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Notes and Editorial Reviews
In its dramatic vitality, emotional honesty and directness, this Lohengrin ranks with the best that Solti has given us.
A recording of Lohengrin in which the first voice heard is that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is playing for high stakes. Moreover, even before this most magnetic of Heralds has made his mark, Sir Georg Solti has moulded the great arch of the Prelude with fine judgement, the long line emerging with marvellous certainty and eloquence. Each department of the VP0 is on top form, the woodwind outstanding even for this orchestra, and the recorded sound is full, widespread but well focused. In a phrase, the final item of Solti's Wagner cycle for Decca is superbly launched. But is its promise fulfilled? Do the
high stakes pay off?
The short answer is 'yes'; and although, as one would expect with any enterprise as complex and protracted as the recording of a Wagner opera, it is a 'yes' with some reservations, these amount to relatively little. So far as casting is concerned, Solti has made no secret of his views on the current crop of Heldentenors. So, instead of Peter Hofmann or Siegfried Jerusalem, both of whom have given fine performances of Lohengrin in the theatre, we have Placido Domingo in the titlerole. Not so exotic or daring a choice as may at first appear: Domingo has already recorded one other major Wagner role (Walther in Jochum's Die Meistersinger—DG 2740 149, 12/76; (I) 415 278-2GH4, 10/85) and has sung Lohengrin in the theatre. Domingo is notably, if not uniquely, versatile in what is now the post-Vickers generation of opera tic tenors, but even he cannot be expected to sound authentically German in Wagner. For many listeners, this will not matter in the slightest: after all, Lohengrin is a stranger in Brabant, and Monsalvat is closer to Madrid than to any northern city. A good test of whether it matters or not is provided by the opening of "In fernem Land", where Domingo's unidiomatic German is most pronounced. My own view is that the 'accent factor' is noticeable but never irritating, as it might be in an interpretation of lesser musical distinction or dramatic credibility. The crucial point is that Domingo sings the music, and interprets the role with so much conviction: the nobility and anguish, the devotion and despair, all are vividly realized. In this he is greatly assisted by the Elsa of Jessye Norman, the tone fined down to a ravishing beauty in the extensive lyrical music. In the Bridal Chamber scene of Act 3, supported by Solti with characteristically fervent but never fussy attentiveness, Norman and Domingo lift this performance to the loftiest heights—beautiful as sound, gripping as drama. Earlier, in the Act 2 exchanges with Ortrud, this Elsa reveals an imperious streak that could give the character an improbable strength of purpose. But the sheer ardour of Norman's singing ensures that a plausible impulsiveness remains the central quality.
To say that the opera's other principals (the Herald apart) are cast more from stock may be to damn with faint praise, but there is always the danger that, with two such special leading singers, the remainder may pale in comparison. Not Hans Sotin, a positive as well as sonorous King Henry. But neither Eva Randova nor Siegmund Nimsgem seems to me ideal in this company. Randova is a tireless, effective Ortrud in the theatre, and her voice is well suited to the character's wiles and sinister asides. But in the great outbursts there's a lack of sheer attack and amplitude, of the blend of fullness and force that makes Christa Ludwig for Kempe on EMI and, above all, Astrid Varnay on the currently deleted Keilberth set (French Decca 411 180-1, 4/85) so superb in the role. Solti's choice of Siegmund Nimsgern for Telramund might be questioned even more determinedly, simply because he has already recorded the part for Karajan (EMI) and cannot be said to produce a significant rethinking of the role here. Though excellent in the implacable recitatives of Act 1, he is too much the ranting Alberich in Act 2. Those who admire Donald MacIntyre's power and authority in the role might well feel than an opportunity has been missed. Meanwhile, in the absence of Hermann Uhde's absorbing account for Keilberth, it is Fischer-Dieskau for Kempe who conveys most of the character's genuine torment, and keeps mere villainy most successfully at bay.
Solti's Act 2 is therefore not on the same high level as the rest. Apart from the bluster of the Ortrud/Telramund scene, the later exchanges between Elsa and Ortrud tend to lose momentum as Solti's rather slow tempos don't quite fit together. (The only other moment of self-conscious tempo-manipulation is the holding back of the subsidiary theme in the Act 3 Prelude.) But Solti's hand is generally sure as well as strong, and that despite some very broad tempos. He knows better than to hurry the big processions—that only makes them sound even longer And the recording, the Sofiensaal's swansong, is splendidly lifelike and spacious. Only in the final ensemble of Act 1 was 1 disconcerted by the closeness and clarity of the solo voices, simply because one never hears them like this in the theatre. As a studio recording, nevertheless, this is far less mannered, in tempo and balance, than Karajan's, even though that account has qualities which far outweigh its irritations. In some ways Rene Kollo's interpretation of the title-role for Karajan has a greater range, from harshness to tenderness, than any of the others. Greater than James King's for Kubelik on DG, certainly, for despite the fine voice, heard at its best at the end of "In fernem Land", this is a Lohengrin more resolute than regretful. It's the latter dimension that both Jess Thomas (Kempe) and Wolfgang Windgassen (Keilberth) capture so well. Since the best complement to the new Solti would be a live recording, the sooner the Keilberth 1953 Bayreuth version is reissued the better; despite the dated sound it remains a thrilling and touching experience, unlikely, one suspects, to be easily surpassed, even by Bayreuth itself.
Many readers will have vivid memories of getting to know Solti's Wagner over the years, especially if (like me) they can remember first hearing that radical Das Rheingold when it was new, in 1959. In its dramatic vitality, emotional honesty and directness, and its sure integration of the small into the large, this Lohengrin ranks with the best that Solti has given us. The CD format is particularly welcome, since it enables us to hear Acts I and 3 on single discs, with sensible track divisions. Maybe it is too special to be that elusive, scarcely conceivable phenomenon, the definitive Lohengrin. But it provides a magificently bold, imaginative conclusion to one of the greatest projects in the history of sound recording.
-- Gramophone [10/1987]
reviewing the original release of this recording, Decca 421053
Works on This Recording
Lohengrin by Richard Wagner
Jessye Norman (Soprano),
Eva Randová (Mezzo Soprano),
Siegmund Nimsgern (Baritone),
Hans Sotin (Bass),
Placido Domingo (Tenor),
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Baritone)
Sir Georg Solti
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,
Vienna State Opera Chorus Konzertvereinigung
Written: 1846-1847; Germany
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
At last! July 18, 2014
By Reg Jones (Hamilton, VA) See All My Reviews
"I've been waiting for decades to get this recording. However, at full price - and even on sale - it was always too expensive. When Arkiv offered it at a ridiculously low price, I didn't hesitate a moment. It was worth the wait. This is a magnificent Lohengrin, captured at the height of the performers' powers, and recorded in stunning sound. If you've been waiting for a recording of Lohengrin at the right price, don't hesitate."
Do not hesitate! August 22, 2012
By James Carleton (Port Hueneme, CA) See All My Reviews
"I paid full price for this in its original Decca recording, and have not regretted it. To be able to acquire this for a mere twenty-five dollars is beyond a "mere" bargain; it is truly "grand theft". The Gramaphone review's quibbles over Nimsgern and Randova may be valid, but they are hardly that important. This is too good of a cast, over-all, and too good of a performance, on all accounts, not to add it to your collection if you have even the remotest interest in Wagner opera."