Although Knappertsbusch conducted “Lohengrin” many times, until now no recording by him has been issued, so the welcome discovery of this live performance from Munich fills a gap in the discography.
Given the excellence of Kna’s conducting and the high quality of both the mono sound and the artistry of the performers, I wish I could say that this is an indispensable purchase. For Kna admirers, perhaps it is anyway, but a more holistic survey of the competition reveals that it is just one of a whole slew of desirable live recordings from this era, all of which have some claim to be preferred.
First there is Cluytens’ 1958 Bayreuth performance, in even better mono sound with a slightly unwieldy but affecting Elsa from Leonie Rysanek and the same tremendous Ortrud from Varnay. It also sports the further advantages of a better Lohengrin in Konya and Ernest Blanc, a more characterful and vocally superior Friedrich in comparison with the nonetheless very acceptable Hans Günter Nöcker. Then there is the von Matačić recording from the following year, again with Konya and Blanc but with the added attractions of the incomparable Elisabeth Grümmer as Elsa and such sterling co-artists as Rita Gorr, Franz Crass and Eberhard Waechter – with Nöcker perhaps understandably relegated to being one of the four Brabantine nobles. The 1962 Bayreuth “Lohengrin” yielded a famous recording conducted by Sawallisch with a 21-year-old Anja Silja and another great exponent of the role of Lohengrin, Jess Thomas. Crossing the Atlantic, we encounter a slew of recordings from the Metropolitan in the 1960s featuring the ubiquitous Konya and, Jess Thomas again, in performances variously conducted – a tad prosaically - by Rosenstock and Böhm. The dream-team of Bjoner and Konya for Böhm at the Met in 1967 is slightly compromised by the fact that Bjoner’s vibrato sounds looser than for Knappertsbusch here in 1963, although she still sings a lovely Elsa. Finally, for those who find the coughing of live audiences irksome, there is the celebrated studio recording from 1962-3 conducted by Kempe, again with Grümmer and Thomas.
In short, recommending a pre-eminent recording from the ten years between 1958 and 1968 is inadvisable. I do know that for all that I esteem Knappertsbusch as a wonderfully flexible, fluid and even inspirational conductor, I cannot prefer Hans Hopf over his rivals. It may be that, as reviews of this performance quoted in the booklet attest, he made a better impression live than in this recording but here he sounds stolid and solid, inclined to scoop and unvaryingly baritonal in vocal colouring. You have only to compare his sturdy “In fernem Land” with Konya’s to hear the difference between competence and poetry. He produces some fine, steady top notes and essays some delicacy in “Mein lieber Schwan” but his vibrato is often too pronounced and there is something about it which invariably causes the ear to hear every note he sings as sitting slightly under the centre, producing the effect of being marginally flat.
Yet so much else in this performance is striking and first class. We first hear Knappertsbusch pushing the Prelude on, refusing to linger but instead urging the singing strings to create what is almost a sense of tension and expectation, culminating in the great chordal climax by the brass. The Act II Prelude, too, is wonderfully played, the orchestra producing a dark, brooding sound proleptic of Ortrud’s calling upon the “Entweihte Götter!”
As the reviews next day remarked, the vocal honours belong primarily to the women. Bjoner’s Elsa is a thing of beauty; she is pure, even and powerful, her top notes pinged without a hint of scooping in a portrayal to rival Grümmer’s in its delicacy and pathos. Varnay repeats her habitual tour de force
as Ortrud, projecting, to borrow Verdi’s wish for his Lady Macbeth, “the voice of a she-devil”, dripping with scorn and malice.
The chorus is superb, too, but apart from the fine Josef Metternich, who immediately pins back our ears with a splendid Herald, the male singers are less complete. Kurt Böhme gives us a rather effortful King Henry the Fowler, just about getting the notes out. While, as I have already suggested, Nöcker is more than adequate as Friedrich, he is hardly very distinctive of voice or especially dramatic in his delivery in comparison with Blanc, Vinay or even Fischer-Dieskau in the Kempe studio recording. He finds it hard to keep up with Varnay’s terrifying Ortrud in their oath duet just before Elsa’s entrance and is reduced to yelling at the climactic points of “Mein Ehr is hin”.
Something odd happens to the sound around 3:30 in track 8, CD 1, coinciding with a spell of sagging pitch from Hopf, but both recover. The notes are full and informative but there is no libretto.
Whether you want this issue will depend upon the degree of your allegiance to the great Knappertsbusch and whether you can appreciate Hopf’s Lohengrin. For all its merits, I prefer Cluytens or von Matačić.