Nilsson / Windgassen / Fischer-Dieskau / Adam / Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin WAGNER Tannhäuser


The leading members of the admirable cast all pay warm tribute to their conductor Otto Gerdes, a name that will be new to most of us. He learned his job in the small German opera houses and graduated to conducting performances in the Dresden, Berlin and Munich State Operas. In 1956 he interrupted his successful career as a conductor by becoming artistic recording supervisor to DGG and then their artistic director, eventually resuming conducting. He here makes his debut as director of a full length opera, having previously only recorded some 'highlights' in this field. He takes a little time to settle down. In the Overture the broken triplets of the violins' counter theme to the Song of the Pilgrims is rather inflexibly treated and the Venusberg music at first lacks sensuousness, but as the music grows more erotic one encounters the vitality that is evidently one of this conductor's characteristics, and one that enables him to keep the music alive, even through dull or banal patches. He is considerate to the singers, capable of poetic feeling, and altogether I can well understand that the artists enjoyed working with him. He is particularly good also in the management of the big ensembles in-the last scene of Act 2. These are well balanced in the recording except that I did find some overloading at the end of the last ensemble.
Windgassen, in the Philips recording, and Fischer-Dieskau in the HMV, gave outstandingly fine accounts of their roles and now even manage to improve on them. Fischer-Dieskau says "much that was new and hitherto unnoticed was still to be discovered on this occasion in a part which is particularly close to my heart" and we shall see how true that is when we come to Acts 2 and 3. I have never cared much for the doubling of parts in opera but it is certainly a pleasure to have Venus's music so well sung as it is by Nilsson. One could not expect from her type of voice the voluptuous appeal that Grace Bumbry brought to the part in the Philips recording, and which made a sensation at the Bayreuth Festival. It is of course written for a soprano not a mezzo-soprano and Nilsson comes off best when Venus upbraids Tannhäuser. It was an inexperienced Wagner who made Tannhäuser repeat his praise of Venus twice and there is nothing which the tenor can do about it. Windgassen, in good voice, is very convincing in his determination to escape from the destructive enchantments of the Venusberg. The Shepherd's little song, with interludes between the verses for the English horn, as in the Paris version, is charmingly sung by Caterina Alda at the start of the following scene.
The excellently played horn fanfares that bring the Landgrave and the minstrels on to the stage foreshadow those in Act 2 of Tristan. Fischer-Dieskau sings the gorgeous melody—old-fashioned or not—set to the words that tell how Elisabeth, in Tannhauser's absence, has absented herself from the contests of the minstrels. This melody is built into a fine ensemble in which the balance of parts with the orchestra is very good. Nilsson's singing of Elisabeth's greeting to the Hall of Song is predictably glorious and I was glad that her duet with Tannhauser, one of the weakest things in the scene, was taken at some speed by Gerdes, which is as it should be. Theo Adam makes an authoritative Landgrave, excellent in declaration, less good in legato passages.
We come now to Wolfram's address to the knights and ladies, which he accompanies on the harp and this is one of the finest things in this recording. Fischer-Dieskau's sovereign way with words is superbly manifested here, and with deeper tones than before. Wolfram is the truly noble character in the opera, worth a bushel of Tannhäusers, and his nobility and compassion are fully brought out by this great artist. I was delighted to find how well Horst R. Laubenthal, whose first Lieder recital I reviewed in November, fared in the part of Walter van der Vogelweide, ancestor of Walther von Stolzing in The Mastersingers: and how well another young artist, Klaus Hirte, also acquitted himself in denouncing Tannhäuser's false conception of love. Nilsson rises to great heights in her pleading for mercy to be shown to her lover and Windgassen is equally good in his defiance and contrition.
Gerdes and his orchestra paint a vivid picture of Tannhäuser's pilgrimage, but I wish Nilsson, in spite of Wagner's doubleforte markings at two points, had sung the prayer to the Virgin with rather more interior feeling. Elisabeth is indeed heartbroken, but she is kneeling at the foot of the statue of the Virgin and a more muted appeal would better convey the full pathos of her situation. Fischer-Dieskau's singing of the celebrated song to the Evening Star is absolutely exquisite; tender and poignant but never sentimentalised. There remains Windgassen's account of Tannhauser's pilgrimage which he sings, as before, with dramatic power and even more poignantly than in the Philips recording. The chorus are admirable throughout and though the German Opera Orchestra may not be up to the standard of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra or the Bayreuth Festival, it plays extremely well thoughout. (Gramophone)

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