SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

WAGNER: Tannhäuser (complete opera, Dresden version) – Soloists/ Berlin Radio Choir/ Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ Marek Janowski – Pentatone Classics (3 discs)

With the next project the glorious Ring cycle, Janowski completes the canon with admirable fortitude and commendable intelligence.

Published on June 21, 2013

WAGNER: Tannhäuser (complete opera, Dresden version) – Soloists/ Berlin Radio Choir/ Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ Marek Janowski – Pentatone Classics (3 discs)

WAGNER: Tannhäuser (complete opera, Dresden version) — Albert Dohmen (Landgrave of Thuringia)/ Robert Dean Smith (Tannhäuser)/ Christian Gerhaher (Wolfram von Eschenbach)/ Peter Sonn (Walthar)/ Nina Stemme (Elisabeth)/ Marina Prudenskaya (Venus)/ Berlin Radio Choir/ Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ Marek Janowski – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 405 (3 discs), 2:50:47 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:

It’s not clearly marked in this edition which version of Tannhäuser this is. But the overture is clearly not the later revision Wagner made, along with many parts of the opera itself in his post-Tristan mode of composing now known as the “Paris” version, though the part of Venus is here given to a mezzo-soprano, something he changed for Paris, as the Dresden had the role for soprano. The “Dresden” (1845) or first edition of this work has always been my preference because the additions the composer made seem so out-of-sync with the style of the rest of the piece after converting to the intense, lush style of his later works with their near-atonal tendencies. He did call it, after all, not a “music drama” but a “Grand Romantic Opera”, still thinking in terms of his Rienzi, his first really successful opera, and one that remained one of his most-played until the twentieth century. After The Flying Dutchman his skill with orchestral manipulation and vocal abilities of his singers began to expand, and the chromaticism that would so affect his later works inserts itself to a large degree beginning right at the overture.

As all of the operas in Pentatone’s ongoing series, this one was given over several nights as a concert performance. Therefore you will hear no stage movement or anything like this, though the large horn passages in the parts of the opera, especially the end of Act I, are way offstage, so much so that one almost has to struggle in order to hear them. This is a shame, for in many recordings those horns are one of the most exciting parts of the opera. The surround sound is quite brilliant though, giving Wagner’s magnificent scoring full reign on all the speakers, and the standards in this regard as present in the previous issues are fully maintained.

Though in the premiere the female star was clearly considered to be Venus as played by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, this has changed in modern times, and even in the Paris version the limelight is stolen by Elisabeth. Here we have the clear-edged and technically secure voice of upcoming Marina Prudenskaya, and while she does not give a performance replete with creamy seductiveness, she heightens the drama with a boldness and projection not often found in this part. Elisabeth is marked by the ravishing voice of Nina Stemme, arguably the finest, or at least one of the two or three finest Wagnerian sopranos of the day. She can be electrifying, and certainly is so here. Our hero is taken by Robert Dean Smith and he delivers a stress-free and consistently beautiful performance of one of the toughest roles in the repertory, almost non-stop in its outrageous demands.

Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram is another role that is given a soaring and exceptionally lyrical delivery, one not inconsistent with the singer’s own frequent lieder recitals. All the other parts are never less than considerable, and the Berlin Radio Choir must be singled out for some exceptionally fine work. In this recording the Berlin Philharmonie, sometimes a problem for producers, poses no such issues here, except for the distant horns as mentioned, and the 50-odd other onstage performers that we wish we could hear more of.

Janowski’s tempos are moderate to fast but never feel rushed, and he has an excellent inner clock that is able to pace the dramatic action to a tee. There is no doubt he has now assumed the mantle of a consummate Wagnerian. This is the last opera he tackles before assailing the Ring—whether that one will be one Ring to rule them all, we shall see—but the odds are looking good. This is an easy recommendation, even for those who will have only one in their collection.

—Steven Ritter

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