Tannhauser  (Stiedry;  Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Astrid Varnay, Herbert Janssen, Mihaly Szekely  (3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1150)
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Tannhauser  (Stiedry;  Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Astrid Varnay, Herbert Janssen, Mihaly Szekely  (3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1150)
OP3442. TANNHÄUSER, Live Performance, 6 March, 1948, w.Milton Cross' Broadcast Commmentary; Fritz Stiedry Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Astrid Varnay, Herbert Janssen, Mihály Székely, etc.; HELEN TRAUBEL, w.Pelletier Cond. NBC S.O.: Götterdämmerung - Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, Live Performance, 1951, w.Ben Grauer's Broadcast Commentary. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1150, w.Elaborate 34pp booklet. Transfers & Essay by Richard Caniell. Program notes by Dewey Faulkner. - 79388882613117


“The Immortal Performances issue of a March 6, 1948 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of TANNHÄUSER offers many pleasures for fans of Wagner and the featured artists. But first and foremost, it is a document of, and testimony to, the remarkable technique and longevity of the Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior.

At the time of the 1948 broadcast, Melchior was two weeks shy of his 58th birthday. Melchior had been singing the most demanding heldentenor roles for three decades. His Met debut (as Tannhäuser) took place on February 17, 1926. From then until his final Met performance (as Lohengrin), on February 2, 1950,Melchior sang almost 500 performances for the company, all in operas by Wagner. It should be noted that Melchior didn’t limit his repertoire to the Wagnerian heroic tenor parts. He very much wanted to sing such roles as Verdi’s Radamès and Otello at the Met, but General Manager Edward Johnson stubbornly refused. In any event, Melchior is in glorious form for the March 1948 TANNHÄUSER broadcast. In the March /April, 2018 issue of FANFARE (41:4), I reviewed IP’s superb restoration of the Met’s January 4, 1941 TANNHÄUSER broadcast [OP3289], again with Melchior in the title role (alongside Flagstad, Thorborg, Janssen, and List, Leinsdorf, Cond.). In that review, I outlined the extraordinary challenges posed for the opera’s lead tenor: ‘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. Did I mention that the tenor should also bring vocal beauty, a pristine legato, and crystal-clear diction to his portrait? For after all, Tannhäuser’s musical origins may be found in the early-Romantic operas of the first part of the 19th century. 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 20s, 30s, and 40s could rely upon with Lauritz Melchior, who performed this role 70 times during his great career at New York’s leading opera house.

In the 1948 broadcast, Melchior is in glorious form. It is true the tenor omits the first verse of Tannhäuser’s Hymn to Venus (‘Dir töne Lob!’). And one could argue that Melchior was in freer and even more voluptuous voice in the 1941 broadcast. But here, we are talking about minimal variants of greatness. It is instructive to hear, for example, Melchior’s way with the Act II finale (‘Zum Heil den Sündigen zu führen’). Wagner portrays Tannhäuser’s anguish and contrition with writing set in a punishing tessitura, particularly so for large-voiced dramatic tenors. This episode has proven to be the downfall (or at least, near downfall) of many considerable artists. For example, we can hear the great Chilean dramatic tenor Ramón Vinay in performances from Bayreuth (1954) and the Met (1955). Like Melchior, Vinay began his career as a baritone, and excelled both in Wagnerian roles like Tristan and Verdi’s Otello. In the TANNHÄUSER performances, Vinay’s struggles to cope with the Act II finale are evident, and make for difficult listening (Vinay was in his early 40s at the time). Vinay was an imaginative and resourceful singing actor, and is able to parlay his vocal challenges into a convincing expression of pain. But how much more fulfilling it is to hear a Tannhäuser who can both sing Wagner’s music with security, and emote with the utmost intensity and eloquence? That is what Melchior achieves in the 1941 broadcast and, miraculously, in the 1948 performance as well. Yes, the 1941 broadcast is an even greater testament to Melchior’s art and accomplishments in this role. But the 1948 broadcast is a treasure in its own right. Melchior is joined by several distinguished Met Wagnerians. As Elisabeth, soprano Helen Traubel is in voluptuous and free voice, with the top notes ringing out in impressive fashion. While Traubel’s Elisabeth is not a sharply and ingeniously developed character, she is immensely sympathetic, a woman whose love for Tannhäuser is compelling in its fervor and purity. Soprano Astrid Varnay offers characterization aplenty in the role of Venus. It is not a classically beautiful voice, but one nevertheless produced with security, power, and artistic intention.

Varnay’s passion, seductiveness, and flashes of jealousy are portrayed in riveting fashion. Baritone Herbert Janssen reprises his Wolfram from the 1941 broadcast. Janssen’s voice was fresher and more pliable in the earlier broadcast, but he remains an elegant and sympathetic Wolfram, one keenly attuned to the bel canto origins of the role. Bass Mihály Székely brings both the requisite sonorous tone and solemnity of utterance to the role of the Landgraf. Conductor Fritz Stiedry initiates matters in highly promising fashion, with a beautifully played, flexibly phrased, and highly impulsive renditions of the opera’s Overture and ensuing Venusberg Scene. Later on, matters sometime become more prosaic, but Stiedry keeps things moving, and he collaborates well with his star vocalists (Melchior tries to push Stiedry along in the Hymn to Venus, but that seems to have been the tenor’s MO, regardless of the conductor du jour). The recorded sound is quite fine; if not the equal of late-40s studio commercial recordings, more than sufficient to enjoy the many and considerable strengths of this broadcast performance. As always, the presence of broadcast host Milton Cross adds welcome context and nostalgia. As a bonus, IP includes a 1951 NBC SO broadcast of Traubel performing Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, Wilfrid Pelletier conducting (a disc premiere). Traubel is once again in glorious voice, and she sings the music with admirable musical and dramatic commitment. Pelletier was best known for his work in the French repertoire, and his conducting on this occasion lacks the kind of point and intensity that such contemporaries as Toscanini, Fürtwängler, and De Sabata brought to the music. Nevertheless, he and the NBC SO provide more than adequate support. The recorded sound, while perhaps not quite as rich and sharply detailed as the 1948 TANNHÄUSER, is still quite good for a live broadcast of its vintage. Once again, Ben Grauer's broadcast commentary is included.

The accompanying booklet includes artist photos, Dewey Faulkner’s extensive, insightful, and engaging program notes, a detailed plot synopsis, producer Richard Caniell’s Recording Notes, and artist bios (full disclosure: IP also includes brief portions of Henry Fogel’s and my FANFARE reviews of the 1941 broadcast at the booklet’s conclusion) [OP3289]. IP’s 1941 TANNHÄUSER is the preferred overall recommendation for those seeking Melchior in one of his greatest roles. But the 1948 broadcast is a remarkable document, one that will provide great pleasure to anyone interested in Wagner’s operas and their performance history. Highly recommended. Five stars: Lauritz Melchior’s glorious late-carreer Met TANNHÄUSER.”

- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2021

“This is the last of seven recorded broadcasts of TANNHÄUSER with Lauritz Melchior in the title role, the earliest being from 1935. By the time of this 1948 performance, the great Danish tenor was 58 years old, and one might expect his voice to sound frayed. It doesn’t, and even after a quarter century of singing the most strenuous Wagnerian roles Melchior still turns in a performance whose only competition is a younger Melchior. While just a bit of tonal juice has gone from his voice when compared with his earlier broadcasts, the degree of deterioration is extraordinarily slight. The core of Melchior’s beautiful sound is essentially undiminished, and his experience in the role over all those years pays dividends in the depth of his characterization. Melchior was such a remarkable singer that his acting skills have often been undervalued. His Tannhäuser is tender and loving when that is what the moment calls for, and he is virile and dynamic when that is required. His acting never sounds as if it is tacked on - Melchior’s is a total performance. His outbursts in the Song Contest are remarkable for their ferocity, and then he sings with great beauty in the hymn. The difficult Rome Narration in the third act would be an astonishing achievement from a younger singer in his prime. Tannhäuser begins the narration calmly and builds with the telling to Wolfram of his journey to Rome, his sighting of the Pope, his suffering because of the pain he caused Elisabeth, the temptation by Venus, and being cursed by the Pope. The emotional range and the vocal demands on a tenor are perhaps matched only by Tristan’s Delirium Scene, another of Melchior’s triumphs. Tannhäuser, in my view, is Wagner’s most complex character, assertive here, penitent there, aggressive at one moment, reflective and tender at another. Through specificity of inflection and phrasing, Melchior conveys it all. Hearing him perform the role in 1948 bears witness to the culmination of a lifetime of experience singing the music of Richard Wagner, experience that no other tenor has.

The two leading female roles are beautifully sung by Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay. Traubel’s Elisabeth is more notable for its vocal virtues than its dramatic ones, but those virtues are considerable. The voice is evenly produced from top to bottom, the tone has a shimmering glow that never leaves it, and Traubel is a fine vocal match for Melchior. Elisabeth’ prayer in Act III is particularly lovely. Varnay’s Venus is even stronger. Her singing is beautiful, but more than that it is full of character. She is seductive, and as Dewey Faulkner remarks in his astute essay that accompanies this set, ‘Varnay makes us understand why Tannhäuser so wants to return to her, something few singers of Venus ever do’.

Herbert Janssen as Wolfram also sings beautifully. Like Melchior, Janssen was well past his 50th birthday, and his tone may have lost a bit of its luster. However, the beautiful legato he spins in the Song to the Evening Star, and the sympathetic and complete portrayal he gives are noteworthy. Mihály Székely’s dark bass as Landgraf Hermann is just the right sound. It is black and solidly produced, anchoring ensembles and making a big impression whenever he sings.

Now we come to this performance’s shortcoming: Fritz Stiedry. His conducting is at best workmanlike, certainly not up to the level of individual mastery that the singers display. Stiedry does keep his forces together, and he stays with singers whose bursts of enthusiasm might have thrown a lesser conductor. But competent is the best description of Stiedry’s work, and there are many moments with the potential for dramatic intensity glossed over. If I were going to recommend a single Melchior Tannhäuser, it would be Immortal Performances’ transfer of the 1942 Met broadcast conducted by George Szell [OP3149]. This new one can be recommended as a complement to it, and as a remarkable document of the twilight of Lauritz Melchior’s career as the world’s leading Heldentenor.

As a bonus Immortal Performances includes a 1951 NBC radio broadcast of Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG sung by Traubel and conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier. Traubel’s beautiful, ringing soprano fills out the music wonderfully, and one can understand why she was seen as the successor to Flagstad. One can also hear that her highest notes did not always come easily, but we look past that because of the rare beauty of the sound.

As usual from this label, we get an extensive booklet with wonderful photos, essays, a detailed plot synopsis, and artist biographies. Milton Cross’ announcements are also included and tracked separately. Immortal Performances is owed a great debt by those of us for whom Wagner’s music is important. By documenting these historic performances with excellent sonic restoration, the label is keeping alive a very important performance history.”

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, Nov. / Dec., 2021