WAGNER, R.: Tannhauser

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A grosse romantische Oper in three acts to the composer’s libretto, based on nineteenth-century versions of several mediaeval legends, principally those collated by Ludwig Bechstein and C.T.L.Lucas.

‘God give me a failure like that!’ Charles Gounod, writing after the chaotic première of the ‘Paris’ version of Tannhäuser in 1861.

The history of the composition of Tannhäuser, Wagner’s fifth opera, is somewhat complex and a brief explanation about the different versions of the score may be helpful.

After a disastrous première in Dresden, Tannhäuser soon gained popularity and within ten years was performed regularly throughout Germany. During this time Wagner made amendments to the score and this revision, published in 1860, is known as the ‘Dresden’ version. In due course he received an invitation from Napoleon III to produce Tannhäuser in France and, as was customary, Wagner was expected to include a ballet scene for the Parisian audiences. With this in mind, the composer took the opportunity to re-write several further sections, and it is this version, together with yet more alterations made between 1861 and 1875, that is known as the ‘Paris’ - although it is not exactly what was performed at the ‘première’ there. The changes for Paris mainly affect the opening scene of Act I and the Song Contest in Act II; there are numerous less significant differences (including a re-worked overture) but the major result of Wagner’s additions is to enhance the rôle of Venus and extend the bacchanal - providing an ideal opportunity to include the required ballet. For local reasons the Paris production was a calamity, but before long Tannhäuser took its rightful place as one of the great operas of the nineteenth century and these days both ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions are performed; this historic abridged set is the latter.

In 1927 the Columbia Graphophone Company recorded excerpts from Parsifal in the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth (re-issued, together with other historic passages from the opera, on Naxos 8.110049-50). This marked a turning-point in the story of ‘location’ recording and, keen to capitalise on the success of their first efforts in Wagner’s theatre, in 1928 the company’s engineers were able to set down sizeable extracts from Tristan und Isolde conducted by Karl Elmendorff. Spurred on by yet more favourable reviews, in 1930 Columbia planned to make an abridged set, on thirty-six 78 rpm sides, of the composer’s son Siegfried Wagner’s new production of Tannhäuser, conducted by Arturo Toscanini; but because of his contract with Victor Records, Toscanini was unable to participate in the project and Elmendorff was invited to conduct instead. These are not records of ‘live’ performances, but were made during August in the empty theatre, and comprise about four fifths of the score. The tricky job of deciding on the cuts was undertaken by the celebrated critic Ernest Newman, whose knowledge and understanding of Wagner’s music was almost second to none, and by Siegfried Wagner. Siegfried’s death, during the very month of recording, and that of his mother Cosima four months earlier, must have cast a shadow over the whole proceedings but the sessions went ahead nevertheless. Musically the results were magnificent, hardly surprising in view of the fine cast and experienced conductor that were assembled; and by 1930 Columbia’s technical expertise ensured that, even in the spacious empty theatre, such large orchestral and choral forces would transfer successfully to wax.

Of the five principals, Müller, Jost-Arden, Pilinsky, Janssen and Andrèsen, four were making their Bayreuth dèbuts in this new production of Tannhäuser - only Andrèsen had sung there previously. It was also Toscanini’s first season there (he returned the following year, but never subsequently conducted at the Festival) and his influence is naturally seen in the selection of singers. He was keen to establish his mark on the new production, perhaps rejecting some of Bayreuth’s regular team in order to do so. Although he did not conduct the recording, Toscanini’s influence is sensed throughout, though Elmendorff was himself a greatly admired musician and must be given the credit for leading such a fine recorded performance. The orchestra plays magnificently, albeit in a style considered old-fashioned today; but it was the fashion then, and we are fortunate even to be able to make the comparison.

The cuts imposed on the set are not unduly serious, and none of the best known numbers are affected (though the famous Entry of the Guests in Act 2 is abbreviated). One complete, short, scene is omitted (Act 2 Scene 3) and several other sections are excised (the Landgrave’s introduction to the Song Contest is one). Happily the first act is complete, thus allowing us to hear the most significant of Wagner’s ‘Paris’ amendments in full.

Tannhäuser was first performed in Dresden on 19th October 1845; the first performance in Paris took place on 13th March 1861.

Sigismund Pilinsky was born in Budapest in 1891 and died there in 1957. He studied at the Budapest Conservatory and later in Leipzig and Berlin. He made his operatic dèbut in Miskolc in north-eastern Hungary, and from 1913 sang at the National Opera in the capital. In 1928 Pilinsky was John in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète in Berlin and in 1930-1 sang Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. He travelled extensively as a guest tenor to Vienna, London, Chicago and San Francisco but returned to Budapest and, in retirement, became a teacher. His rather nasal voice has, however, great resonance and heroic power.

Maria Müller was born in Theresienstadt in 1898 and trained at Prague Conservatory and in Vienna. Her dèbut, as Elsa, was at Linz in 1919 and from 1925 to 1935 she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing rôles by Mozart, Wagner, Smetana, Verdi and Strauss among others. Müller sang regularly in Berlin from 1926, at Covent Garden, in Vienna, Milan, Paris and Salzburg. From 1930 she was a frequent visitor to Bayreuth, where her clear lyric soprano was highly regarded, and she retired there after her final performances in Berlin in 1952. She died in Bayreuth in 1958.

Ruth Jost-Arden was born in Berlin in 1899 and died in Bayreuth in 1985. She began her career as a concert soprano in North America, where she was heard by Toscanini and chosen for Bayreuth’s new production of Tannhäuser in 1930. Rôles that Jost-Arden sang in Cologne from 1931-1940 include Isolde, Brünnhilde, Kundry, Elektra, Salome and Leonore and, in 1933, the lead at the première of Siegfried Wagner’s opera Der Heidenkönig. Her bright, fresh tone was surely warmly welcomed there in such a dramatic repertory; as guest artist, Jost-Arden appeared in Paris, Milan, Venice, Brussels, New York and Boston.

Herbert Janssen, born in Cologne in 1892, made his dèbut in 1922 at the Berlin Staatsoper. He remained with the company until 1938 when he left Germany and moved to the United States. Janssen sang the lighter Wagnerian baritone rôles
Disc: 1
1 Overture
2 Naht euch dem Strande
3 Geliebter, sag? Wo wellt dein Sinn?
4 Dir tone Lob! Die Wunder sei'n gepriesen
5 Dank deiner Huld, gepriesen sei dein Lieben!
6 Geliebter, komm! Sieh dort die Grotte
7 Stets soll nur dir, nur dir mein Lied ertonen
8 Zieh hin, Wahnbetorter, zieh hin!
9 Frau Holda kam aus dem Berg hervor
10 Zu dir wall ich, mein Jesus Christ
11 Wer ist der dort in brunstigem Gebete?
12 Als du in kuhnem Sange uns bestrittest
13 Dich, teure Halle, grub' ich wieder
Disc: 2
1 Dort ist sie; nahe dich ihr ungestort
2 Gepriesen sei die Stunde
3 Freudig begruben wir die edle Halle
4 Blick ich umher in diesem edlem Kreise
5 O Wolfram, der du also sangest
6 Heraus zum Kampfe mit uns allen!
7 Zuruck von ihm! Nicht ihr seid seine Richter!
8 Ein furchtbares Verbrechen ward begangen
9 Mit Ihnen sollst du wallen
10 Wohl wubt' ich hier sie im Gebet zu finden
11 Begluckt darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen
12 Allmacht'ge Jungfrau! Hor mein Flehen!
13 Wie Todesahnung Dammerung deckt die Lande
14 O du mein holder Abendstern
15 Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Buber noch
16 Dahin zog's mich, wo ich der Wonn und Lust
17 Willkommen, ungetreuer Mann!
18 Heil! Heil! Der Gnade Wunder Heil!
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