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Reviews for Tannhauser Met 1936 IPCD 1039-4
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Review for IPCD 1039-4


Artur Bodanzky, Erich Leinsdorf, cond; Lauritz Melchior (Tannhäuser); Kirsten Flagstad (Elisabeth); Kerstin Thorborg (Venus); Lawrence Tibbett (Wolfram); Emanuel List (Hermann); Metropolitan Op O & Ch. IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1039, mono (4 CDs: 289:57) New York: Metropolitan Opera, 1/18/1936 and 1/4/1941



Act III (Bayreuth, 1930: Melchior; Maria Müller; Ruth Jost-Arden; Herbert Janssen; Karl Elmendorff, cond; but see review below for details)

& WAGNER: Hymn to Venus (Melchior/McArthur); Dich, teure Halle (Rose Bampton/William Steinberg, cond/Met 1940); Festmarsch and Chorus (Steinberg, Met 1940); Wie Todesahnung, Dämm’rung (Richard Bonelli/Steinberg, Met 1940); Rome Narrative (Melchior/McArthur); Finale, act III (Steinberg, Met 1940); Dir, töne Lob! (Melchior/Barbirolli/London SO); Pilgrim’s Chorus (Else Knepel/Hans Clemens/Eduard Mörike, cond; Berlin Staatsoper); Dich, teure Halle (Rethberg); Procession of the Guests (Leo Blech/Berlin Staatsoper); Allmächt’ge Jungfrau (Rethberg); Wie Todesahnung Dämm’rung (Gerhard Husch)

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
November/December 2014

The premises of Immortal Performances’ “Dream Ring” are operative here. Richard Caniell, who oversees this company, has assembled a performance that did not actually exist in precisely the same combination of artists, at least during a Met broadcast. Purists will object, the rest of us will simply enjoy the result. When we think of the factors that impeded assembling perfect casts for either broadcasts or commercial recordings—scheduling conflicts, illness, exclusive recording contracts, etc.—the ability to reverse the effects of those obstacles is to be honored.

The principal issue in this Tannhäuser is Margaret Halstead’s Venus, a completely unacceptable singer in the company of Melchior, Flagstad, Tibbett, and List. She was apparently a last-minute substitute for Gertrude Wettergren. Caniell has substituted the marvelous Kerstin Thorborg from a 1941 Met broadcast conducted by Bodanzky’s protégé Erich Leinsdorf (whose general approach was quite similar). The insertions are extremely natural and smooth, sonically and musically, and one is not jarred. For those who wonder about the justification for this kind of technical wizardry, Caniell has inserted after the conclusion of the first act some excerpts of Halstead’s performance. It is fairly gruesome singing, with intonation problems and a hollowness of sound that is really hard on the ear. What is particularly impressive is that instead of just lifting Thorborg/Melchior from 1941, because he wanted to keep Melchior from 1936 (where Thorborg wasn’t present) he had to keep switching between the two performances when they sang sequentially. That one cannot hear it is an impressive achievement.

Caniell describes what he has done in his superb notes on the recording. I see the role of the reviewer as being to inform the reader of the approach, and then to review the result. Different listeners will have different reactions to the “ethics” of changes like this—I happen to find them perfectly acceptable and even desirable under the circumstances we have here—but what is important is the resultant performance of Tannhäuser. In this, we have something very special. To have in one performance, even if it existed only in our dreams, Melchior, Flagstad, Thorborg, Tibbett, and List is to have as close to a Wagnerian ideal as there is.

The key to any performance of Tannhäuser is the tenor in the title role, and it is doubtful that there was ever a better one than Melchior. Seven Met broadcasts exist in some form featuring the great Dane, most having been released on multiple labels with varying results. Here is a guide to the performers around Melchior:

Year Conductor Elisabeth Venus Wolfram Hermann
1935 Bodanzky Müller Manski Bonelli L. Hofmann
1935 Bodanzky Lehmann Lawrence Schorr List
1936 Bodanzky Flagstad Halstead Tibbett List
1941 Leinsdorf Flagstad Thorborg Bonelli List
1942 Szell Traubel Thorborg Janssen Kipnis
1944 Breisach Varnay Lawrence Huehn Kipnis
1948 Stiedry Traubel Varnay Janssen Székely

Of those, I am familiar with 1941 (on Arkadia CDs), 1942 (Music & Arts), 1944 (Gebhardt), and 1948 (Myto). In all cases the transfers are not very good, exhibiting pitch problems, muffled sound leading to colorless voices, and dynamic compression.

For this transfer, some of the original discs were clearly in worse condition (i.e., noisier) than some of the original source material for other years. However, Caniell has gotten a far superior, more natural, orchestral and vocal sound from the material than is even heard on some of the other labels’ later performances. What we have here sounds like the voices we know from later studio recordings, caught in the heat of performance.

Melchior was as good as it gets in this fiendish role, retaining freshness of voice throughout the opera and characterizing the music with more specificity and dramatic meaning than he is usually credited with. The sound itself is glorious, his ability to sing an even, gentle legato and then to let his voice peal forth with glorious power without ever losing richness of tone is unique to him among Heldentenors. Captured here in his prime, he gives a performance to treasure.

The major reason for trying to make this a performance one could enjoy (by substituting Thorborg) is so that one can enjoy a Tannhäuser with Lawrence Tibbett’s Wolfram. This is the only recording he left of a complete German role, and for those of us who have pigeon-holed him as a Verdi baritone it is a pleasant surprise. His diction is good, he is very comfortable with the Wagnerian idiom, and if there has ever been a Wolfram with a richer or more beautiful timbre I have not encountered him. He, like Melchior, is capable of a seamless legato, and his singing of the Hymn to the Evening Star has far more of a face to it than his studio recording.

Flagstad too contradicts the clichés about her glorious voice being married to a too stolid temperament. She sings with variety of color and dynamic shadings, and inflects with specificity in a way that brings Elisabeth vividly to life. And indeed that voice is something of a miracle of nature in its glow and evenness from top to bottom. Thorborg’s rich vocal colors and sensitive shaping of Venus’s music more than justifies Caniell’s decision to bring her in from 1941 to remove the disastrous Halstead. None of the insertions are audible, and if we weren’t told and if documentation had not told us that this specific combination of artists was not possible, we would never realize that this was not a single performance. The continuity of conducting style is fortunate for Caniell, because if that had not been the case he probably could not have made this work.

List was one of the most important Wagnerian basses of his day, and his residence in America (as a Jew he fled the Nazis) led him to a long career at the Met from 1933 to 1950. His singing and vocal acting here are more than adequate, if less than special. His voice is solid and strong, and he sings with a kind of generalized power rather than any specific insights. But his is an honorable performance. The remainder of the cast is fine.

Bodanzky’s conducting is at times a bit rushed and hectic but never boring, and the orchestra plays well for him. Bodanzky was famous (or infamous) for savagely cutting Wagnerian operas (he stated publicly that “Wagner’s works are too long”). Some of the cuts are outrageous, such as the second stanza of the Rome Narrative. Caniell reopens that cut, going to the Melchior/Szell 1942 performance, because Szell’s tempo is closest to Bodanzky’s. He explains his insertions in his detailed notes in the accompanying booklet. In all cases, they make sense to me, and they work because the performance does not, in fact, lose its shape or sense of flow.

One of the earliest important Wagner commercial recordings was Columbia’s 1930 third act of Tannhäuser with the Bayreuth Festival cast. Toscanini and Elmendorff alternated in that opera that year, but Toscanini either couldn’t or wouldn’t (or both) record for Columbia with a tenor (Sigismund Pilinski) whom he detested. Melchior also alternated in the role at Bayreuth that summer, but his RCA contract prevented him from recording for Columbia. So the resulting recording featured Elmendorff and the rather dreadful Pilinski, and also featured some brutal cuts. Once again, Caniell has applied his approach and replaced Pilinski with Melchior, taking him from Met performances of 1941 and 1942, and a 1930 studio recording. Thus we can imagine actual Bayreuth performances that did have the wonderful combination of singers (Melchior, Maria Müller, and Herbert Janssen’s lovely Wolfram), though Toscanini conducted those! Some of the switches are a bit more obvious here, but most are very smoothly handled and the result is a far more satisfying listening experience than the original Columbia recording. Caniell also must have had to work hard to retain the original recording’s Venus, Ruth Jost-Arden, in the performance.

The individual bonus recordings speak for themselves—all are famous among collectors, and all have been restored lovingly and beautifully. I have tried to give sufficient detail in the headnote to identify each without taking up enormous space. As is normal for Immortal Performances, there are excellent notes about the opera itself, the singers involved, and the history of the recording as well as insights into the thought processes of Caniell in putting this together.

A note from the sound engineer / producer, Richard Caniell:


This disc offers a reconstruction of the 1931 Bayreuth performance with Melchior, Muller, Janssen, and Jost-Arden as Venus. This performance was not recorded but the 1930 performance was, by Columbia, and it offered Pilinsky in the title role, a tenor who is unbearable to me and who was greatly disliked by Toscanini (see our album notes). As the 1930 recording is all that exists what I intended to achieve was another entry in the Opera House of Our dreams series (as was the Dream Ring and the 1936 Met Tannhäuser which substitutes Thorborg for Halstead while retaining Melchior from 1936 throughout).

The Bayreuth 1930 Act III was subjected to huge cuts by Columbia so as to make it more an album of excerpts (full details in our booklet notes). All the missing music has been brought back and while we now have a rich experience of the sound of the 1931 performance, alas we have no records of Toscanini in it so Karl Elmendorff conducts.

I have known many opera lovers who recall with distaste these unconscionable cuts by Columbia management, which would have taken only two more 78 rpm discs (4 sides) and possibly a full side to complete. And another number who join me in disliking Pilinsky’s wobbly, sour singing. This album then is as much for them as it is for me, finally permitting us to hear the 1930 Müller, Janssen and Jost-Arden recordings in a fully enjoyable context featuring the imperishable singing of Melchior.


Artur Bodanzky, Erich Leinsdorf, cond; Lauritz Melchior (Tannhäuser); Kirsten Flagstad (Elisabeth); Kerstin Thorborg (Venus); Lawrence Tibbett (Wolfram); Emanuel List (Hermann); Metropolitan Op O & Ch. IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1039, mono (4 CDs: 289:57) New York: Metropolitan Opera, 1/18/1936 and 1/4/1941



Act III (Bayreuth, 1930: Melchior; Maria Müller; Ruth Jost-Arden; Herbert Janssen; Karl Elmendorff, cond;

& excerpts by Melchior, Husch, Bampton, Bonelli, and Rethberg

Colin Clarke
FANFARE magazine
January/ February 2015

Anyone who thinks Tannhäuser is second-rate Wagner just needs to hear the impeccably sculpted Overture here in the 1936 performance, under Bodanzky. The remarkable transfer means no uncomfortable crowding at climaxes and, moreover, a sense of real presence from the orchestra. The Venusberg Music is astonishingly sensuous. Although the ear does need to adjust the sound, the level of adjustment is nowhere near what one might expect from the 1936 date.

Caniell has substituted Thorborg’s Venus at the Met in 1941 for Margaret Halstead, although we do get to hear excerpts which explain why: CD 1, tracks 11–13. These make for uncomfortable listening, and there are some surface noises, ticks, pitch fluctuations, and the suchlike that are equally disruptive. The excerpts are substantial enough for me to include Halstead in the review headnote as one of the Venuses, though. Also, Caniell has reinstated the entire Rome Narration (Bodanzky’s butchering there was but one cut among many) by inserting the Szell 1942 Met performance.

Thorberg is as magnificent as one might expect, her stage presence almost palpable, and certainly implicit in her delivery. Melchior’s Tannhäuser is remarkably lyrical, as his “Dir töne Lob” amply demonstrates. He is also, somewhat miraculously, able to keep up with the frenetic tempo at “Stets soll nir dir.” Speeds were not quite so leisurely in those days, and the sense of drama is quite remarkable (something that applies throughout). Editha Fleischer is a fresh-voiced Shepherd, Lawrence Tibbett a strong Wolfram. The chorus is in fine fettle, and well caught here. The final stretch of act I has a tremendous sense of arrival in this performance.

The strings fare remarkably well in the tricky passages in the introduction to act II. Flagstad is in fine form, finding much Innigkeit yet impeccably strong. This is one of the great assumptions of Elisabeth, and while there may be some surface noise and distortion (track 5 of CD 2 rather suffers from both), there is no denying this act alone constitutes an indispensable document. And that is not even taking into account Emanuel List’s solid Landgraf and Tibbett’s huge-of-voice “Blick ich umher.” Some might find the pacing of much of the earlier parts of this act rushed (Bodanzky was not one to hang around), but to this reviewer’s ears, Bodanzky lends the score great urgency, and the contrast to the later music is most effective. The final Pilgrims section (“Am hohen Fest”) is particularly well done. The final act in the Bodanzky version finds Tibbett in fine, solemn form, delivering his “Wie Todesahnung” in a voice swaddled in dark velvet; Flagstad’s “Allmächtger Jungfrau” is a multifaceted thing, moving from strength to a fragile interior contemplation easily and effectively. Melchior is on dramatic, if not impeccably technical, form for his “Inbrunst im Herzen”; the headlong move towards the close of the act is unstoppable, however, and Melchior clearly gets swept up in it all.

The 1930 (mostly) Elmendorff act III is even more of a treat. The sonics are incredible, the pacing and orchestral shading such that the full dramatic import is perfectly projected. Herbert Hanssen’s Wolfram, in his “Wie Todesahnung,” is every inch the equal of Tibbett’s, perhaps even darker. Maria Müller is a fresh Elisabeth, not entirely comfortable in her lower reaches, perhaps, but wonderfully believable as a young girl hugely tested by life. Melchior is amazingly baritonal here for “Inbrunst im Herzen.” There are completions to the incomplete original here. The Prelude is by Kempe with the Bayreuth Orchestra; that baritonal “Inbrunst” is the 1930 Victor recording (9707); and other parts derive from the Met in 1941 and 1942. Essentially, Columbia’s 1930 recording is presented, but filled out to give us the whole act rather than extended excerpts. A blind listening, surely, would never light upon the year 1930 for this.

There is no doubt that this is a release for Wagner specialists: but what a bonanza it is when on top of the “extra” Bayreuth 1930 act III, Immortal Performances tacks on a sequence of six excerpts from Odeon, Victor, HMV, and Brunswick 78s at the end of the last disc and a sequence of six tracks at the end of disc three (1940 recordings). The third disc ends with a miraculous set of tracks: Melchior’s 1940 Victor disc of the Hymn to Venus (the first thing to strike one is the clean surface, with nothing to get between Melchior’s golden legato and the ear); Rose Bampton and the Met Orchestra (1940 again) in a “Dich, teure Halle” which finds her flinging out her opening lines to the rafters; a “Fest March and Chorus” with the Met Orchestra and unnamed conductor; Richard Bonelli is impeccable in a burnished “Wie Todesahnung”; the 1940 Victor Rome Narration courtesy of Melchior; and finally the finale to the third act. Four of these six are conducted by William Steinberg.

The fourth and final disc has another half dozen treats to bring its playing time up to just less than 80 minutes. Melchior and the LSO under Barbirolli give a nice and lusty “Dir töne Lob”; a Pilgrims’ Chorus with Hans Clements in the opera’s title role, conducted by Mörike, has Else Knepel as a rather reedy Shepherd; Rethberg delights and awes in equal measure, as so often, in “Dich, teure Halle” (1927 with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra under Fritz Zweig) and again with an unidentified orchestra and conductor in “Allmächtger Jungfrau” on a 1926 Brunswick. Leo Blech leads a fast Procession of the Guests from Berlin from a Victor original and, finally, it is left to Gerhard Husch to end this great set with a heavily-voiced “Wie Todesahnung.”

The fascinating delights of this set seem never to end. And that, surely, is true value for money.

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