Georg Solti
Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker
October 1970
Sofiensaal Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannHans Sotin
TannhäuserRené Kollo
Wolfram von EschenbachVictor Braun
Walther von der VogelweideWerner Hollweg
BiterolfManfred Jungwirth
Heinrich der SchreiberKurt Equiluz
Reinmar von ZweterNorman Bailey
ElisabethHelga Dernesch
VenusChrista Ludwig
Ein junger HirtWiener Sängerknabe

Avoid colloquialisms. Never use slang. Be scholarly. We are all so urged from cradle to grave by teacher, tutor, mentor and professor. Dear Editor: please on this one occasion, let me offend. Let me break every such rule and more: let me be ungrammatical with conjunctions. Dear Editor: I will not err again this year if these transgressions survive your ‘delete’ button.

‘Wow’. And more ‘Wow’. Absolutely ‘wow’. This is the single word summary for a recording that will leave you exhausted, exhilarated, intellectually challenged and emotionally erupting. Therefore, dear editor and readers, that is why I say that the word for this recording is: ‘Wow’. With one minor later lapse, here endeth my transgression.

However that is not enough: certainly not when there is so much to be said about the history of the opera and this recording. The former does not usually fall within the ambit of a CD review for a well-known opera. Therefore I shall mention only briefly that as distinct from the Dresden version, this recording is of the Paris version. You will recall that until the end of his life Wagner continued revising this opera. The seriously interesting historical introduction by Patrick Carnegy and the producer’s note in the booklet accompanying the recording, explain the background to the choices made for this recording of Wagner’s later revisions of the Paris version.

The booklet, with its usual full libretto and translation, also has a page of explanation by the balance engineer of the work of re-mastering an analogue tape. He refers to the disadvantage that present hi-fi systems will reveal sound disturbances not audible on earlier, less refined, equipment. Yes, there are one or two suggestions of such but they are virtually irrelevant in the context of this superb performance.

It is indeed a superb performance: from the opening chord to the closing chord. It illustrates the Paris version to very considerable advantage over the Dresden version. It sends a charge of electricity crackling around the listener. Here is energy and volatility captured on tape and now discs; which can all be held back dramatically for the lyrical passages where smoothness and beauty of tone hold sway.

The Vienna Philharmonic respond magnificently: whether in overture or prelude, soaring accompaniment or gentle back drop chords. With Solti in charge this is a truly Wagnerian orchestra. There is musical power, some haunting dynamics in the quieter string passages and a superb balance between strings and wind giving rise to riveting contrasts.

Christa Ludwig (Venus) is so seductively smooth and inviting over the whole of her vocal range that it seems extra-ordinary that anyone would wish to leave her or her ‘sirens’. She demonstrates a range of sound from an almost creamy sexuality for the grotto invitation to a mixture of scorn and anxiety at the prospect of Tannhäuser’s departure. This is aural characterisation as an art–form.

René Kollo (Tannhäuser) maintains his resolve in warm heldentenor tones with which he later vocally caresses Helga Dernesch’s Elisabeth. However the steel in the voice is unleashed for his scorn and arrogance at the singing contest. For his Act III tour de force, his sustained power sounds effortless. Plainly it cannot be so, but it never shows: not a note missed, a leap hesitated over or a tonal contrast overlooked.

Helga Dernesch responds with purity of sound second to none. She is note secure to the extent that you do not think about it. Her welcoming aria upon Tannhäuser’s return from the Venusberg has glorious sounds and colouring. In the ensembles / recitative and aria prior to the singing contest, there are some seriously warm low notes. Later she demonstrates perfect pleading in prayer with tonal beauty in Allmächt’ge Jungfrau. The balance of her voice with the male soloists is approaching ideal: as indeed is the totality of balance between all the singers.

Victor Braun sings Wolfram, the ever-disappointed undeclared suitor. With the slightest vocal wobble he delivers clarity of tone and note which matches his fellow soloists. His aria in the singing contest drips with emotion. Tonal beauty radiates when he finds Elizabeth at the shrine as does his vocal colouring in his presentiments prior to Tannhäuser’s return from the pilgrimage.

There is then the delight of what appears to be casting self-indulgence: Hans Sotin (Landgraf) with his authoritative bass and outstanding legato; Manfred Jungwirth (Biterolf) with his deep brown bass; the outstanding Norman Bailey’s heldenbariton (Reinmar); and the lyrical tenor of Werner Hollweg (Walter). All contribute to that quite outstanding vocal balance in the ensemble passages. It is difficult to believe that today there could be assembled such vocal depth for the less important roles. However this typifies the strength of this recording.

No details appear to have been overlooked: a comment that applies equally to the soprano Shepherd boy and the choral contribution. The producer’s note adds, “New recording techniques were employed to create a sense of movement in the different arrivals and departures of the Pilgrims…. and… the opera was unrepentantly planned and prepared in terms of recording rather than of stage performance.” That meticulous preparation is very evident throughout. It is also a comforting coincidence that each Act occupies a single disc.

Finally, assuming that I still have the attention of those without a Wagner recording, who no doubt enjoy all the old Wagner jokes (‘I was really enjoying the performance until my husband / wife woke me up’), to them I say : if you have no Wagner recording buy this one. When you have dipped your toe in the Wagner sea, you too will be soon swimming in superlatives and who knows, perhaps seeking the other Solti / Wagner recordings. Even if you go no further you will not regret this purchase. This is …well… ‘wow’.

Robert McKechnie

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Decca, London
Technical Specifications
632 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 878 MByte (flac)