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Cantatas for Soprano
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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Lohengrin (1850) [207:49]
James King, tenor – Lohengrin, Heather Harper, soprano – Elsa, Grace Hoffman, mezzo-soprano – Ortrud, Donald McIntyre, baritone – Friedrich, Karl Ridderbusch, bass – King Henry, Thomas Tipton, baritone – Herald, Horst Hoffman, Hermin Esser, Dieter Stembeck and Heinz Feldhoff, tenors and basses – Nobles, Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra / Rudolf Kempe
rec. live, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 30 July 1967 ORFEO C850113D [3 CDs: 207:49]
During the 1950s and 1960s, Rudolf Kempe enjoyed a high reputation for his interpretations of Wagner, but during the stereo era this aspect of his art was fairly comprehensively neglected by the record companies. EMI issued a single disc of excerpts from Das Rheingold, which was more or less totally overshadowed by Solti’s spectacular complete recording issued the previous year; and apart from his earlier 1950s mono sets, Kempe’s Wagner in the studio was represented solely by his complete Lohengrin made in Vienna. This was, and remains, one of the very best performances of the opera in the catalogue, with a first-rate cast and a recording that still sounds good. Otherwise, though, Kempe’s Wagner is represented in the current listings only by transcripts of live performances, with their inevitable problems of recorded balance and errors which would pass muster in the theatre but which might become irritating on repetition when heard in the home.
Mind you, this live Lohengrin from Bayreuth made a few years after his studio version in Vienna suffers very little from these sorts of defect. The production by Wolfgang Wagner evidently made a point of keeping the singers well in the frame, and there are no points at which voices recede into the middle distance in the manner which can become so annoying just when the listener is trying to concentrate on them. And, although many of the singers in this performance were new to their roles, their accuracy both of musical delivery and dramatic involvement is excellent, with none of the obvious slips that can be so troublesome in some Bayreuth sets from the 1950s. Indeed, I would say that some of the soloists here, none of whom had appeared in the Vienna studio set, actually surpass their distinguished predecessors on the EMI recording.
There are, however, some other problems. At the time, and indeed ever since the 1950s, Bayreuth had fallen into the bad habit of making a cut towards the end of the final Act immediately after Lohengrin has disclosed his identity. I do not refer to the cut which Wagner himself specified in the closing stages of the narration, where Lohengrin explains how he came to be summoned to Elsa’s aid; this, although dramatically important, does have the result of undesirably prolonging the action just at the moment when it should be moving towards its conclusion—as Wagner clearly recognised. No, the cut in question comes immediately after this point, when Elsa realises the consequences of her actions, expresses remorse and leads an ensemble of reflection; following which the swan reappears, and Lohengrin bids her farewell. Now if this passage is cut, Lohengrin is forced to move directly from the narration of his identity to his final valediction. This brings back into play precisely the extended solo monologue which Wagner was evidently so keen to avoid—and also means that, ridiculously enough, Ortrud has more to say about Lohengrin’s departure than Elsa herself. Quite apart from the dramatic damage that this inflicts, it also means that the singer of Lohengrin at the end of a long evening is tempted to dispatch these two “numbers”, now effectively run into almost a single unit, at an undesirably crisp pace. That is a temptation that James King here does not entirely avoid, although in his later and uncut studio recording conducted by Kubelik he is still speedy in this passage. For those looking to hear Kempe conducting Lohengrin, therefore, the Vienna studio recording still gives the better and more complete impression. His speeds are steadier, too, not merely in the closing pages but also for example in the movement towards the climax of the Prelude at the very start.
No, where this set is really valuable is in letting us hear some absolutely superlative singing by artists who never had the opportunity to record their roles in the studio at all. Chief among these is Heather Harper, whose Eva in Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden in the early 1970s I recall with much affection. She brings more substance to the role than contemporaries such as Elisabeth Grümmer in Kempe’s Vienna set or Gundula Janowitz for Kubelik, although both of these had the same ability to float delicate high-flying lines to exquisite effect. At the same time, Harper does not seek to adopt the heroic tones of singers such as Birgit Nilsson or Jessye Norman, both of whom seem to be determined to extract Lohengrin’s identity from him by sheer force if necessary. Donald McIntyre’s Wagner has been more comprehensively catalogued on disc, although for much of the time in live performance rather than studio recordings. Here, at the outset of his career, he gives us plenty of force and body in a manner which clearly demonstrates the potential that he was later to assume. Also excellent is Thomas Tipton as the Herald, launching the opera with vigour and decisively outclassing Otto Wiener whose unsteady tones are the only real weak link in Kempe’s Vienna cast.
In that Vienna cast it has long been fashionable for critics to complain about a perceived lack of ardour in Jess Thomas’s assumption of the title role, but he never makes an ugly sound and he certainly has the heroic manner that is so conspicuously lacking in some modern exponents of the part. At the same time, it has to be admitted that James King has a more luscious tone which breathes romantic passion. He may not have the ability to fine his voice down to a mere whisper as he bids farewell to the swan on his arrival (maybe that was the result of his stage placement), but otherwise he is superbly involving when he is not pressing on too fast and the accusations of lack of expressiveness of which some reviewers have complained appears to me to be misplaced. Even so, for the sheer sense of other-worldliness nobody comes closer than Plácido Domingo, except possibly Sandor Konya (although the latter’s studio recording under Leinsdorf, complete with the full narration, suffers from some really inadequate casting in other roles). In a world where many Ortruds seem to delight in tearing their vocal line into tatters, Grace Hoffman strikes me as a model of rectitude, secure on high and well-matched for Elsa in their scene in Act Two which can become grotesquely unbalanced in the wrong hands. She is not quite on the exalted level of Christa Ludwig in the Kempe Vienna set, but she is decidedly superior to the squally Gwyneth Jones for Kubelik—Ortrud is, as her husband proudly points out, of royal blood and not just some barnstorming witch he has picked up from the gutter. The real royalty is here represented by Karl Ridderbusch, also at that time just beginning a distinguished Wagnerian career; at that stage he was rather soft-grained in tone, but he launches the prayer with fine distinction. The chorus, as one would expect from a body trained by Wilhelm Pitz, is a tower of strength throughout.
Orfeo’s booklet contains neither text nor translations, but then I imagine that any potential purchasers of these discs will already have these. It does contain an interesting essay by Peter Emmerich on the subject of Wolfgang Wagner’s production, new at the time of the recording; and I am pleased to note that he avoids the temptation to indulge in unfair comparisons with the stagings of his brother Wieland, who had died the previous year. The photographs of the sets in the booklet—black and white only, alas—look very beautiful indeed. The recording is crammed onto three CDs (as indeed is EMI’s issue of the Vienna production) which means that the break in Act Two has to be made some ten minutes before the end of the action. This is managed by repeating the final chord of the big ensemble at the beginning of the third disc leading into the entry of the King during the final beat of the bar. It is an odd procedure, but probably inevitable unless the producers were prepared to spread the Act over two whole discs (when an obvious and sensible break can be made just before dawn arrives, as in the Solti set for Decca).
I have refrained from any comparisons of this new issue with more recent digital recordings, many of which are very fine indeed: Lohengrin has generally been a lucky opera on disc. As I noted some years ago, we do need a thoroughly recommendable video version; but then we cannot have everything. Kempe fans will wish to own his alternative view of the score, and others will be attracted by a cast of extraordinary ability at the very peak of their form even when they were just beginning their Wagnerian careers. The recorded sound, as I have noted, is excellent, drawn from remastered original Bavarian Radio broadcast tapes.
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