Karl Elmendorff
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
August 1930
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannIvar Andrésen
TannhäuserSigismund Pilinszky
Wolfram von EschenbachHerbert Janssen
Walther von der VogelweideGeza Belti-Pilinszky
BiterolfGeorg von Tschurtschenthaler
Heinrich der SchreiberJoachim Sattler
Reinmar von ZweterCarl Stralendorf
ElisabethMaria Müller
VenusRuth Jost-Arden
Ein junger HirtErna Berger
Naxos booklet

The history of the composition of Tannhäuser, Wagner’s fifth opera, is somewhat complex and a brief explanation about the different versions of the score may be helpful.

After a disastrous première in Dresden, Tannhäuser soon gained popularity and within ten years was performed regularly throughout Germany. During this time Wagner made amendments to the score and this revision, published in 1860, is known as the ‘Dresden’ version. In due course he received an invitation from Napoleon III to produce Tannhäuser in France and, as was customary, Wagner was expected to include a ballet scene for the Parisian audiences. With this in mind, the composer took the opportunity to re-write several further sections, and it is this version, together with yet more alterations made between 1861 and 1875, that is known as the ‘Paris’ – although it is not exactly what was performed at the ‘première’ there. The changes for Paris mainly affect the opening scene of Act I and the Song Contest in Act II; there are numerous less significant differences (including a re-worked overture) but the major result of Wagner’s additions is to enhance the rôle of Venus and extend the bacchanal – providing an ideal opportunity to include the required ballet. For local reasons the Paris production was a calamity, but before long Tannhäuser took its rightful place as one of the great operas of the nineteenth century and these days both ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions are performed; this historic abridged set is the latter.

In 1927 the Columbia Graphophone Company recorded excerpts from Parsifal in the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth (re-issued, together with other historic passages from the opera, on Naxos 8.110049-50). This marked a turning-point in the story of ‘location’ recording and, keen to capitalise on the success of their first efforts in Wagner’s theatre, in 1928 the company’s engineers were able to set down sizeable extracts from Tristan und Isolde conducted by Karl Elmendorff. Spurred on by yet more favourable reviews, in 1930 Columbia planned to make an abridged set, on thirty-six 78 rpm sides, of the composer’s son Siegfried Wagner’s new production of Tannhäuser, conducted by Arturo Toscanini; but because of his contract with Victor Records, Toscanini was unable to participate in the project and Elmendorff was invited to conduct instead. These are not records of ‘live’ performances, but were made during August in the empty theatre, and comprise about four fifths of the score. The tricky job of deciding on the cuts was undertaken by the celebrated critic Ernest Newman, whose knowledge and understanding of Wagner’s music was almost second to none, and by Siegfried Wagner. Siegfried’s death, during the very month of recording, and that of his mother Cosima four months earlier, must have cast a shadow over the whole proceedings but the sessions went ahead nevertheless. Musically the results were magnificent, hardly surprising in view of the fine cast and experienced conductor that were assembled; and by 1930 Columbia’s technical expertise ensured that, even in the spacious empty theatre, such large orchestral and choral forces would transfer successfully to wax.

Of the five principals, Müller, Jost-Arden, Pilinsky, Janssen and Andrèsen, four were making their Bayreuth dèbuts in this new production of Tannhäuser – only Andrèsen had sung there previously. It was also Toscanini’s first season there (he returned the following year, but never subsequently conducted at the Festival) and his influence is naturally seen in the selection of singers. He was keen to establish his mark on the new production, perhaps rejecting some of Bayreuth’s regular team in order to do so. Although he did not conduct the recording, Toscanini’s influence is sensed throughout, though Elmendorff was himself a greatly admired musician and must be given the credit for leading such a fine recorded performance. The orchestra plays magnificently, albeit in a style considered old-fashioned today; but it was the fashion then, and we are fortunate even to be able to make the comparison.

The cuts imposed on the set are not unduly serious, and none of the best known numbers are affected (though the famous Entry of the Guests in Act 2 is abbreviated). One complete, short, scene is omitted (Act 2 Scene 3) and several other sections are excised (the Landgrave’s introduction to the Song Contest is one). Happily the first act is complete, thus allowing us to hear the most significant of Wagner’s ‘Paris’ amendments in full.

Tannhäuser was first performed in Dresden on 19th October 1845; the first performance in Paris took place on 13th March 1861.

Sigismund Pilinsky was born in Budapest in 1891 and died there in 1957. He studied at the Budapest Conservatory and later in Leipzig and Berlin. He made his operatic dèbut in Miskolc in north-eastern Hungary, and from 1913 sang at the National Opera in the capital. In 1928 Pilinsky was John in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète in Berlin and in 1930-1 sang Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. He travelled extensively as a guest tenor to Vienna, London, Chicago and San Francisco but returned to Budapest and, in retirement, became a teacher. His rather nasal voice has, however, great resonance and heroic power.

Maria Müller was born in Theresienstadt in 1898 and trained at Prague Conservatory and in Vienna. Her dèbut, as Elsa, was at Linz in 1919 and from 1925 to 1935 she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing rôles by Mozart, Wagner, Smetana, Verdi and Strauss among others. Müller sang regularly in Berlin from 1926, at Covent Garden, in Vienna, Milan, Paris and Salzburg. From 1930 she was a frequent visitor to Bayreuth, where her clear lyric soprano was highly regarded, and she retired there after her final performances in Berlin in 1952. She died in Bayreuth in 1958.

Ruth Jost-Arden was born in Berlin in 1899 and died in Bayreuth in 1985. She began her career as a concert soprano in North America, where she was heard by Toscanini and chosen for Bayreuth’s new production of Tannhäuser in 1930. Rôles that Jost-Arden sang in Cologne from 1931-1940 include Isolde, Brünnhilde, Kundry, Elektra, Salome and Leonore and, in 1933, the lead at the première of Siegfried Wagner’s opera Der Heidenkönig. Her bright, fresh tone was surely warmly welcomed there in such a dramatic repertory; as guest artist, Jost-Arden appeared in Paris, Milan, Venice, Brussels, New York and Boston.

Herbert Janssen, born in Cologne in 1892, made his dèbut in 1922 at the Berlin Staatsoper. He remained with the company until 1938 when he left Germany and moved to the United States. Janssen sang the lighter Wagnerian baritone rôles at Covent Garden from 1926 to 1939, and from 1930 to 1937 at Bayreuth. He first sang at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939, staying until 1952 and, from 1945 to 1951, appeared in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His warm, sympathetic baritone made him one of the most successful singers of his day. He died in New York in 1965.

Ivar Andrèsen trained in Stockholm and first sang there in Aida in 1919. He was a member of Dresden Staatsoper from 1926 to 1934 and sang at Covent Garden from 1928 to 1931. In ten seasons at Bayreuth he appeared in the major Wagnerian bass rôles and his Metropolitan dèbut, as Daland, was in 1930. Andrèsen was at Glyndebourne in 1935, when he sang Sarastro and Osmin, and he was a popular guest artist in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona. His repertoire included many non-Wagnerian rôles, oratorio and Lieder. Andrèsen was born in Oslo in 1896 and died in Stockholm in 1940.

The conductor Karl Elmendorff was born in Düsseldorf in 1891 and, after studying linguistics, attended Cologne Conservatory as a music student. He was appointed successively to many important conducting posts throughout Germany, in Mainz, Aachen, Munich, Berlin and Dresden and, after the war, Wiesbaden. He took part in the Bayreuth Festival from 1927 to 1942 and appeared regularly elsewhere throughout Europe and in South America. Best remembered for his Wagnerian interpretations, Elmendorff’s musical interests were broadly based and records of broadcast performances show sympathy with composers from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. He died in Hofheim am Taunus in 1962.

Paul Campion


After the success of Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman), Wagner was convinced that legend must be the source of his operatic material. For Tannhäuser, his 5th opera, he produced his own libretto based on 19th Century medieval legends. After a disastrous première in Dresden (1845), the work gained popularity and over the next ten years was performed throughout Germany. During this time the composer made many amendments, the final so called ‘Dresden’ version being eventually published in 1860.

Wagner was invited by Napoleon III to present the opera in Paris, where it was customary to provide a ballet scene. The composer took the opportunity to rewrite whole sections. The major result of these changes was to enhance the role of Venus and extend the bacchanal, providing an ideal opportunity for the required ballet. The première of the Paris version was given in March 1861.

The various alteration made for, and after 1861, enabled Wagner to move further away from ‘number’ opera towards his ideal of music drama and involvement with the psychological states of his characters. The solo line is often declamatory, and to allow the part of Tannhäuser in particular to dominate the ensemble, Wagner needed a new breed of tenor with a voice heavier than that in Italian opera – the heroic or ‘heldentenor’ and henceforth this voice would be important in all his works.

Tannhäuser is now accepted as one of the great operas of the 19th Century and these days both the ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions are performed, albeit often with the casting of the title role proving difficult. This recording is an abridged ‘Paris’ version of the opera, with Act 2 Scene 3 omitted, together with a reduced Act 3 and other minor cuts. The reductions were as suggested by the musicologist and critic Earnest Newman. The cuts are not unduly serious and none of the best known music is affected. Most importantly, Act 1 is complete, allowing the inclusion of the most significant of Wagner’s ‘Paris’ amendments to be included. It was first issued on thirty six 78rpm sides by the Columbia Gramophone Company who, in 1927, had made the first recordings from Bayreuth (excerpts from Parsifal), returning the next year for extracts from Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Karl Elmendorff. These recordings, like Tannhäuser, were not of live performances but used the spacious empty Festspielhaus.

Following favourable reviews of the Parsifal and Tristan recordings, Columbia determined to return in 1930 and record the new production of Tannhäuser to be conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini, with singers selected by him. However, the maestro was contracted to Victor records (later RCA) and he was unable to participate. Columbia turned to their own highly experienced Wagnerian, Elmendorff.

Columbia’s accumulated technical expertise ensured that the recording was, in its period, a marker and whose sonic qualities are realised in this re-issue which, as for others in this Naxos series, is realised by the remastering guru Ward Marston whose work has received acclamation on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly the orchestral music in particular is superbly caught, being well balanced with the voices; the whole in a forward clear acoustic that in many ways belies its age.

One can only imagine how a Toscanini performance would have differed from what we have. To my ears Elmendorff, without undue haste, allows the music to unfold with full dramatic impact; long phrases encompassed with elegance and no lack of vitality. With the orchestral sound undistorted and clear, this is a major plus point for the set although there are times when the voices get close to distortion. Surface noise is not evident nor are significant variations in level. Of the singers, four were making their Bayreuth debuts in this production. For the role of the eponymous hero, Toscanini had chosen the Hungarian Sigismund Pilinsky (1891-1957). He sang for only two seasons at Bayreuth. His strong, essentially lyric tenor of pleasing tone and diction is certainly no heldentenor and there are times when his lack of vocal heft is audible, albeit that the strain is never unmusical or ugly. The Venus is sung by Ruth Jost-Arden (1899-1965), again chosen by Toscanini. She later sang Isolde, Brunnhilde, Kundry, Electra and Salome. She also appeared in Paris, Milan and New York. The part is nowadays usually cast for a dramatic mezzo with a full tone and high top. Jost-Arden’s bright fresh-toned dramatic soprano, caught before any deleterious effects of the heavier roles, makes an interesting contrast. She has good breath control, adequate power and a fine legato line, although ultimately she lacks the ideal seductive tone the Paris version, in particular, calls for. The Elisabeth is the soprano Maria Muller (1898-1958) who appeared at the New York Met. (1925-35) singing Mozart, Verdi, Strauss as well as Wagner. She also appeared in Berlin, Covent Garden, Milan and Paris. Her clear lyric soprano, warm and vibrant, is ideally suited to the part, a good vocal actress she conveys the emotions of the part to near perfection.

Both the lower voiced men are cast from strength. Ivar Andrésan (1896-1940) sings the Herman. He sang 10 seasons at Bayreth (1927-36) as well as Wagnerian roles internationally. His beautiful sonorous, noble sounding voice is heard to good effect here (CD1 tk11). Likewise the Wolfram of Herbert Janssen (1892-1965): he made his debut at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1992 and sang there until 1938 when he went to the USA, singing in the Met from 1939-51. He was greatly admired as Amfortas, Wolfram, Gunther and Kurwenal, all of which he sang at Bayreuth, Covent Garden and the Met. With a warm sympathetic baritone he deserved international success as preserved here. All the smaller parts are well taken. Of particular note is the Hirt (shepherd boy) of Erna Berger (CD1 tk2) where her pure tone and even legato are well caught and indicative of the career to come.

The issue is accompanied by a leaflet with a track-related synopsis and brief notes on the recording and the singers.

Robert J Farr


Had Arturo Toscanini not been under contract to Victor, he certainly would have conducted Columbia’s abridged 1930 Bayreuth recording of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in its 1861 Paris version, a production prepared by the Maestro. As it happens, Karl Elmendorff is no podium slouch, and his forces operate on a high level of unity and discipline, with impressively blended brass. The recording quality is excellent for its vintage, with ideal vocal/orchestral balances in the opening Venusberg sequence and the Pilgrims’ choruses, plus a cogent sense of how the solo singers projected across the Bayreuth Festspeilhaus footlights. Low voices offer this set’s most attractive singing. Top honors belong to Ivar Andrésen, whose evenly equalized and richly sonorous bass voice still rules over recorded Landgrafs. Herbert Janssen’s lyrical, honeyed Wolfram also makes for heavenly listening, especially in Act 1’s fourth scene. Maria Müller’s youthful, rounded voice nails the role of Elisabeth dead center, and she manages to make “Dich, teure Halle” sound at once powerful yet relaxed. By contrast, Ruth Jost-Arden seems a bit matronly for Venus, while Sigismund Pilinszky tends to enact Tannhäuser’s text, and his nasal, slightly tremulous tenor lacks the ringing heroism Lauritz Melchior brought to this role. No complaints at all concerning Ward Marston’s clear and honest transfer work, plus Paul Campion’s excellent annotations.

Jed Distler

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Media Type/Label
Pearl, Arkadia, Malibran, Naxos, Line
Technical Specifications
606 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 629 MByte (flac)
“The opera was abridged for recording purposes under the supervision of Ernest Newman and the late Siegfried Wagner” (original release note). Columbia had decided to record the opera on 36 sides which meant about 4/5 of the complete opera could be recorded (the most cuts are in the third act). According to Pearl the recording took place in July, according to Naxos in August 1930.