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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin
(1850).
René Maison (tenor) Lohengrin; Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) Elsa; Karin Branzell (contralto) Ortrud; Julius Huehn (baritone) Telramund; Ludwig Hofmann (bass) King Heinrich; Arnold Gabor (tenor) Herrufer
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York/Maurice de Abravanel.
Includes broadcast commentaries on each act.
Rec. Metropolitan Opera House, New York on March 27th, 1937. ADD
WALHALL ETERNITY SERIES WLCD0011 [3 CDs: 61:28 + 70:33 + 55:52]

 

Tolerance is required when listening here, but it is well worth it given the strength of the cast. Possibly most interesting, though, is the presence of Maurice de Abravanel at the helm. Abravanel had a three-year contract at the Met for the years 1936-38. He made his debut there with Samson et Dalila. He conducted Lohengrin there more than any other opera, a total of six times (including New Year’s Day 1937). This one comes from March 1937.

A Met broadcast, there are broadcast commentaries included on each of the three discs and these help to set the atmosphere. Not helping, though is the noise that accompanies or rather dominates the Prelude. It sounds like a piece of paper repeatedly buffeted by a fan! Underneath that and the hiss, there is a rapt, glowing Act 1 Prelude, with the New York strings exhibiting fine command in the stratosphere. In fact the orchestra is excellent pretty much throughout, and Abravanel is a superb interpreter, never losing contact with his singers and always aware of the dramatic situation.

And dramatic this reading can he. Abravanel is not really one to underline the mystical side of Lohengrin (Pars(z)ifal’s son, after all). The music moves on without any real sense of rushing, and in keeping with this Abravanel seems intent on emphasizing the foreground/early middle-ground of the musical surface (to use Schenkerian terminology). This is not to imply shallowness, however. Far from it – witness his pacing of the choral ‘Welch hohe Wunder muss ich seh’n?’, CD1 track 14. The orchestra excels also for the famous opening of Act 3, so it is all the more a pity that the cymbal clashes are terribly caught.

The two ‘couples’ (Lohengrin/Elsa; Ortrud/Telramund) are superbly cast. The first big ‘number’ we hear is Elsa’s ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ (CD 1 Track 7) and we immediately get to the heart of Flagstad. Yes, this is tenderly sung but nevertheless there is a core of iron here that gives the character, from the off, an inner strength that is not always there in other interpretations. Elsa’s resolution as she decides to wait for her ‘saviour’ seems therefore beyond doubt.

René Maison is a lyrical Lohengrin who possesses all the requisite Heldentenor strength and projection for the ‘big’ moments. More, his sound is lovely, a real joy to encounter. Like Flagstad, there is steel in his voice that in his case at louder dynamics gives a ‘ring’ to the long melodic lines. All of which seems to imply that this Lohengrin and Elsa will work well together, and how true this turns out to be; try their tender and rapt Act 1 duet, CD1 track 13. Of course, any Lohengrin must rise to the final challenges when he reveals his name. On this the opera stands or falls, and Maison in this performance saves more than enough so the Heldentenor ‘ring’ can give his statements the requisite authority. Such a shame that surface noise comes in just at the wrong time - just before his entrance with ‘Im fernem Land’ - and he sounds distanced. This is quite a swift trip to Monsalvat, and the mysticism of the knights is not fully brought out. Rather, Abravanel and Maison see this passage as moving towards ‘Mein lieber Schwann’. How believable, therefore, is Lohengrin’s frustration at ‘O Elsa! Nur ein Jahr an deiner Seite’. Branzell’s Ortrud does not disappoint in the closing pages; she sounds positively insane by this point.

Karin Branzell was at the Met from 1924 to 1951. She sang Erda in the Stiedry 1951 Met Ring. She suits Ortrud well, being able to project evil and barely-controlled venom through her voice. Julius Huehn’s Telramund seems happier (and more gripping) at higher dynamic levels, where he can project a sense of the grand. Of course it is in Act 2 that these two get to show their mettle. It is here that Huehn is at his most imposing, set against Branzell’s conniving, evil portrayal of Ortrud. Abravanel underlies their scene with dark hues - sometimes the orchestra’s pianissimi are difficult to hear under the hiss, but not so often. Branzell is very convincing in her attempts to convince Telramund, and when they do come to sing together (track 4), it becomes a very significant moment indeed. Only later in the act does Branzell begin to tire.

In contrast, Flagstad paints Elsa as tender and, in contrast to Act 1, impressionable, which makes for excellent vocal contrast with the ‘evil pair’. Abravanel finds superb drama throughout here – such a pity that when one gets to track 7 there is a sudden wrenching up of recording level and opening out of sound (at around 1’45). A similar thing happens on CD3, track 2 when the music suddenly seems to come into focus around 4’45. Abravanel clearly relishes the tender moments of the third act. The famous ‘Das süsse Lied verhallt’ is a case in point, with both Lohengrin and Elsa exhibiting supreme sensitivity for line, almost feeding off each other, with the conductor ensuring thing move along inevitably. The only fly in the ointment is that both singers can be a little loose of diction on occasion; it is live, after all.

Ludwig Hofmann is a more than adequate Heinrich; Arnold Gabor a strongish Herrufer. The chorus is not all it could be - and it has a lot to do in this work - tending towards the messy and even undisciplined at times. Seasoned Lohengrinites will want this for many good and strong reasons, and I for one am not going to suggest they hesitate. Despite my caveats above, this remains a valuable Wagner sound document.

Colin Clarke

 



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