Many is the critic who has bewailed the existence of a
truly recommendable recorded Lohengrin and this in spite of the efforts
of Kempe and Kubelík. First of all let it be stated that Jochum does not act as
a Knight in Shining Armour in this respect, for there are shortcomings to this
1952 account. Yet what he does provide is a moving experience, drawing out the
prophetic passages that speak of mature Wagner while manoeuvring us expertly
through those that ... aren’t.
The Act 1 Prelude demonstrates the
excellence of his orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony. This is glowing,
heart-felt Wagner, exquisitely-shaped, at times positively Parsifallic. This
Prelude exudes a great sense of breadth, of reverence, reaching far forward in
this respect, implying the Holy revelations of the very end of the score.
Further, lines are magnificently delineated. In terms of sheer control, there
are few greater tests of orchestra and conductor than this, and Jochum and his
players emerge magnificent; the climactic brass truly awe-inspiring. For
further evidence of his ear, try the unaccompanied vocal ensemble towards the
end of Act 1 (track 8 on disc 1 here), an ensemble that for once is not a
meeting of vocal wobbles.
The Herald is Hans Braun – and the
greatest compliment I can give him is that he does actually sound like one. But
it is Otto von Rohr that impresses as King Heinrich, his entry huge, the tone
that of a real bass. It is important to note carefully here Jochum’s handling
of the accompaniment, for he is here, as throughout the set, ever alive to the
dramatic action in the orchestra. He never rushes his singer, so that Franz’s
superb diction registers.
Note how Jochum expertly prepares the
entrance of his Elsa, Annelies Kupper. The magnificent chorus (Bavarian Radio
also) is completely at Jochum’s beck and call, always well-balanced at whatever
dynamic level is demanded. Kupper’s ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ reveals a pure
soprano who has power up top yet still retains her tone at forte and above.
This Elsa seems genuinely swept away by the second part of her solo (‘In Lichter
Waffen Scheine’). Her prayer seems genuinely heart-felt – no wonder a swan
appears as if by magic. Right from Lohengrin’s words of gratitude towards the
creature, one can appreciate Fehenberger’s appealing voice. This is a
soft-grained farewell; Fehenberger becomes suddenly stronger when he greets the
King (track 7, 2’57). Fehenberger had the ability to project Wagner’s long
legato lines well, an invaluable asset for any Lohengrin.
Act 2 takes us to distinctly darker
realms. At night, Telramund and Ortrud plot dark deeds of revenge. And how Jochum
sets up this uneasy nocturnal atmosphere. The two characters here are well
cast. Telramund (the great Ferdinand Franz) is focused, set against Helena
Braun’s threatening Ortrud; she sounds like a higher-pitched Erda, if you can
imagine! In fact, Braun can be ultra-imposing; try her ‘Was macht dich in so
wilder Klage doch vergeh’n?’ (CD 2 track 1). Her pitching is spot-on. Jochum
maintains the dark hues perfectly throughout this scene and as an added bonus,
when Ortrud and Telramund sing together in octaves at ‘Der Rache Werk’, we
actually hear octaves! Later in the act, when Ortruds as a species tend to want
to shriek and wail, Braun just manages to avoid this. A pity that Franz seems
somewhat strained at the top of his range in his interruption (track 11). Jochum
maintains the dramatic tension throughout this act.
Elsa’s entrance from the Kemenate
(women’s quarters), CD 2 track 2, is even purer after the foregoing
The most famous passages from this opera
occur in Act 3, of course. The Prelude is stock-full of energy, accents
well-placed and there is just the right amount of give-and-take. The chorus,
too, is exemplary in ‘Treulich geführt’. A shame, then, that Lohengrin’s ‘Das süsse
Lied verhallt’ is not 100% in tune. It is Kupper’s Elsa that really lifts the
ensuing duet although there is the distinct feeling that Fehenberger is raising
his game, heading towards his ‘big’ end. Kupper sounds like a truly innocent,
Jochum paces this act superbly, as one
single line heading towards the climactic final revelations. At various points,
I questioned Fehenberger’s Heldentenor status and indeed his final
moments are marked by a more lyric impulse.
‘Im fernem Land’ is rapt, Jochum
providing a positive halo of strings and flutes around his Lohengrin. Fehenberger
floats the important word ‘Taube’ (‘Dove’) but at a thin half-voice, and his
high note on ‘Krone’ does not ring out sufficiently. More, the all-important
revelation of his name simply does not appear as the imposing moment it really
is. ‘Mein lieber Schwann’ does bear the weight of an unbearable sadness, though
... so why the half-hearted way with his final couplet?
So it appears the perfect Lohengrin
still eludes us. Nevertheless all admirers of this opera should hear this,
without a doubt.