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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1850)
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) Lohengrin; Eleanor Steber (soprano) Elsa von Brabant; Hermann Uhde (baritone) Friedrich von Telramund; Astrid Varnay (soprano) Ortrud; Josef Greindl (bass) Heinrich der Vogler; Hans Braun (baritone) Herald; Gerhard Stolze (tenor) First Noble; Josef Janko (tenor) Second Noble; Alfons Herwig (baritone) Third Noble; Theo Adam (bass) Fourth Noble
Bayreuth Festival Chorus; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth.
Recorded in July/August 1953 in the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.
First issued as Decca LXT 2880/84.
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn.
NAXOS 8.110308-10 [262’37: 78:14 + 71:49 + 69:30]


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Great to see this Lohengrin in an excellent transfer (Obert-Thorn) at bargain basement price. Informed notes by Malcolm Walker and synopsis comprise the accompanying documentation – maybe one day Naxos will be enough of a super-power to include libretto and translation too? 

Keilberth’s handling of the score is impressive because he treats this as mature Wagner. Parts of the score point forward across the years; parts of Act 1 do not, however, and Keilberth plays these for all they are worth. Interesting to revisit this Keilberth so soon after reviewing the recent Nagano Parsifal DVD (link to review), if only to rediscover the musical links between the two works. It is the more ‘mystic’ moments that inspire the Wagner of Lohengrin – most explicitly the final stages of Act 3 - of course Lohengrin is son of Parsifal in legend - and they seem to inspire Keilberth too. Right at the other end of the drama (i.e. the very beginning), Keilberth sculpts an Act 1 Prelude that glows and contains fascinating orchestrational shifts. The whole prelude sounds as if it emerges into the light, unhurriedly and totally naturally. The risk here is that it will overshadow the ensuing events on-stage (to an extent it does) – when the ‘curtain’ rises we are musically clearly still in the latter stages of early period Wagner.

Keilberth marshals his forces resolutely though. The chorus is magnificent here as elsewhere; no surprise as the Chorus Master was the great Wilhelm Pitz. The fact that the Herald is excellent - huge-of-voice baritone Hans Braun - gives an indication as to the quality of casting. The King is Josef Greindl, no less, another big voice but imbued also with real warmth. Actually it is interesting that the three male voices in these early stages seem to vie for the most impressive vocal entrance, for Hermann Uhde’s Friedrich is no shrinking violet when it comes to announcing his presence, either; although he does display, at least initially, some small strain at the top of his range. Uhde is the only one of the three to disappoint subsequently though. He can gabble his words rather: towards the end of CD 1 track 3. 

Elsa von Brabant is the American soprano Eleanor Steber (1914-1990), a Met artist. This Lohengrin may be her most famous recording. It deserves to be. Her pure tone is marvellous to hear, but whereas many sopranos feed off this and just leave it there, Steber’s Elsa becomes a believable character. When she sings ‘Mein armer Bruder!’ (before ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’), one believes her emotions without question. The expression at ‘Einsam’ itself speaks with an enviable directness; not to mention superb diction. Keilberth gives her all the time in the world while her tone suits this music that deals with ‘her’ knight. This is Elsa’s ‘call’, her prayer. That Lohengrin appears in response to this prayer lies the crux of the ensuing events. He is borne of faith and requires faith in return – that Elsa never ask his name.

Steber’s Elsa has vocal power, too; try the build-up to ‘Ein Wunder’ in CD1 track 6 or the later stages of Act 2, CD 2 track 9. She has a backbone - unlike some Elsas - and in being so endowed becomes human, believable and her ‘weaknesses’ become understandable.

Wolfgang Windgassen (1914-1974) is the Lohengrin. According to Malcolm Walker’s notes, his first venture into Heldentenor territory was Siegmund in 1950-51 – so this comes only a couple of years thereafter. His entrance is impressive, too (‘Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwann!’). Full, strong and lyrical, this is a voice that can really fly. Windgassen was also intelligent enough to pace himself, a must in this work more than most; two ‘big’ numbers, ‘In fernem Land’ and ‘Mein lieber Schwann’ come right at the end.

Keilberth’s shading of the opening of Act 2 is very dark indeed, and so it is good that the Ortrud and the Telramund do not disappoint. Uhde has real power and the two singers work superbly together, but it is Astrid Varnay that is the very incarnation of Ortrud’s evil. Her every utterance drips with the conniving and the twisted. She lightens her voice as she calls Elsa, presumably to make herself more appealing; the scene between the two women is gripping because the casting is so spot on. Uhde is not as consistent as his Ortrud, though. His portrayal of his character is not as strong as Varnay’s, but if one keeps that sort of company …

The second half of Act Two reacquaints us with the excellence of the chorus. The Herald here seems to have added reverb. The famous Act 3 features a perfectly soft and balanced chorus (‘treulich geführt’) and Keilberth being ultra-affectionate with his woodwind solos. Here it is though that Lohengrin and Elsa that get their chance to shine and so they do. Windgassen’s affinity with lyric outpouring is everywhere evident. Later, ‘Im fernem Land’ has something of the special about it without quite transporting the listener. On the credit side, the words ‘Vom Gral’ are not too ‘Heldentenorisch’ but there is the niggling doubt that Windgassen milks ‘Mein lieber Schwann!’ too much.

This is of course not the only incarnation of this performance; Golden Melodram and Teldec have also issued it. Yet for this price and with this quality of transfer, the Naxos stands alone.

Colin Clarke

see also Review by Göran Forsling


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