Despite all the praise heaped on Solti's Ring (and rightly so), it wasn't the only extraordinary Wagner opera project from the early 1960s that featured the Vienna Philharmonic in incandescent form. Rudolf Kempe may not have been a podium superstar, but he was an inspiring musician, a seasoned man of the theater, and an absolute genius when it came to balancing orchestras. If you think, as some understandably do, that Wagner's Lohengrin is often four square in its phrase shapes and dramatically plodding, Kempe will convince you otherwise. Time and again we are struck by how the Vienna Philharmonic, collectively and individually, sets the emotional and dramatic tone for what happens on stage. And what a cast! Elisabeth Grümmer, who remains the most three-dimensional Elsa on record, partnered Jess Thomas in the title role. He is slightly less involved under the microphone's scrutiny than his more unbuttoned live Bayreuth performance under Sawallisch a few years earlier. Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bring riveting authority to Ortrud and Telramund, and the veteran Gottlob Frick's eloquent King Henry also stands out. EMI's 20-bit facelift offers a tinge more presence than the label's previous CD transfer, but if you own the latter there's no need to replace it. At mid-price, though, you can't get a better Lohengrin than this. It belongs in every serious Wagner collection.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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