Marek Janowski
Rundfunkchor Berlin, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
5 May 2012
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannAlbert Dohmen
TannhäuserRobert Dean Smith
Wolfram von EschenbachChristian Gerhaher
Walther von der VogelweidePeter Sonn
BiterolfWilhelm Schwinghammer
Heinrich der SchreiberMichael McCown
Reinmar von ZweterMartin Snell
ElisabethNina Stemme
VenusMarina Prudenskaja
Ein junger HirtBianca Reim

This latest in the series of Wagner operas from Pentatone is among the most successful so far. At present Tannhäuser is Wagner’s least performed and least recorded work (after the early three apprentice operas), but listening to this may make you wonder why. Marek Janowski keeps the score, which has some longueurs, moving and builds up impressive climaxes in each act.

No mention is made in the CD’s documentation of which edition Janowski uses, and it makes a huge difference. Wagner radically revised the score in 1861 for Paris, hotting up the Venusberg scene to a flabbergasting extent; he also over the years made numerous minor changes throughout. Janowski more or less sticks with what the first audience heard, which is tamer, but has stylistic consistency. In both versions the opening scene with Venus is the weakest, but Marina Prudenskaya, though her enunciation is vague, is adequately sexy.

The title role is taken by the ubiquitous Robert Dean Smith, in one of his more persuasive performances – but most tenors can’t sing it at all. The desperation of Tannhäuser in Act III is conveyed more by the sheer effort of singing the notes than by expression. The noble Wolfram is Christian Gerhaher, who only just avoids sounding as precious as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The heroine Elisabeth is Nina Stemme, sounding too heroic for the part, and with a voice that hardens now on high notes; but she makes an impression. All told I would say that this is the best recording since that made in Bayreuth in 1962.

Michael Tanner

Audiophile Audition

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


Clean, Clear, Cool Tannhäuser Marek Janowski’s projected release of all of Wagner’s operas with the Berlin Radio Orchestra on Pentatone continues apace with this fine new Tannhäuser. As has been the case with the previous operas, Janowski and his players and singers are more interested in clarity, fine performances, and fleet tempos than in depth of characterization or interpretation. I found this an issue with Parsifal, Dutchman, and Tristan, but perhaps because I’m almost never genuinely moved by most of Tannhäuser, this concentration on matters musical rather than dramatic is less bothersome. And in fact, orchestrally—and sonically—this is ravishing: Pentatone has captured the flawless string playing, Wagner’s layered orchestration, and the luminance of the brass, allowing us to hear how well the orchestra plays. Special praise also should go to the chorus—for some reason, Janowski elicits more emotional elucidation from them than from his soloists.

Just for the record, he uses Wagner’s Vienna score (in contrast to Paris) but includes Walther’s song in the second-act contest (and it is very well sung by tenor Peter Sonn). Robert Dean Smith sings the quasi-impossible title role with apparent ease; this live recording, the booklet tells us, comes from one performance (May 5, 2012), and frankly, at the opera’s close, Smith sounds as if he could start all over again with little problem. Because he seems to be devoid of temperament, he sings without vulgarity and with unfailing musicality—and yes, I realize this is damning with faint praise, but it is rare to hear a stress-less reading of the role.

Smith’s voice is somewhat ordinary, with no real bite or ring at the top, but his diction is flawless and he phrases as Wagner wrote, with no need for nasty little snatches of breath. His Rome Narrative is good, but he makes almost nothing of the Pope’s words; here, a voice/artist like Wolfgang Windgassen or Peter Seiffert wins the dramatic day. In short, his performance is incredibly smooth; sadly, the “person” of Tannhäuser is not smooth at all. Smith sounds like a guy who somehow wound up at the Venusberg and can’t quite figure out what to do next.

Nina Stemme has almost too grand a sound for Elisabeth, but the voice is beautiful and in perfect shape and she gets to the character’s pure core and warmth. Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus is big and exciting, the voice round and firm. She is as literal as the others—there’s more room in Venus for cajoling and nuance than Janowski is interested in—but few will be disappointed. Christian Gerharer’s Wolfram is controversial—he occasionally oversings and overarticulates, sort of as if Fischer-Dieskau had wandered into Janowski’s concept and couldn’t be controlled. But the voice is a fine one and his third-act aria is suitably mellow and inward. Albert Dohmen’s Landgraf is strongly characterized, but I’d guess that singing Wotan has added the irregularities to his tone.

The recordings of choice remain Sinopoli’s odd-but-riveting reading on DG with Domingo (singing in very odd German), and Solti on Decca with a slightly strained René Kollo but an amazing Christa Ludwig as Venus. But this new one presents the score, as it were, as written, without a quirk or tic, and there’s something alluring about that.

Robert Levine


I haven’t always been impressed by Marek Janowski’s unfolding Wagner cycle, but this instalment is a hit on almost every front. The conductor’s vision of the work is wholly convincing and all the performers give of their best to create a performance that is exciting and musically brilliant.

Let’s begin with the soloists, who are led by an excellent titular knight in Robert Dean Smith. I’ve said before that I really admire his tenor, but Tannhäuser isn’t the perfect role for him. Admittedly, you could say that about almost anyone because Tannhäuser is probably the most thankless tenor role in the Wagner canon. All the same, Smith lacks the lyricism that makes the role sound interesting in the Venusberg scenes. This, however, is my only criticism, because he has heroic ardour in spades. His duet with Elisabeth is really exhilarating, particularly the point where they sing Gepriesen sei die Stunde, helped by Janowski’s exciting tempo and the brilliant soprano of Nina Stemme, more of which later. He also manages to sound properly deflated for his appearance in the final act, and it’s obvious from his vocal acting why Wolfram doesn’t recognise him. The Rome Narration is a brilliant piece of vocal story-telling, climaxing on an admirable snarl on the word verdammt, and his transcendent redemption at the end comes as a climax to a brilliantly conceived take on the part. He isn’t the most exciting or vocally thrilling Tannhäuser on disc – for me that’s still Peter Seiffert for Barenboim – but he sings the role extremely well, and that puts him a cut above most other Wagner tenors.

His pair of lovers is also excellent. Nina Stemme is a pretty unique Elisabeth. She has none of the girlish innocence that characterises most sopranos’ take on the part: instead there is a regal quality to her singing and her commanding vocal tone reminds us that Elisabeth is, after all, a princess of royal blood. Dich teure Halle is brilliant, the excitable quavers in the winds underpinning a performance that is excited without losing control, and her plea at the end of the act is most moving, as is her great prayer to the Virgin in Act 3. Marina Prudenskaya, in contrast, is a sultry, alluring Venus. She has an entirely different character to her voice and she convinces not just as the goddess of love but also as the repository of all sensual pleasure. She is winningly lovely in the Venusberg scene and even quite vampish when she returns at the end of Act 3. It’s a lovely performance, with all the right aspects of the role and none of the overplaying that can sometimes damage it.

The other parts are very well sung, too. The Landgraf’s part suits Albert Dohmen’s deep, slightly bluff voice very well indeed, much better than did Hans Sachs in Janowski’s Meistersinger, and he is a very fine vocal presence. The minstrels sing well, with an effectively bitter Biterolf from Wilhelm Schwinghammer, and there is a most appealing Shepherd from Bianca Reim. However, everyone’s thunder is just about stolen by the sensational Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher. I’ve praised this singer to the skies before, and this isn’t the place to repeat those plaudits, but he makes this role come alive in a way that few singers can manage. Wolfram is humane, self-sacrificial and sympathetic, but ultimately quite one-dimensional. Gerhaher, however, makes him a complex character, full of contradictory emotions and thoughtful sensitivity. Listen, for example, to his first contribution to the song contest. It’s often a fairly unexciting moment when one’s fingers can tend to drum in the opera house, but Gerhaher invests it with all the thought, care and attention to language that he brings to his song recitals, transforming it into a profound meditation underpinned by his sensationally lyrical voice. His monologue at the start of Act 3 is deeply moving, and his Abendstern solo will reduce you to tears. What an extraordinary singer!

Janowski and his orchestra also up their game when in the company of such a brilliant cast. By this point in the series you can take Janowski’s quick tempi for granted, but here he uses them to inject an extra element of excitement into a score whose plot can sometimes drag. It is this that he uses to such exhilarating effect in the opening scene of Act 2, and I noticed an extra element of energy to the entry of the guests, as well as to the final ensemble of Act 2. When he does broaden out, therefore, it is to very calculated effect, such as in the theme of the Pope’s love-feast in the prelude to Act 3. Throughout, Janowski underpins the singers with instrumental colour that is sensitive and utterly appropriate, bringing out the very best in them. Listen, for example, to the opening of Act 2 or, even better, the winds that accompany the end of Elisabeth’s Act 3 prayer, tender, pleading, sensitive and deeply moving. The orchestra play like gods for him, and they are helped by brilliant Pentatone sound that picks up every aspect and opens up the inner textures of the ensemble, particularly those at the end of the second act, which can often get lost in the overall sonic fog. The chorus are outstanding too, and they even manage the off-stage elements very well: the pilgrims of both the first and third acts sound as though they have approached from off-stage and move off again, even though this must have been impossible in the context of the live concert performance that constituted this recording. My only complaint is that the off-stage instruments, such as the hunting horns in Act 1 or the Act 3 Venusberg music, are too far away and, therefore, difficult to hear.

That’s no reason to turn from this issue, though, which has an enormous amount going for it. I’ll still turn to Barenboim for his hero and to Sawallisch for the overall excitement of what must have been a tremendous performance in the theatre at Bayreuth, but Janowski comes close behind them in terms of theatrical excitement and some outstanding singing. Parsifal was previously my favourite in Janowski’s Wagner cycle, but I think Tannhäuser has just taken the crown.

Simon Thompson

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 390 MByte (MP3) broadcast
Concert performance