OP3289. TANNHÄUSER, Live Performance, 4 Jan., 1941, w.Leinsdorf Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Lauritz Melchior, Herbert Janssen, Kirsten Flagstad, Kerstin Thorborg, Emanuel List, Mack Harrell, etc. (replete with Milton Cross' commentaries); TANNHÄUSER - Dich teure Halle; Elisabeth’s Prayer; Wolfram’s Ode to the Evening Star (w.Leinsdorf Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Kirsten Flagstad & Herbert Janssen) Live Performance, 16 Dec., 1939. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1101. Transfers & Essay by Richard Caniell. Program notes by Dewey Faulkner. - 75283019276
"James Miller and I reviewed this performance enthusiastically in FANFARE 39:6, when it was released by Pristine. I will admit to being puzzled as to why Immortal Performances bothered with its own version, given what I thought was a fine transfer on Pristine. But after hearing Richard Caniell’s work on this edition, I have to express a clear preference for it. Caniell avoids the ambience with which Pristine tends to surround the sound, and the gain in clarity, presence, and focus on the voices and orchestra is considerable. In other cases where both companies have remastered the same performance, I have found the differences relatively small, but the greater impact of this edition is significant.
What almost goes without saying is that Lauritz Melchior’s Tannhäuser is sui generis and irreplaceable. There is simply no other performance of that voice-killing role which can compare. In his review Miller said that Melchior ‘delivers the most intense, chilling Rome Narrative I ever expect to hear. His stamina and power are awesome throughout the whole performance’. What I added in my earlier review was this: ‘The combination of beauty and richness of timbre, dramatic involvement, vocal imagination, and raw power makes Melchior’s Tannhäuser one of the classic assumptions of any role by any singer of the 20th century’. Hearing it again, with even greater focus on his sound, reaffirms that feeling. There are certainly modern stereo and digital recordings that any Wagnerian should own, but to omit Melchior’s from your collection because it is a 1941 radio broadcast would be to deprive yourself of a thrilling experience.
There are six Melchior TANNHÄUSER broadcasts available, but most collectors would narrow the choice down to two - this one, or the 1942 Met broadcast conducted by George Szell. It is very difficult to choose between them. Szell brings a livelier rhythmic pulse to the score and highlights more instrumental detail (without ever becoming fussy), and shows greater flexibility than Leinsdorf. However, as good as Szell’s Elisabeth is (Helen Traubel), she is no Flagstad. Flagstad’s glorious voice possesses a gleam and majesty that surpass Traubel, good as the American is. Flagstad, though not generally credited for her dramatic skills, inflects and shades the music with meaning and attention to text; Traubel, for all her vocal beauty, seems to be just singing notes much of the time.
Thorborg is a superb Venus on both performances, and Janssen’s excellent Wolfram is a constant as well. Szell has the extraordinary Landgraf of Alexander Kipnis, far superior to the gruff singing of Emanuel List. The chorus and orchestra perform very well for both conductors. Leinsdorf uses the Paris version of the score, but observing what were the standard cuts at the time, which truncate Tannhäuser’s scenes with both Venus and Elisabeth, and the finales of the first two acts. The third act is left whole. Szell’s version is identical. Immortal Performances adds a nice bonus, three excerpts from a 1939 Met broadcast of TANNHÄUSER. The sound is noisy but clear, and hearing the younger Flagstad and Janssen in a performance that to my knowledge has never been issued (Caniell notes that the tenor, Eyvind Laholm, is ‘simply terrible’) is an attractive extra. Janssen’s segment is from his debut season at the Met.
I cannot really express a strong preference between the 1941 and 1942 Met TANNHÄUSERs, especially because each has been lovingly restored by Richard Caniell for Immortal Performances. Any serious Wagner collector should surely have at least one of them. As is always the case with this label, the booklet is an added treasure, with wonderful essays, a synopsis, artists’ biographies, and great photos. The inclusion of Milton Cross’ announcements brings me back many years to an earlier time in my life and the Saturday afternoon broadcasts he embodied."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March/ April, 2018
"There have been many wonderful Wagnerian singers who have followed these [Wagnerian] legends. But it may not be hyperbole to suggest that opera will never again witness such luxury Wagnerian casting and singing. In any event, this January 4, 1941 Met broadcast documents Melchior, Flagstad, Thorborg, and Janssen in their primes, singing with extraordinary vocal security and beauty, all the while bringing Wagner’s music drama to life. The role of Tannhäuser is fiendishly difficult. Although Tannhäuser is an operatic setting of a legend, Wagner masterfully creates a title character who is a three-dimensional, flesh and blood individual. During the course of the opera, Tannhäuser experiences both lust and a more pure form of love, anger, remorse, contrition, rejection, and ultimately salvation. In order to depict Tannhäuser’s mercurial changes of situation and emotion, Wagner crafted a role that demands a tenor of nearly superhuman stamina, and one who has a mastery of vocal writing both low and high, and lyrical and powerful, all the while delivering this punishing music in an entirely convincing fashion from a dramatic perspective….You could easily spend a lifetime frequenting opera performances without ever hearing Tannhäuser sung with this kind of mastery. And yet, that mastery is what Met audiences of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s could rely upon with Lauritz Melchior, who performed this role 70 times during his great career at New York’s leading opera house. Melchior is in sterling form for the January 4, 1941 broadcast, a document of a great and unique singer/actor at his best. The fact that Melchior surmounts Wagner’s challenges in this fashion, in the context of a live performance, borders on the miraculous. But then again, Melchior was a miracle among tenors.
Kirsten Flagstad is a radiant Elisabeth, brimming with youth and vocal beauty in her entrance aria, ‘Dich, teure Halle’ (the final climactic high note is a bit opaque, a rare vocal blemish in this masterfully sung account). Because Flagstad was such a vocal marvel and had a regal stage presence, she is often underappreciated as an actress. But to these ears, Flagstad’s total identification with her great Wagnerian roles is never in doubt. And in this broadcast, Flagstad is absolutely convincing as a young woman totally in love with Tannhäuser, willing to forgive his greatest sins, and even die for him….Kerstin Thorborg is an opulently voiced and sultry Venus who convincingly depicts the goddess’ own mercurial changes of mood as she tries, unsuccessfully, to convince Tannhäuser to remain with her. The role of Wolfram was tailor-made for the talents of Herbert Janssen, an artist who possessed a voice of arresting beauty and warmth, and the genius to convey the innermost humanity of characters ranging from the Dutchman, to Wolfram, to Hans Sachs. In this broadcast, Janssen may be the most sympathetic Wolfram I have ever heard. Some baritones make Wolfram’s Hymn to the Evening Star, ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’, a display of bel canto elegance and beauty, which in part it most certainly is. But Janssen also fashions the music to express Wolfram’s deep, tender, and unrequited love for Elisabeth, and his fervent hope for her salvation. The veteran bass Emanuel List sings the role of the Landgrave with admirable feeling and authority, but with a somewhat worn vocal quality. Conductor Erich Leinsdorf’s performance strikes me as what might be characterized as ‘correct’. The Met Orchestra plays with accuracy and tonal beauty, and there is never a moment when one feels that the momentum is abating. But at the same time, I don’t hear much that strikes me as individual, or for that matter, thrilling in the manner of the singing on this occasion. And, there are moments when Melchior and Leinsdorf don’t see eye-to-eye, as in the reprise of the Hymn to Venus in the Act II Song Contest. Melchior seems intent upon portraying Tannhäuser’s mounting passion by forging ahead at breakneck speed. Leinsdorf has other ideas, but Melchior proceeds apace until matters are finally reconciled. Still, there is nothing in Leinsdorf’s approach that diminishes enjoyment of this great afternoon. In sum, this is certainly a performance of TANNHÄUSER that easily ranks among the greatest available.
The recorded sound on the new Immortal Performances restoration is superb, approaching and often equaling studio recordings of the period (the final disc also includes a few excerpts from the December 16, 1939 Met broadcast of TANNHÄUSER. The sound is markedly inferior to the 1941 performance, but once again, Flagstad and Janssen sing gloriously). Regardless of your experience with and tolerance for historic recordings, you should be able to enjoy this 1941 performance to its fullest. Veterans of these kinds of recordings will rejoice in how superb the sound is….A performance for the ages, reproduced in superb sound for its era, merits the highest recommendation."
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, March/ April, 2018