly nuanced Tannhäuser from Hans Beirer, plus a cameo-laced supporting cast.

Sir Georg Soltiís splashily recorded traversal of the Paris edition (on London) has Ludwig and Braun, but the Elisabeth/Tannhauser duo is a compromise and Hans Sotinís Landgrave offers 100% more voice than Greindl and 100% less imagination. Also, Soltiís propensity for what Wieland described as orgasms in every second bar, proves wearing. Nearly every Dresden recording is seriously hobbled but, if one can overlook Klaus Königís uningratiating protagonist (admittedly, a very big but), Bernard Haitink gives an engaging account of the score, for EMI, with strength-- Lucia Popp, Waltraud Meier, Bernd Weikl, Kurt Moll--in nearly every major department.

Casting about among off-air recordings, one finds exceptional efforts by de los Angeles (Elisabeth), Astrid Varnay (Venus), Ludwig Suthaus (Tannhäuser, the best Iíve heard), Schlusnus (Wolfram), and Alexander Kipnis (Landgrave). No two of them, alas, are in the same performance. The ideal Tannhauser is still awaited.