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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1848) [217:17]
Lohengrin – Jess Thomas (tenor)
Elsa von Brabant – Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano)
Ortrud – Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Friedrich von Telramund – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
King Heinrich – Gottlob Frick (bass)
Herald – Otto Wiener (baritone)
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe
rec. 1962-3, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
EMI CLASSICS 4 56465 2 [3 CDs: 72:02 + 77:10 + 68:05]

Experience Classicsonline


One of the most classic Wagner sets of all time appears as part of EMI’s Home of Opera series at upper mid-price price with notes and libretto on a CD-ROM. Long recognised as a glorious reading it becomes all the more appealing in its newest incarnation.
The chief glory of the set is Kempe’s conducting. While he has long been considered one of the greatest Wagnerians, it is interesting that his legacy has recently been even better appreciated by his re-released Testament recordings of The Ring and Parsifal, both from Covent Garden. In this light it is all the more pleasurable to return to his stereo studio work. His concept of the piece is apparent from his visionary, rapt account of the prelude with the amazing strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. Kempe’s finest gift was as a storyteller and throughout this set there is a tangible sense of a world developing before your ears. Look no further than the prelude to Act 2 to hear this in motion, a spellbinding piece of slowly unfolding atmosphere. Its antithesis, the Act 3 prelude, explodes off the stave and makes the ensuing tragedy all the more poignant. All this would be worth little if it were not for the astonishing musicianship of the Vienna Philharmonic, caught here mid-way through the Decca Ring. They confirm themselves to be the finest Wagner orchestra of their time, fully inside the music and doing Kempe’s every bidding at just the right pace. Their distinctive sound is quite remarkable at that, particularly in the oboe section which sounds astonishingly sharp (“soured-cream-and-capers”, as Richard Osborne calls it in his booklet note): just listen to Elsa’s Act 1 entry to see what I mean. Comparing this sound with their Decca reading for Solti more than twenty years later, the VPO sounds like two entirely different orchestras: the 1986 reading may well be more conventionally beautiful, but we should always be glad that Kempe coaxed such a wonderfully distinctive sound out of them when he did.
Happily the set is complemented by one of the finest collections of Wagner singers ever assembled. Jess Thomas as the Swan Knight himself is ethereal and mystical in Act 1 but heroic for his exchanges with Telramund in Act 2. His grail narration is perhaps a little pale and Act 3 sounds one-dimensional at times. He is nowhere near as attention-grabbing as Peter Seiffert for Barenboim or, in his very different way, Domingo for Solti, but his commitment to the role is beyond question. Next to him Elisabeth Grümmer gives us the ideal Elsa, the purity and clean-ness of her voice giving us the very type of the damsel in distress. Her very first sigh, Mein armer Bruder, is laden with pathos and evokes our total sympathy for the character in just that one phrase. She is innocence embodied in Einsam in truben tagen though she gives way to girlish excitement at the thought of her hero’s arrival. These qualities mean that her betrayal of Lohengrin in Act 3 comes as all the more of a shock, and throughout her reading her voice is redolent with the class of a former era. Gottlob Frick was an exceptional choice for King Heinrich, radiating authority and humanity in a way that few of his successors have managed.
Finer still, however, are the darker characters. Christa Ludwig delivers a hair-raising Ortrud, the finest on disc. She chews up the drama in every scene in which she appears, both musically and in her remarkably vocal acting, giving us the epitome of malice with a smile on its face. Grümmer’s Elsa never stands a chance against her! Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gets stuck into the role of Telramund unlike anyone I have ever heard: just listen to the relish with which he describes Gottfried’s disappearance in Act 1 or his cry of horror at his wife’s blasphemy. The first scene of Act 2 is absolutely riveting, both dramatically and musically, and Kempe whips up the orchestra into a frenzy to keep the tension wound tight. By the end of it Telramund is audibly a broken man, entirely in thrall to his wife. Magnificent.
The sound for this first stereo recording of the opera is good, if a little hissy, and the commitment of all performers helps to make this what is probably still the finest all round choice for the opera on disc. Kempe delivers the traditional cuts in the final act, but you’d have to be a purist of the worst kind to let this rule the set out of your estimation. Barenboim’s knight is more heroic, Solti’s sound is more satisfying and Bychkov’s Ortrud may come the closest to challenging Ludwig, but overall Kempe still leads the field more than forty years later. There is no reason to hesitate.

Simon Thompson

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