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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.

   

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