George Szell
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
19 December 1942
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannAlexander Kipnis
TannhäuserLauritz Melchior
Wolfram von EschenbachHerbert Janssen
Walther von der VogelweideJohn Garris
BiterolfOsie Hawkins
Heinrich der SchreiberEmery Darcy
Reinmar von ZweterJohn Gurney
ElisabethHelen Traubel
VenusKerstin Thorborg
Ein junger HirtMaxine Stellman
Fanfare (I)

As is always the case with Richard Caniell’s Immortal Performances releases, there is no question about the quality of restoration. Although this performance of Tannhäuser has been available before on a variety of labels (I know it best from Melodram and Music & Arts), this version is significantly better. The sound is fuller, the background is quieter, the pitches are correct, the flutter is mostly gone (one can hear it occasionally on sustained woodwind notes), and the distortion minimized. There is no debate even possible about the quality of this versus any other: this is the one to get.

A more interesting question is which of the six Melchior Tannhäuser performances would be first choice? The most important point, not open to debate in my mind, is that there was Melchior, and then there has been every other tenor who sang this demanding role. One can imagine Vickers being equally gratifying, but he refused to sing it because his religious beliefs made it impossible for him to get inside the character. Melchior (1890-1973) had a tenor voice at once powerful and beautiful. This lengthy and demanding role held no terrors for him, and at the end of the opera he sounds as if he could sing it again. Passages that other tenors clearly struggle with are sung with complete comfort and ease by Melchior. Critics liked to cavil about his supposed rhythmic instability, but if you listen to all six of his Tannhäuser performances (all recorded live) you hear a remarkably solid internal rhythmic pulse. When there is any slight separation of him from the orchestra, it is a legitimate dramatic response to an urgent moment, and it is always brief. He was capable of an astonishing range of vocal color, portraying tenderness, anger, pain and love with real imagination.

Here are the relevant details of the six performances of his that survive (all from the Metropolitan Opera Company):

Year Conductor Elisabeth Venus Wolfram Hermann
1935 Bodanzky Müller Manski Bonelli L. Hofmann
1935 Bodanzky Lehmann Lawrence Schorr List
1936 Bodanzky Flagstad Halstead Tibbett List
1941 Leinsdorf Flagstad Thorborg Bonelli List
1942 Szell Traubel Thorborg Janssen Kipnis
1944 Breisach Varnay Lawrence Huehn Kipnis
1948 Stiedry Traubel Varnay Janssen Székely

Melchior made his Met debut as Tannhäuser in 1926, and dominated in the role as in all the Wagner repertory until his forced retirement in 1950 by Rudolf Bing in an act of administrative arrogance that typified much of that general manager’s reign. Listening to him in this performance one is astonished that we are listening to a singer who made his professional debut (as a baritone) 29 years earlier, and his second debut (as a tenor) 24 years earlier. There are moments of hoarseness in this performance; the excellent and insightful annotations by Dewey Faulkner raise the possibility that these are dramatically inspired moments, but in fact one does not hear the same thing in the same points of other Melchior performances, so one is more inclined to attribute it to a bit of vocal tiredness. The moments are minor and pass quickly. He and Szell are a bit at odds in a few places, but those do strike me as the kind of incidents that occur in live performances where there is real dramatic urgency. The fact is that this performance is miraculous—a beacon

The fact that we are given the luxury of six different performances by the great Danish tenor means that we do have to address the issue of comparisons. I have never heard the 1935 performance, and it is the least widely circulated. The most serious competition is, in fact, from the same label: Immortal Performances IPCD 1039, the 1936 Met performance. Melchior, at 46 instead of 52, does sound just a bit fresher and more consistent vocally, but those differences are minor. In either case, his is a remarkable performance that provides vocal thrills and a convincing dramatic portrayal of the character. Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, successfully replaced a wholly inadequate Venus (Margaret Halstead) by editing in Thorborg from a 1941 performance. He managed that seamlessly. Of course having Flagstad’s Elisabeth is a huge advantage. But the reality is that the basic sound quality of the 1936 recording is inadequate, and all of Caniell’s wizardry can do little but make it tolerable. I cannot prefer it to this 1942 performance.

This is probably the appropriate place to point out that Caniell has taken the kind of liberty that has infuriated some of his critics, but that I support completely. In this 1942 performance, Traubel shattered the high B near the end of“Dich teure Halle,” emitting a note that barely resembled what we call music. In other performances, including some broadcasts, Traubel sang the note perfectly. Caniell has edited in a B from another Traubel broadcast. Even knowing that (he is candid in his notes) I could not hear the edit—it is perfectly done. And it is the right thing to do for those of us who plan to listen to the performance more than once, as long as he is upfront about it. There is also an odd missing piece of Tannhäuser’s Ode to Venus that is probably a broadcast engineering mistake (it seems unlikely that it would have been a musical cut) and so Caniell has fixed it with an insertion from the 1941 broadcast. Leinsdorf and Szell take almost identical tempos, so again the switch is inaudible.

The principal differences between 1941 and 1942 are the conducting of Leinsdorf vs. that of Szell, and the Elisabeths of Flagstad and Traubel. While I enjoy both conductors, I must say that I find Szell’s attention to detail here a significant point in his favor. Balances are carefully judged, attacks are precise, tempo relationships are carefully judged, but at the same time the performance feels spontaneous and alive. Between Traubel and Flagstad the difference is less dramatic than you might have thought. Traubel certainly lacked the rich column of sound that Flagstad was capable of producing, but both have beautiful and ringing voices. Although Flagstad was a bit stolid as an actress, she actually inflects the music with more specificity and variety of color than Traubel, who seems to be engaging in a vocal concert. On the other hand, Elisabeth is hardly a character of the complexity of Isolde or a Sieglinde, and the vocal acting will not be a major issue for most.

A genuine superiority of the 1942 performance is found in the Landgraf: Emanuel List is a more than competent singer, but Alexander Kipnis in this 1942 version is much more than that. His richly expressive voice was a uniquely beautiful instrument, and he was an artist of unusual imagination as well. The preservation of his Landgraf is one of the joys of this release. Thorborg was, as you can see from the chart above, a regular Venus at the Met over many years. She shows a sumptuous voice, very occasionally unsteady here, and can use its rich tone to portray the seductress but can also harden the sound to convey her anger. As beautifully vocalized as Tibbett’s Wolfram is in 1936, there is no denying the greater comfort with the idiom and identification with the character displayed by Janssen here.

Caniell also includes as a bonus excerpts from a 1948 Hollywood Bowl concert with Traubel and Melchior, including the complete Bridal Chamber Scene from Lohengrin. It is a wonderful extra, particularly because the recording, as heard here, is brilliantly clear. The ring of both voices, and fullness of the orchestra, is a pleasure to the ear. As is the normal practice of Immortal Performances, substantial portions of Milton Cross’s radio announcements are included, but are tracked separately so skipping them is easy if you wish. As is also the normal practice for this label, the accompanying booklet is a major asset. Essays and historic photos are a vital part of what Immortal Performances produces.

The 1941 performance has the advantage of Flagstad over Traubel, but I prefer Szell to Leinsdorf. Immortal Performances plans a release of that one in 2016; for now the best is the RCA/Met LPs which is pretty good, but on CD the Arkadia transfer is poor. I think that if I were to have only one example of Melchior’s Tannhäuser, it would be this one, and if I were a serious Wagnerian I would not wish to be without it.

Henry Fogel | Issue November/December 2015

Fanfare (II)

This matinee performance of Tannhäuser (Paris version, 1861, but with cuts) is everything one might expect from Szell. And from Caniell and his Immortal Performance forces, also: The transfer at hand is taken from what Caniell describes as “astonishingly noiseless transcription discs” so that it “possesses sonic superiority over all other previous releases.” It is easy to agree, listening to the set. . . The recording and transfer hold their own in the terrific finale to the second act, where Wagner’s glorious ensemble glows through the years . . . there are patchings: the first verse of Tannhäuser’s Ode to Venus was omitted, so Caniell has inserted one from a previous season (Leinsdorf); a bad high note of Traubel’s in “Dich teure Halle” is replaced to ease repeated listening.

The resulting performance is magical. A surprise to modern ears is the wide vibrato on the horns in the opening chorale; less surprising is the discipline of the orchestra, a Szell specialty. . . Tempo changes in the Overture are impeccably managed; the Bacchanale borders on the frenetic yet stays within the confines of the supernaturally charged. Thorberg and Melchior’s Venusberg duet is fairly driven, but there is no mistaking the lusty nature of Melchior’s trumpet-like tenor. Thorborg is on good, sometimes verging on great, form as Venus, but she is not entirely consistent; nevertheless it is the heroic, uniformly stellar Melchior that leaves such a mark. His vocal definition at speed (“Stets soll nun dir,” and with Szell at the helm it is at speed) is utterly remarkable; so much so that he does not sound in the least bit rushed, merely impassioned. . . Melchior is impeccable in a reading that moves from near-Sprechstimme (the cry of “Hör an, Wolfram!” prior to “Innbrunst im Herzen”) to the highest Romanticism, not to mention the frenzy of impassioned outpouring that is the Rome Narration.

Helen Traubel’s Elisabeth is magnificent. Imperious, with cutting soprano tone, she matches Szell’s intensity in “Dich teure Halle,” while her Prayer (“Allmächt’ge Jungfrau”) is radiant. Szell gives her space to maneuver while maintaining his trademark intensity in the pit. Alexander Kipnis is likewise magnificent as the Landgraf (the sheer power of his “Gar viel und schön” is remarkable), while Herbert Janssen’s Wolfram is beautifully expressive in “Blick’ ich umher”; in “Wohl wüsst’ ich hier sie im Gebet zu finden,” which rises to a wonderful, and natural, climax; and particularly in “Wie Todesahnung,” which seems to have a Parsifal-like radiance about it. Maxine Stellman is a rather nondescript Shepherd, unfortunately. Osie Hawkins makes his formal debut at the Met as Biterolf, and acquits himself well. The Met Chorus is simply magnificent in the act I processional (superbly paced by Szell), as it is in every single contribution here.

Colin Clarke | Issue November/December 2015

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Matinee broadcast
A production by Samuel Thewman (1923)