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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1850) [206.12]
Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) - Lohengrin; Birgit Nilsson (soprano) - Elsa; Astrid Varney (soprano) - Ortrud; Hermann Uhde (baritone) - Telramund; Theo Adam (bass) - King Henry; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) - Herald; Gerhard Stolze, Gene Tobin, Toni Blankenheim (tenors and baritones) - Brabantine nobles
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
rec. Bayreuth Festival Theatre, 1954
OPERA D’ORO OPD 7086 [4 CDs: 62.31 + 38.15 + 42.38 + 62.48]

May I begin this review by wholeheartedly congratulating Opera d’Oro on their presentation of this historic reissue. Most of the time companies who issue re-mastered copies of old historical performances, assuming - probably correctly - that these issues are supplementary to recordings of the opera already in the collection of purchasers, confine their booklet notes to the bare essential listing of performers and tracks. Not so here. We are given a handsomely presented box which includes the complete text and translations for a start - although for some reason the stage directions are given only in English - but also a superb newly commissioned cover design by Rafal Oblinski and an invaluable essay by Thomas May which examines in some depth the influence that Lohengrin exercised on later rulers such as the deluded King Ludwig and Hitler, but also renders the reviewer’s job somewhat superfluous by devoting some space to a critical analysis of the performance itself.
The notes draw specific attention to the fact that this was Birgit Nilsson’s Bayreuth début … and incidentally the start of her partnership with Wolfgang Windgassen which was to dominate the Wagnerian stage for the next fifteen years. It doesn’t seem, in this performance at least, to have got off to a very auspicious start. Elsa was really not the sort of Wagnerian role that Nilsson was best in - her later recording of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser suffered from the same lack of warmth in the tone and the sense of a large voice being deliberately reined back. Here the young Nilsson gives us an Elsa with a very definite sense of her own security, and any sense of indecision or nervousness is held firmly in check. Jessye Norman gave us a similarly self-possessed Elsa in her recording for Solti, but she had much more natural warmth in the voice and even then the characterisation was controversial. Nonetheless, as one would expect, Nilsson is never less than fully in command of the role. I detected only one minor muffed entry, during her first duet with Ortrud, CD 2, track 5, 3.40. She rises magnificently to the challenge of her demands for Lohengrin’s name. For once in a while it is interesting to hear this heroic sort of voice in the role.
Windgassen similarly gets off to a rather rocky start, simply too loud and matter-of-fact for his farewell to the swan. He always had a reputation for singing slightly ahead of the beat, but I have never before been as conscious of it as in his opening scene, where he is continually pushing Jochum along into the next phrase. He then steadies down for the warning to Elsa; he and Jochum may have deliberately intended to interpret the scene this way, but it doesn’t really sound as though they’d rehearsed it like that. Again he improves in the later Acts, and is much steadier, despite a momentarily disconcerting premature entry during the love duet (CD 4, track 3. 2.52). He opens his Narration in a mere whisper of an awestruck voice, and shades nicely into pianissimo during his farewell.
Before we encounter either of the main protagonists, the opening scene features two young singers making their earliest steps in Wagner. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the Herald makes a magnificent impression, shading words where appropriate without going over the top. Twenty or more years later he recorded the role for Solti, but here he is in the prime of his voice and is simply superb. Theo Adam, later to become Bayreuth’s resident Wotan, is here cast as the King. In later years his unsteadiness of voice was often a cause for critical comment, as was his sometimes gritty tone; but here he is fresh-voiced and steady, and makes the Prayer in Act One a real highlight of this performance.
As the two villains, both Astrid Varnay and Hermann Uhde are also magnificent. She is quite properly a soprano Ortrud, showing no signs of strain on even the highest notes but giving the role a superb malevolence of character. She delivers a real sense of menace on her word “Gott?” without the need for any added laughs or snarls. She is echoed by what sounds like resonance from the back of the auditorium, unless it is tape print-through (CD 2, track 3, 6.00). She matches Nilsson voice-for-voice in their duet - where Jochum phrases the beautiful postlude with real affection and sensuous line. As her hapless dupe of a spouse, Hermann Uhde is dramatically involved to the extent of pushing himself off the right note on a couple of occasions - for example, at CD 2, track 2, 3.21 - but that is forgivable in the context of a live performance of such intensity.
Eugen Jochum’s rendition is just about right, and that is not meant in the sense of giving faint praise. He keeps the music moving, possibly a little too much so in the procession to the Minster, but rises magnificently to every climax in the score and relishes the many beauties on the way. He is rather let down by some inexpressive and ill-balanced wind playing, but the strings sound magnificent and the brass are always spot-on. In the days when Bayreuth respected the musical intentions of the composer, the score is absolutely complete except for the second section of Lohengrin’s Narration, a cut which Wagner himself made of a passage which he removed from the score. One wishes that more recent Bayreuth performances had been similarly conscientious.
In this 1954 performance, presumably taken from a broadcast tape, one might not expect wonders in the sense of recorded sound; but the results here are quite respectable, if a bit boxy at climaxes and with some obvious attempts to reduce distortion by reducing the recording levels in the louder passages. The engineers cannot do much about the woodwind either, but the timpani sound a bit tubby from their position deep in the Bayreuth pit. There are some stage noises during the scene change in Act Three, but otherwise few external sounds to disturb the listener. Those who are allergic to applause might care to note that this arrives very quickly after the music finishes at the end of each Act, and in the case of Act Two before it has finished. The many offstage instrumental effects are well calculated, and only at the beginning of the final scene did any of them fail to make their mark.
This same production was recorded by John Culshaw the year before with a cast that he describes as only “of moderate ability”. In those performances Eleanor Steber took the part of Elsa, Josef Greindl that of the King and Hans Braun that of the Herald, with Joseph Keilberth conducting. This performance a year later would seem to have improved on the 1953 staging in every one of those instances, and for those who wish to hear Nilsson and Adam in roles that they never commercially recorded this set is clearly a must - although it has previously been available on an Archipel issue from several years ago. For those who want Windgassen and Uhde, the Culshaw version - collated from several performances - appears to have disappeared from the catalogues, although a recording of the 1953 Bayreuth staging is included in a complete 43 CD box of all the Wagner operas from Membran. The latter happens to include some pretty undesirable versions of some of the operas. Varnay recorded Ortrud again for Sawallisch at Bayreuth, but by that time, nearly a decade later, her voice was decidedly mezzo rather than soprano, with a sense of strain apparent at many places; and Sawallisch made cuts in the score.
Nonetheless the presentation of this issue, the quite acceptable recorded sound, and a cast which it would be difficult to find equalled on any other release even if the two principals take some time to hit their best form, is something rather special. Not a first Lohengrin for a collection, maybe - either of the versions conducted by Kempe or Solti in Vienna would be my choice for the best-balanced alternative casts - but very definitely a good second.
Paul Corfield Godfrey