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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1848) [194:43]
Lohengrin - Jess Thomas (tenor)
Elsa von Brabant - Claire Watson (soprano)
Ortrud - Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
Friedrich von Telramund - Walter Berry (baritone)
King Heinrich - Martti Talvela (bass)
Herald - Eberhard Wächter (baritone)
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper/Karl Böhm
rec. live, 16 May 1965, Vienna State Opera, Austrian Radio.
ORFEO C862133D [3 CDs: 61:50 + 76:15 + 56:38]

This disc captures, unadulterated and unadorned, the opening night of a new production of Lohengrin at the Vienna Staatsoper. One glance down the cast-list will tell you that this is something special. It must have been even more special to have been in the theatre, for not only was Karl Böhm in the pit but Wieland Wagner himself was directing the staging, something illustrated generously in the accompanying booklet. The sound, recorded for broadcast by Austrian Radio, is in mono, which is undeniably regrettable, but it’s surprisingly good for its age. The only place where it brings real losses is in the chorus scenes, which are many in this opera. The natural point of comparison for this set is Kempe’s classic set, which shares the same orchestra, the same Lohengrin and the same Ortrud, and was recorded two years previously. The comparisons are fascinating.
The most interesting contrast, and the factor which impels this release, is the conducting of Karl Böhm. Where Kempe is rapt, Böhm is driven. Like his live Ring and Tristan from Bayreuth, he prefers fast tempi, and this drives the drama along at an exciting pace. You can tell that when you compare the timings: Böhm is more than 20 minutes faster than Kempe. In fact he achieves the feat of making this one of the very few Lohengrins on disc (perhaps the only one?) to fit each act complete onto a single CD. Yet Böhm never feels unduly rushed. Instead, the strength of his vision convinces the listener that this is an entirely appropriate view of the piece. Furthermore, he knows how to relax when he needs to, and he does so liberally, particularly for the Grail music. The Act 1 Prelude is markedly slower than what follows it. He broadens out the soundscape after Lohengrin’s arrival in the middle of the act, the excitement of the crowd giving way to a gently meditative first utterance from the knight.
That first utterance is, in fact, something pretty special. Jess Thomas is on top notch form here and he sounds sensational in his farewell to the swan in the first act, as in his declaration of love for Elsa. He is, perhaps, a little anonymous in the second act, but he is moving and remarkably sympathetic in the bridal chamber scene. In fernem Land, similarly slowed down by Böhm, unfolds at an unhurried pace and in one single-minded direction. He was an extraordinary swan knight for Kempe, and it’s exciting to hear him in the live context here. Claire Watson is also on her very finest form as Elsa. There is clarity and purity to her voice that, to my ears at least, comes close to making her the equal of Elisabeth Grümmer - high praise indeed. She is helpless and vulnerable in the first act but brims over with optimism at the start of the second, and her address to the breezes is a delight. Perhaps you don’t get quite the same sense of impending doom in the bridal chamber scene, but she summons up the correct sense of terror as that scene reaches its climax and she is full of pathos in her sense of loss in the final scene.
Kempe’s set gave us the finest Ortrud on disc in Christa Ludwig, and she is every bit as sensational here. If anything, the live event inspires her to give of herself with even more commitment. The dramatic temperature of the whole set rises when she enters at the start of Act 2. There is something darkly insidious in her vocal presence, and the way she seems to pour scorn on her husband is magnificently dramatic. She then inveigles her way into Elsa’s confidence with the skill of the greatest of con artists, and the power of her invocation at Entweihte Götter! is so great that it brings the house down, forcing Böhm to halt proceedings for about twenty seconds. She then chews up the scenery in the great crowd scene at the end of Act 2 and manages a wonderful groan of defeat when the swan is revealed as Gottfried at the very end of the opera. Her husband both on and off the stage, Walter Berry, isn’t quite the match for Fischer-Dieskau either in vocal beauty or in acting - he sounds overly gruff in the first act - but he rises to a climax at the start of Act 2 and is never less than a convincing stage presence. It’s a real treat having Martti Talvela as the King, his rich, fruity bass giving the part an extra level of character that it doesn’t always get. Eberhard Wächter is luxury casting as the Herald.
I doubt that anyone will take this as a top choice, especially not over any stereo sets, because sound quality is important in this opera. However, it’s a remarkable record of a live performance, capturing a collection of Wagner greats and a few surprises, and it will be especially interesting for anyone who knows and loves the Kempe set.
Incidentally, this whole production was double cast. The other cast that alternated with this one included the likes of James King, Gustav Neidlinger and Astrid Varnay. Having not one but two such legendary casts available for one opera in the same city seems like an extravagant dream to us nowadays, but what fun to dream it!
Simon Thompson