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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) – Noble 1
Josef Janko (tenor) – Noble 2
Alfons Herwig (baritone) – Noble 3
Theo Adam (bass) – Noble 4
Bayreuth Festival Chorus/Wilhelm Pitz
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
Recorded in July – August 1953 in the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth. First issued as Decca LXT 2880-2884. Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.110308-10 [78:14 + 71:49 + 69:30]

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This now more than 50-year-old recording has always been held in high esteem by Wagnerians, at least for the singing of several of the leading characters. Keilberth’s conducting has sometimes been castigated for being too anonymous, too Kapellmeisterisch. Having played the complete set twice within a few days I have to say that I don’t share that standpoint. He is not the interventionist conductor, pulling the music about to make it his personal belonging; he is rather the humble servant who makes everything function without being observed. But from the very beginning he has a firm grip about the music and his gradual building up of the prelude, growing imperceptibly from almost inaudibility to that first cymbal clash at 7:06 is indeed impressive, and throughout the opera he is ever attentive to the needs of the drama with flexible speeds and powerful fortissimos. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra play well with fine string tone, so important in this opera, and incisive trumpets. The chorus, trained by Wilhelm Pitz, are well in the picture and there are few wobblers among them. What is a problem is the actual sound quality, and I don’t blame Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration work, which I have admired and lauded in several reviews recently, but what was on the original Decca tapes and, in this case, LP-pressings. In spite of the "Full Frequency Range Recording", much advertised in the 50s, it is a thin sound, especially affecting the strings. The dynamic range is also rather narrow, which becomes obvious when comparing with more recent recordings. Just a few years after this recording Decca became the sonic leader with the sensational Solti Ring cycle. But as always with "historical" recordings one adjusts to the limitations and listens to the music, which after all is the main reason for listening.

The opera was recorded live during performances in the Festspielhaus. According to a review of a Teldec release of this same recording about ten years ago, the recording date was July 23rd, which was the first performance of this Wolfgang Wagner production. According to Malcolm Walker’s booklet notes the rehearsal and the first performance were recorded but also the last three performances, so it seems that what we hear on these discs is a conglomerate of all these performances. Joining them together has been skilfully done, for I can’t detect any tape-joints and the whole appears to have been recorded as one piece. It should be noted, though, that there are a good deal of stage noises, most disturbing during the first few minutes of the prelude, when there is a lot of clumping about behind the curtain. Otherwise there is a very realistic fighting scene in act 1 between Telramund and Lohengrin.

The solo singing is on a very high level and several of the singers must be counted to the most important Wagner singers of the whole post war era. It is indeed interesting to find in the cast list two young singers at the beginning of their careers here taking the small roles of Noble 1 and 4: character tenor Gerhard Stolze and bass Theo Adam, a great Wotan and Hans Sachs for many years. Of the main singers Hans Braun’s Herald is well in the picture but not as characterful as some. Josef Greindl is an authoritative Henry the Fowler with his gravelly voice, but he is a bit unsteady, something that afflicted his singing in other recordings too, although he was a wonderful Osmin in Fricsay’s Die Entführung and a towering Hunding in a recording of act 1 from Die Walküre with Windgassen as a fine Siegmund. But the real great deep-voice performance here is Hermann Uhde’s Telramund. It is difficult to imagine a stronger performance. He seems to have unlimited power and stamina at his disposal and especially the first scene of act 2 (CD1 tracks 12 and 13 and CD 2 track 1) is a hair-raising thriller: he growls, he whispers, he shouts and he colours his voice to perfection. Not even Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the Kempe recording can compete. Uhde’s identification with Telramund is so total that it must have been a hell for him to return to his normal self after the performance and I can’t imagine anyone can get so deep under the skin of a character under studio conditions.

His Ortrud, Astrid Varnay, is almost on a par with this Telramund. Varnay was one of the greatest dramatic singing actresses, competing first with Martha Mödl and later with Birgit Nilsson, whose voice of shining steel outclassed all competition during the late 50s and the 60s. But Varnay was the greater actress and she also had a voice of impressive quality, more mezzo-ish than Nilsson’s, who could sound girlish when she felt for that, while Varnay always sounded like a grand woman. This Ortrud is also hard to beat for dramatic conviction. Singing heavy roles from very early in her career gradually made lasting impressions on her voice and her wide vibrato can be troublesome to some listeners. I am usually disturbed by heavy vibratos but in Varnay’s case it only adds to the creditability of her interpretation: she sounds evil. At the very opposite pole is fair Elsa, here sung with steady and beautiful tone by Eleanor Steber. She has also the power to shine through the orchestra and the ensemble at climaxes. On the other hand there have been Elsas on disc with more character, more inward, more lovely. My ideal Elsa is Gundula Janowitz on the Kubelik recording. Even among recorded Lohengrins this recording’s protagonist comes high on the list. Wolfgang Windgassen sings with great beauty of tone, he has the required heroic ring to the voice, he has dignity. Still he feels a bit uninvolved during the first two acts, the voice not fully controlled, but in the final act he is magnificent. The bridal chamber scene with Elsa is filled with untiring heroic singing and In fernem Land is noble and dignified. Sandor Konya in Leinsdorf’s RCA recording may be even better and Domingo in Solti’s recording surpasses himself. Returning to that version confirmed the impression I had back in the 80s when it was new, that it is the best ever Lohengrin on disc. Kubelik’s on DG is also very good but has a sub-standard Ortrud.

Considering the dated sound this Keilberth recording can’t be recommended as the only version in a CD collection but it should be there as a complement for the best evil pair ever, Uhde and Varnay, and for a marvellous third act by Windgassen. At the price everyone can afford it.

Göran Forsling

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