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Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883)
Lohengrin (1850)
Lauritz Melchior (tenor) – Lohengrin; Astrid Varnay (soprano) – Elsa of Brabant; Alexander Sved (baritone) – Friedrich von Telramund; Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo) – Ortrud; Norman Cordon (bass) – Henry the Fowler, King of Germany; Mack Harrell (baritone) – Herald
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded at live broadcast on 2nd January 1943
Appendix: Bridal Chamber Scene (Act III, Scene 2) sung by Lauritz Melchior and Emmy Bettendorf. Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann
Recorded in Berlin 1926
NAXOS 8.110235-37 [3 CDs: 55:05 + 69:49 + 74:26]

Let’s take the technicalities first. This performance was recorded off the National Broadcasting Company’s South American feed on 16 inch lacquer-coated glass-based discs. The originals are no longer available but luckily they were transferred to magnetic tape a long time ago and this was the source material for Ward Marston’s restoration work and transfer onto CD. The South American provenance can be glimpsed at the very end of the broadcast when during the final applause and curtain calls we hear the Spanish-speaking announcer’s comments. Marston also mentions the pitch fluctuations on the originals, which he has corrected as far as possible. Otherwise the discs were in perfect condition, some noisy patches in the third act apart, and the surface noise so unobtrusive that he has not used any noise reduction. What is apparent straight from the outset is a string sound that is hard, maybe glassy is a suitable description of it. This leaves us bereft of the warmth that I would hope was experienced by the audience "on site" that Saturday afternoon. Not that Leinsdorf’s music-making was characterized by warmth in the first place. Here the young conductor, just turned 30, was obviously inspiring his forces to play at white heat. This makes it a thrilling Lohengrin, but also an aggressive one. Comparing Leinsdorf and Solti on the latter’s Decca recording from 1987, the Austrian is invariably faster. Leinsdorf recorded the work under studio conditions in the mid-sixties with his "own" Boston Symphony and with possibly the best latter-day Lohengrin, the Hungarian Sandor Konya. I have only heard excerpts from that recording but my recollections are that Leinsdorf had cooled down a bit by then.

Strangely enough, rarely during the present performance, did I feel that he was rushing things unduly. What remains in my memory is a highly-strung dramatic reading with some excellent singers – soloists, that is. The chorus is enthusiastic but hardly distinguished and there are some wobblers who stick out, which mars the third act Bridal Chorus. The prelude to that act is swift of course and a bit aggressive. The soft middle section lacks the flow of the best performances; it is curiously chopped up.

But the solo-singing is quite another kettle of crayfish, as Bill Kenny likes to put it; head and shoulders above the rest is that remarkable Wagnerian, Lauritz Melchior. Danish by birth but naturalized American he was already a couple of years past fifty, but the passing years had left his magnificent voice practically unaffected by the ravages of time. And he didn’t spare himself. At the Met alone he sang 499 performances. With the exception of a single Otello every one of these performances featured him in a Wagner role. There were no less than 129 Tristans, probably the worst voice-killer in all opera.

His first entrance here, his farewell to the swan: Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan (CD1 tr. 8) is magical with his characteristic rounded, warm and silvery tone and ease of voice production. He has a slight tendency to scoop up to some notes but in the main this is very clean singing and with a lot of emotion. And when, front of stage, he addresses the King his tones cut like thunderbolts through the air. At that point the 63 years that separate the recording from the present day seem to disappear, such is the presence of his delivery. He sings Elsa! Ich liebe dich! (near the end of track 9) with the utmost sincerity. Then in the last act’s long Bridal Chamber Scene (CD3 tracks 3–7) he is initially ingratiatingly mellow and caring although he shows Nordic steel in Elsa, mein Weib. All through the scene his singing is something to savour. He is loving and amazed at Atmest du nicht mit mir die süssen Düfte? (tr. 5). Then at Höchtes Vertrau’n (tr. 6) he is "stern and gravely" as Wagner’s instruction reads, and at An meine Brust, du Süsse, Reine he is again full of love. Finally, after killing Telramund, his Weh, nun ist all unser Glück dahin! (tr. 7) is filled with sorrow and despair. His two big set-pieces in the final scene are also magically sung and there is no sign of wear and tiring; rather he is so deeply moved at Leb wohl, mein susses Weib that one can hear the tears in his voice. Hearing the greatest Wagner tenor ever, still at the height of his powers, in such a widely encompassing role is a privilege indeed and alone worth the modest outlay for the discs.

But he isn’t the only reason for acquiring the set. The other Scandinavian in the cast, Swedish mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg, is almost as impressive in her admittedly smaller role. What impresses most is her ability to express all Ortrud’s evil and contempt without sacrificing the beauty of the voice and that wonderful legato. Basically one of the noblest voices of her own or any period, she is still able to sound venomous. The absence of over-the-top histrionics - sadly a device used by far too many Ortruds as their only means of expression - makes her even more dangerous. She has all the power needed but never over-uses it.

Astrid Varnay, interestingly enough also born in Scandinavia but of Hungarian and Austrian parentage, is caught here early in her career. She has a voice more suited to Ortrud than to Elsa. In fact a decade later she sang Ortrud at Bayreuth, recorded by Decca and reissued by Naxos earlier this year (review). Hers was an Isolde and Brünnhilde voice with great power and regal tones but she never had the ability to fine down sufficiently to express the frailty and vulnerability of Elsa. It’s a thrilling performance even so and well suited to Leinsdorf’s no-nonsense approach. She tries hard in the third act Bridal Chamber Scene but her part in the proceedings remains that of an Isolde in disguise.

Of the men Mack Harrell, father of cellist Lynn Harrell, has a quality voice; he delivers bel canto-Wagner of the highest order. He reminds me of the young Ingvar Wixell who sang this part in Stockholm in the 1960s. I recorded the premiere from the radio on my reel-to-reel recorder. It was through that performance that I first learnt this opera. Norman Cordon is a worthy King Henry with his steady black-tinted bass. A really thrilling performance comes from Hungarian-born Alexander Sved, who is best known as a Verdi singer. Here in his only Wagner part he delineates a Telramund who is not to be taken lightly. He sometimes presses too hard and the voice is beginning to show signs of wear, but his declamation is intense and his first act charge against Elsa is hurled at her with biting venom.

There are some stage noises and there are also a couple of cuts. In act two, near the end, the ensemble Welch ein Geheimnis muss der Held bewahren? is deleted. Also in the last act most of the scene between In fernem Land and Mein lieber Schwan is gone. There are no great losses though. Instead we get the whole Bridal Chamber duet as an appendix in the well-known studio recording by Parlophone from 1926 with the young Melchior and Emmy Bettendorf. The sound here is more agreeable, but also lacking in dynamics. The orchestra is rather recessed, which lends a more lyrical approach. Melchior in the studio is a bit more toned down, but otherwise the quality of the voice - and also the interpretation - is quite similar. Considering that almost 17 years separate the two versions it is remarkable that his voice is in such good fettle in the live recording. On the Parlophones we also hear what is missing in Varnay’s Elsa, for Bettendorf has the ideal voice for the part: lyrical, warm and vulnerable.

For historically-minded listeners this is an important issue. Some may find Leinsdorf’s brusque approach repulsive, but they will be consoled by much of the singing. As usual there is a short essay about the opera as well as extended bios of the singers by Malcolm Walker. Keith Anderson’s synopsis is helpful for those who don’t have a libretto with some other recording. I enjoyed it a lot.

Göran Forsling



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