Erich Leinsdorf
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
4 January 1941
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannEmanuel List
TannhäuserLauritz Melchior
Wolfram von EschenbachHerbert Janssen
Walther von der VogelweideJohn Dudley
BiterolfMack Harrell
Heinrich der SchreiberEmery Darcy
Reinmar von ZweterJohn Gurney
ElisabethKirsten Flagstad
VenusKerstin Thorborg
Ein junger HirtMaxine Stellman

A week or two before reviewing this set, I attended a performance of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, and having listened to this Pristine issue how I wish I could have swapped my Covent Garden seat for one at the Met in 1941.

The Tannhäuser in this performance is the supreme Heldentenor, Lauritz Melchior. Vocally he is, of course, in a league of his own, but as an interpreter he is also superb. He may not have been an intellectual singer in the way that a Fischer-Dieskau or a Bostridge are, but his musical instincts are almost always spot on, and in an early-Wagner role such as this, which lacks the complexity of a Tristan or Parsifal, he conveys all that the role contains. In Act 3, Wolfram calls Tannhäuser “Wahnsinn’ger” (madman) and Melchior’s Tannhäuser is indeed a manic creation; listen to the almost hysterical competitiveness with Wolfram in the Song Contest where Melchior (wonderfully abetted by Leinsdorf) takes the Hymn to Venus (Dir, Göttin der Liebe) at a frenetic speed. No wonder the Landgraf casts him out! The grovelling self-abasement of “Zum Heil den Sündigen zu führen” which follows confirms the character’s instability. Every word that Melchior sings is utterly alive, as the Rome Narration in Act 3 demonstrates. Melchior charts Tannhäuser’s re-living of his experiences in Rome with detailed verbal acuity, a wide variety of dynamics and a momentum which sweeps the listener along. Add to this the clarion tone which is also capable of superbly-supported soft singing, all with absolute steadiness, and you have a performance which it would be difficult to imagine improved.

Herbert Janssen’s Wolfram is absolutely in the same class as this. Wolfram has always seemed to me a sort of cousin to Kurvenal in Tristan und Isolde – a straightforward, decent, utterly loyal character who becomes embroiled in events which he cannot quite understand. Unsurprisingly, Janssen was also a supreme Kurvenal. He was also a great lieder singer (something by no means all opera singers are) and his way with the text is superb. Listen to his profound, quiet happiness in the delivery of his lines in Act 1 when he welcomes the stranger as his long-lost friend Tannhäuser, or the infinite tenderness when he watches a desolate Elisabeth praying for Tannhäuser in Act 3. He also makes something compelling of “Als du in kühnem Sange”, a piece which often fails to deliver. Exemplary.

The Elisabeth is also one of the supreme Wagner singers, Kirsten Flagstad, but here in a role which is not one with which we associate her. Flagstad was not one of nature’s Elisabeths; the tone is too commanding, the utterance too direct. She does a much better job than might be expected, however, scaling down the amplitude of the voice and finding an expressiveness and femininity, which was not always the case in later years. She certainly provides about the most exciting “Dich, teure Halle!” you are ever likely to come across, and there is sensitivity and inwardness in “Almächt’ge Jungfrau”, but we still do not really get the impression that this is a girl who could quietly die of grief. When she intervenes against the horrified court after Tannhäuser has sung in praise of Venus, we get the feel in her opening words that she could fell the whole lot of them if they fail to do as she wishes.

In our more “upfront” times, we expect a more overtly sexy Venus than Kerstin Thorborg provides. She is certainly no Grace Bumbry at Bayreuth in 1961, but, again, she offers an absolutely solid, steady emission of tone which seems to be largely a thing of the past today. She captivates Tannhäuser by the glory of her delivery rather than any kittenish seductiveness. I have never been much of a fan of Emanuel List, who sings the Landgraf. I usually find it difficult to take to his flat, lugubrious delivery, unsteady tone and dubious intonation. On the night of this performance, however, he shows his mettle in an unexpected way and uses what is basically a fine voice to fine effect.

When Artur Bodansky died suddenly in 1938, the 26-year-old Erich Leinsdorf was unexpectedly appointed Head of German Repertoire at the Met. He had a somewhat torrid time at first, with Melchior and Flagstad telling the newspapers that the Met really needed a more experienced hand in control, but by 1941 his qualities were fully accepted and he conducted many excellent performances, of which this is undoubtedly one. He manages to combine excitement and lyricism, and his Venusberg music has a sultriness which makes up for Thorborg’s lack of that quality. The piece never drags, but neither are its more spiritual moments short-changed.

As with his re-issue of the 1940 Met Walküre last year, Andrew Rose has been very fortunate in having discovered a new sound source for this superb performance, which knocks the source used by Sony in their “Wagner at the Met” box into a cocked hat. For a broadcast performance of 75 years ago, the sound really is quite stunning. There are a few times when there is distortion and congestion, for example during the Landgraf’s solos early in Act 2 and in track 9 later in the same act, but these sound like end-of-side distortion and nothing could be done to improve them. They are rare, however, and for the great majority of the time it is difficult to believe the age and source of the recording. One can only pay tribute again to Andrew Rose’s way with old recordings; he manages to get the very best out of the ageing grooves to the extent that the listener is able simply to be carried along by the performance. This is a performance I cannot recommend too highly; even if you already have the Met box or any other previous incarnation, buy it – you will find the improvement in sound quality worth every penny. The only disadvantage is that it will make anything you are likely to encounter today seem very small beer.

Paul Steinson

Fanfare (I)

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’s announcements brings me back many years to an earlier time in my life and the Saturday afternoon broadcasts he embodied.

Henry Fogel | Issue March /April 2018

Fanfare (II)

While I would hesitate to characterize this sublimely cast and sung 1941 Tannhäuser broadcast as a “typical afternoon at the Met,” it wasn’t atypical for the time, either! This was a period when the Met could repeatedly and reliably call upon the likes of Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad to perform the leading Wagnerian tenor and soprano roles. Any Melchior-Flagstad performance was pretty much guaranteed to be of Golden Age quality. But in the bargain, such exemplary artists as Kirsten Thorborg and Herbert Janssen (and many others as well) were available for the leading mezzo and baritone parts. There have been many wonderful Wagnerian singers who have followed these 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. 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 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. Melchior’s amazing performance of this daunting role makes me regret all the more that there is no complete document of his Otello (Verdi), although the excerpts he recorded are impressive in their own right.

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. Flagstad’s initial duet with Melchior in act II, the ensuing Song Contest, and Elisabeth’s final act prayer are all beautifully sung and quite moving. Kerstin Thorborg is an opulently voiced and sultry Venus who convincingly depicts the goddess’s 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.

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.

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 the 1941 performance to its fullest. Veterans of these kinds of recordings will rejoice in how superb the sound is. Dewey Faulkner’s essay on the broadcast and various aspects of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is immensely informative and beautifully written. There is also a plot synopsis, artist bios and photos, and recording notes by Richard Caniell. A performance for the ages, reproduced in superb sound for its era, merits the highest recommendation.

Ken Meltzer | Issue March /April 2018


Melchior is incomparably the finest voice available in this role and his interpretation, though not so attentive as Kollo’s, is more heartfelt and responsive than Domingo’s; musically, he clearly knows his part, but he pays no attention to Maestro Leinsdorf or anyone else and there are occasional lapses in ensemble cohesion due to him; Flagstad too establishes a benchmark for vocal opulence in her role; but the greatest combination of vocal opulence, and attentiveness to character, and musical preparation is in Thorborg’s Venus; Leinsdorf manages to keep things pretty much on track, a tall order with Melchior listening to his own drummer, but Leinsdorf does not probe so deeply as Sinopoli; in fair mono.

Geoffrey Riggs

User Rating
Media Type/Label
GAW, Metropolitan Opera Historic Broadcast Soria Series MET
Walhall, Gebhardt, Arkadia, Myto, IP, OOA, TOL, Pristine
Get this Recording
Donate $5 to download flac
Technical Specifications
576 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 474 MByte (flac)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Samuel Thewman (1923)