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Len Mullenger:

Lohengrin - Jess Thomas
Elsa von Brabant - Elisabeth Grümmer
Ortrud - Christa Ludwig
Telramund - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
The King - Gottlob Frick
The Herald - Otto Wiener

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper & Wiener Philharmoniker, Rudolf Kempe
EMI Great Recordings of the Century CMS5 67415 2 3 discs [72'04, 77'12 & 68'07], Mid Price


This recording of Lohengrin moves from one mid priced release to another - and not, it should be said, in noticeably better sound. However, it is one of the very finest recordings of this troublesome opera available and I would not begrudge it the status to which it has now been elevated in EMI's Great Recordings series.

By troublesome I do not refer to the work itself which, by Wagner's standards, is one of his most accessible operas. It is neither as fantastical as Tannhäuser, nor as complex as any opera in the Ring cycle. It does not have the sheer beauty of Tristan, nor the immensity of expression of Parsifal. No, Lohengrin is almost simplicity itself being predominantly about the battle between good and evil and set against a background of pageantry and intrigue. It is troublesome because it has singularly failed to produce a truly great performance in its long recording history.

Rudolf Kempe conducted the very first performance to appear on record back in 1952 - a performance that nowadays appears very badly sung indeed. By contrast this recording, made between 1962 and 1963, is almost as perfect as one could wish for - except for the singing of Jess Thomas as Lohengrin. It may be disingenuous to relegate this recording from 'great' to 'very fine' just on the basis of one singer - and it must be said in a role which is hardly dominant in the opera - but Thomas' performance is of such leaden expressiveness, teetering on the brink of boredom, that it seriously deprives Kempe's performance of a truly glowing magnificence. The voice lacks poetry, most notably in his scene 2, Act III duet with Elsa as he finally reveals his name. Even though he announces himself as a Knight of the Grail, and the son of Parsifal, there is no sense of spirit in his voice, nothing enigmatic as he declaims his lines, almost sprechgesang.

Thomas is not alone in finding the role a challenge. Domingo, in his recording for Solti, has poetry and beauty of tone by the bucketful but he ultimately lacks the one quality Thomas has in spades: a genuine Heldontenorish ring to the voice. Sandor Konya, the Lohengrin for Leinsdorf, miraculously seems to combine both virtues giving us what is surely the most satisfactory reading of Lohengrin committed to disc. Leinsdorf has the misfortune, however, to have a duo of leading ladies who are miscast.

This is not the case with Kempe. Elisabeth Grümmer projects the purity of Elsa quite beautifully, and is extraordinarily passionate in her duet with Lohengrin. The size of her voice is almost perfect for the part - a welcome contrast to the effortless, but too luxurious, Jessye Norman for Solti. Christa Ludwig, as the evil Ortrud, is simply unmatched on disc giving us a viciously drawn picture of sheer nastiness in a voice that is as sensuous and beautiful as it ever became. To hear her magnificent call for vengeance in Act II, "Entweite Götter!", is simply chilling. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Telramund is glorious and perhaps never finer in Wagner than he is here. He is miraculously pitch perfect in a notorious part and conveys more of Telramund's madness than any other singer in the role. Gottlob Frick is firm of tone as Heinrich.

These are glories to behold, but the real stars of this set are the Vienna Philharmonic and Rudolf Kempe. Kempe's achievement is to give this music a mystical edge his rivals lack, and he does so with a painter's sense of colour and tincture. The Vienna Philharmonic is, as Richard Osborne says in his wonderful booklet, "the ne plus ultra of opera orchestras, with a tradition of Wagner playing that goes back, through Hans Richter, to Wagner himself". Between them they give an account of the score that is unlikely ever to be surpassed, although for a single, truly great performance of the Act I Prelude one must turn to Furtwängler and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra on Testament. It is simply spellbinding.

Though Jess Thomas' Lohengrin is a disappointment compared with the remaining glories of this set, it is, I think, the primary recommendation for this opera. I cannot detect any noticeable difference in the new transfer but the sound is warm and firmly focused. In 1963, when this set came out, it was an instant classic and first choice. It remains so almost forty years later.

Marc Bridle

Performance -

Sound -

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