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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Recordings Review: This Guy in the House of Love

The 1963 Herbert von Karajan Tannhäuser on DG.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hans Beirer as Tannhäuser, Vienna, 1963.
Photo © 1998 Deutsche Grammophon/UMG/Archives of the Vienna State Opera.
In his five decades on the podium, the late Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan committed nine of the ten "canon" Wagner operas to disc. He made studio recordings with Berlin, Vienna and Dresden, releasing these performances for EMI Classics (Tristan, Lohengrin, Dutchman, Meistersinger) and Deutsche Grammophon (Parsifal and the Ring.) The missing opera was Tannh äuser, a work which eludes any sort of definitive set-in-stone interpretation. In 1998, this recording was finally released on DG. If you can find an import copy of this recording, you can finally hear Karajan's take on Wagner's most problematic mature work.

Part of the problem is that there are two very different versions of Tannhäuser: the original 1845 grand opera on medieval themes that Wagner wrote for Dresden and the "Paris" update that incorporated his new post-Tristan ideas and flopped so memorably in that city in 1861. Wagner joined the first two-thirds of the overture to the opening ballet sequence, trimmed some of the Act Two song contest and added chromatic color to every scene involving the goddess Venus. Some conductors consider these changes an improvement but Wagner went to his grave still unsatisfied with Tannhäuser.

Tannhäuser iss a minstrel knight, torn between eternal sexual slavery to Venus and the chaste, courtly pursuit of Elisabeth. Mirroring the leading character's tricky  sex life, conductors are forced to choosebetween Wagner's two versions of the opera. This Jan. 8, 1963 radio recording made by ORF at the Vienna State Opera preserves Karajan's attempt to split the difference, creating a "hybrid" version of the score. Karajan chooses the "Paris" music whenever possible, keeps the smooth merge of the stately overture into the ballet, and (in a nod to the Dresden version) retains ALL the arias and short songs from the Act Two song contest. It's not a bad compromise.

These performances were slotted for the sturdy heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen, who was unavailable. His replacement: Hans Bierer, a blustering understudy fighting through the marathon title role. At least he sounds weary from his first lines in Act I, his ennui audible in each line. He is less pleasing (and less believable) in the Act II scenes with Elisabeth and is clumsy in the moments where he must share a vocal line wih soprano Gré Brouwenstein. In the Act III Rome Narration he sounds worn out, but that may be appropriate given the character's exertions.

Christa Ludwig, captured here early in her long career is a fresh and sensual Venus, caressing each word against Wagner's luxuriant, hot-house orchestrations. Gré Brouwenstein is a more potent than usual voice as Elisabeth, helped by radio miking that pushes all the singers forward. She bursts out into "Die teure halle," thrusting cleanly into the vocal line and supported on a wave of sound by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. The soprano is most moving in the Prayer in Act III, helped by Karajan's slow and sensitive accompaniment.

There are some treasures here. Eberhard Wächter, Waldemar Kmennt and Ludwig Welter are an excellent trio of knights, making one glad that their contest songs are present and accounted for. Wächter is a fine, sensitive Wolfram, and his Song to the Evening Star (taken very slowly) has all the marks of fine lieder singing. Gottlob Frick is as authoratative as ever as the Landgrave, and Gundula Janowitz makes a most wonderful early appearance in the small role of the Shephed Boy.

The real seducer here is not Venus but Karajan himself, applying his touch to each carefully considered phrase, each ritordando and rubato that his pen has added to the score. The Vienna players push themselves to the limit here, with sonorous horns, tight woodwinds and a rolling carpet of strings that wraps around the listener like the composer's own silk and velvet robes. And yet there is a freshness and energy in this performance that belongs with the best live opera recordings, a kind of alchemy that this conductor and this opera company could produce on their very best nights.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats