Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

Henry Purcell, Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Vol. III: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

The Sixteen continues its exploration of Henry Purcell’s Welcome Songs for Charles II. As with Robert King’s pioneering Purcell series begun over thirty years ago for Hyperion, Harry Christophers is recording two Welcome Songs per disc.

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Women's Voices: a sung celebration of six eloquent and confident voices

The voices of six women composers are celebrated by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and soprano Yunah Lee on this characteristically ambitious and valuable release by Lontano Records Ltd (Lorelt).

Rosa mystica: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir

As Paul Spicer, conductor of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, observes, the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary is as ‘old as Christianity itself’, and programmes devoted to settings of texts which venerate the Virgin Mary are commonplace.

The Prison: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth’s last large-scale work, written in 1930 by the then 72-year-old composer who was increasingly afflicted and depressed by her worsening deafness, was The Prison – a ‘symphony’ for soprano and bass-baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty: Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn

‘Hamilton Harty is Irish to the core, but he is not a musical nationalist.’

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin (Orfeo C900153D)
08 Jul 2017

Knappertsbusch’s Only Recording of Lohengrin Released for the First Time

Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the most renowned Wagner conductors who ever lived. His recordings of Parsifal, especially, are near-legendary among confirmed Wagnerians.

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin

Ingrid Bjoner (Elsa), Astrid Varnay (Ortrud), Hans Hopf (Lohengrin), Hans-Guenter Noecker (Telramund), Josef Metternich (Herald), Kurt Boehme (King Heinrich). Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Hans Knappertsbusch.

Orfeo C900153D [3CDs]

$54.99  Click to buy

It was thus with some excitement that I opened a new 3-CD set from Orfeo, consisting of the first release ever of any performance of Lohengrin conducted by the conductor sometimes known among musicians and operagoers as “Kna.”

There are many things to admire in the recording, as one might expect from a live recording made in a major opera house, namely the Bavarian State Opera’s theater on the Prinzregentenstrasse. The performance took place on 2 September 1963. The occasion was a notable one: the 59th and final performance of Lohengrin before the theater closed for renovations. That same year, the Nationaltheater—which had been largely destroyed in an air raid in 1943—reopened. From that time onward, it has served as Munich’s main opera house. The Prinzregentenstrasse theater—with its relatively intimate size: 1112 seats—would not be put back into service until 1988. It is often used for spoken plays and dance performances.

The production was a long-admired one, by Rudolf Hartmann. First seen in 1954, it hewed a middleground between the detailed, quasi-realistic stagings that had long been traditional for Wagner's operas and the highly abstract, concept-driven renderings that Wieland Wagner was, around then, introducing in Bayreuth and elsewhere.

We of course are left here only with the recorded sound of the production, and of one particular performance, to respond to. Unfortunately, the sonics vary greatly. Whereas selected Bayreuth productions were recorded professionally for broadcast and then released commercially--and whereas those Bayreuth recordings used stereo as early as the mid-1950s--this one is in mono and seems to have been made for archival purposes only. (The tapes were apparently found years later in the papers of the opera company's general director.) I would guess that a single microphone was used throughout, in a fixed position in front of the stage, causing predictable problems in such a complex work.

The conducting, not surprisingly, is in capable hands. (One can get a quick sense of Knappertsbusch’s stylistic mastery, and occasional lack of discipline, from the excerpts from the present recording that can be heard on YouTube: the Prelude to Act 1 and the end of Act 2, with its choral peroration immediately countered by the motive of the promise that Lohengrin has wrung out of Elsa.) The singers all sound like they know what they are singing about, no surprise as they are mostly native German-speakers or, in two cases, Scandinavians. The singing—in the strict sense of vocal production, rather than interpretation—and the quality of the orchestral playing vary more, as of course is often the case in live recordings of highly demanding operas.

Ingrid Bjoner, from Norway, makes generally beautiful sounds as Elsa, and also develops appropriate toughness in her confrontations with the nasty Ortrud. Astrid Varnay, a Swede, sings Ortrud in commanding manner. She offers a splendid scene here in Act 2 with Hans-Guenter Noecker (as Telramund). Their voices are similarly tough in quality, and they even handle sneering portamentos in much the same way. These two villains clearly deserve each other.

In the title role, Hans Hopf is not as secure as Jess Thomas (on Kempe’s famous studio recording) nor as wonderfully vivid as Sandor Konya (on Leinsdorf’s). He sounds metronomic at times, as if he is reading the score in his head. This is most unfortunate in the intimate love duet with Elsa in Act 3. Kurt Boehme is occasionally a bit unsteady as the king but enunciates admirably. Metternich is a first-rate herald. The chorus sings in a resonant, slightly messy opera-house manner. Their shifting moods “tell”: one senses, as one rarely does in opera recordings (whether recorded in a studio or during a performance), a group of real people responding plausibly to one or another event on stage.

Occasionally a solo singer is somewhat far from the microphone, or goes flat, or both. Hopf is flat for long stretches. The chorus, as a whole, tends to keep pitch with the orchestra, but sometimes the individual members or sections are not perfectly tuned with each other. The winds and brass, too, do not always tune their chords tightly. Some stretches of solo singing are afflicted with a quick echo. I think this happens when a singer was far from the microphone, and the engineer (then or for the rerelease) raised the volume level and, in the process, picked up each note a second time, after the sound bounced back from the auditorium walls. The CD firm (the often admirable Orfeo) should have put some kind of explanation in the booklet and a warning on the outside.

The informative booklet—excellently translated by Chris Walton—stresses that this is the first time any Knappertsbusch recording of Lohengrin has been released to the public. I have long heard complaints about Knappertsbusch’s fondness for slow tempos, but the tempos here are actually similar to those on the Kempe recording, and Knappertsbusch is just as ready as Kempe to adjust the pace to make a dramatic or musical point. Nothing ever sounds stodgy or inert. The recording would have been only a few minutes longer than Kempe’s except for the fact that Knappertsbusch makes a substantial cut in Act 3 that was traditional in many opera houses (though not at Bayreuth). The cut begins when Elsa faints after Lohengrin reveals his name and ends just before the chorus's cry "Der Schwan! Der Schwan!"

I can recommend the recording for its authentic feel—especially if you enjoy, as I do, hearing portamentos not just in the voices but also in the strings—and for its feeling of “You are there.” Still, some of those same virtues are to be found, and in much better sound, in two much-praised Bayreuth recordings that likewise have Varnay as the Ortrud: those conducted by Keilberth (1953) and, in stereo, by Sawallisch (1962). If you are happier with studio recordings, the longstanding recommendation from most critics remains the one conducted by Rudolf Kempe (1962-63), with a superb cast and in sound that holds up beautifully after more than half a century.

One ironic plus: this new release (from 1963) gave me occasion to sample the Kempe for comparison. Many details emerge on that famous studio recording with greater clarity, and the work seems to move more quickly because we hear so much more specificity and variety from moment to moment. Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bring fascinating nuances to the Ortrud/Telramund duet in Act 2 that are nowhere to be found in the admirable but relatively straightforward reading here by Varnay and Noecker. When I listen to this new release, the year 1963 seems awfully long ago. In Kempe's recording, 1963 seems like just yesterday.

The Knappertsbusch set lacks a libretto. The 2010 rerelease of the Kempe contains the libretto on a fourth CD. The libretto is also available online here.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has written extensively on opera and symphonic music and on the relationships between music and society. The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide, and appears here by kind permission.

   

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):