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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin - opera in three acts. (plus Melchior arias)
Lohengrin, Lauritz Melchior (ten); Elsa, Elisabeth Rethberg (sop); Ortrud, Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo); Friedrich von Telramund, Julius Huehn (bar); King of Germany, Emanuel List (bass); The King’s Herald, Leonard Warren (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Erich Leinsdorf
Rec. From Live Broadcast on January 27th 1940 (Lohengrin). Broadcast Recordings 1935-1936 (Melchior)

In his introduction to this performance Richard Caniell, archivist and guiding light of the series notes at page 5 of the booklet, that the 1939-1940 season at the ‘Met’ was a feast for lovers of Wagnerian opera. The Guild series has already picked from the Met’s rich orchard including ‘Die Walküre’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ both featuring Melchior and Flagstad. The roster at the theatre included the greatest Wagner singers of the age, and in the case of Melchior and Flagstad, of any age. Erich Leinsdorf had taken over the German repertoire at the house on the death of Arthur Bodansky in November 1939. Bodansky is notorious amongst Wagnerians for the often savage ‘cuts’ he made and this is true of the present performance. Over 40 minutes of music are missing compared to Kempe (EMI ‘GROC’). Worse, as far as some of the great Wagnerian singers were concerned, was that Leinsdorf wasn’t Bodansky who they were used to. In those days Leinsdorf was considered lacking in authority and experience. Whatever the tensions, they were buried in the creativity of the performance heard here, with Melchior strong and secure throughout, even a little lachrymose in his ‘farewell’ (CD 3 tr. 12). As Lohengrin’s lover, Elsa, Elisabeth Rethburg’s silvery soprano shows some signs of her age; she had debuted at the theatre as Aida in 1923. Thorborg, two years her junior and on the Met roster since 1936, is formidable as Ortrud, although as Caniell admits (p.11), Wagner’s tessitura defeats her in the ravings in Act 3.

Of the lower male voices Huehn is steady as Friedrich if not ideally refulgent of tone (CD 2 tr. 14). He is a paragon compared to List’s wobbly King. By comparison, in one of his earliest performances at the Met, Leonard Warren as the herald gives every indication of the vocal virtues he was to bring as the leading Verdi baritone at the theatre. This was a mantle he was to wear until his untimely death on that stage on March 4th 1960 during a performance of La Forza Del Destino.

This Lohengrin has appeared on various labels since the days of ‘EJS’ LPs. With some commendable restraint Richard Caniell recounts (p 34) how an entrepreneur, posing as a student, joined the Immortal Performance Recorded Music Society, who had been given the right to access the then copyright NBC performances, and stole various tape restorations. These including this performance were issued on various labels naming ‘Eklipse’ and ‘Walhal’. This issue has undergone much further work since then. Whilst still conforming to the philosophy of unfiltered presentation and pitch corrections this is perhaps best compared to the transfer of the same performance issued on ‘Arkadia’ in 2000. On this Guild issue un-correctable defects in Melchior’s ‘Höchstes Vetrau’n’ (CD 3 tr. 6) have been patched out from other sources, as has the Prelude to Act I. In an opera so full of pageantry, sound has an important part to play in enjoyment. Collectors will need to weigh the merits of Melchior in the opera (and the four arias in the appendices) with that of other interpreters on historical and more modern recordings and then decide if investment in this issue will be worthwhile.

Robert J. Farr


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