Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a Lohengrin for the ages.
This performance has been in circulation for years. In Fanfare 6:5 back in 1983, William Youngren reviewed the Melodram LP issue, concluding, “This is a Lohengrin to treasure for years to come, as stylish and moving a performance as I can imagine.”
I am not a believer in “best” recordings. Music is not like sports leagues, with won-lost records. Numerical ranking is a concept I find offensive when discussing great art. So I will not claim that this is the recording of Lohengrin to own. But I will claim that any Wagnerian’s library lacking this performance is seriously incomplete. This is a performance of enormous beauty and richness, one that no lover of Wagner’s music can afford to be without.
It all starts with Lovro von Mata?i?, the Croatian conductor who would be a superstar were he alive today. Because he lived and worked at the time of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter, Solti, Karajan, Jochum, and so many other giants, he was an under-appreciated talent. But those who know his Bruckner recordings, his wonderful live Andrea Chénier from Vienna with Corelli and Tebaldi, and his studio Pagliacci for EMI with Corelli know of his remarkable ability to combine big-picture vision with great attention to detail. Balances are perfect—something one senses right away in the opening of the Prelude—rhythmic tension and pulse are always maintained, but the overriding impression is of the music simply flowing from beginning to end with utter inevitability and with a deeply felt sense of phrase inflection. This is an unusual score, with elements of fierce drama, noble solemnity, and warm outpourings of lyricism all competing for prominence at different times. Getting that balance of competing elements right so that the score develops naturally is tricky, and many conductors have failed to successfully hold it together. This performance is as beautifully shaped as any on record.
And then there is Sándor Kónya—surely one of the great Lohengrins in the 20th century. His voice rings out when power is called for, but the overriding impression is of a sweet, warm lyrical beauty of tone that stays long in the memory after we’ve finished listening to the opera. Grümmer’s pitch seems to wander occasionally, but her voice just glows with beauty, and she sings with keen understanding of the character. It is not easy to make us believe in Elsa as a real character, but she does. Gorr is an extraordinarily powerful Ortrud, Ernest Blanc a surprisingly effective and idiomatic Telramund, Crass a strong King Henry, and Eberhard Waechter is very luxurious casting as the Herald.
While it is true that this has been around on other labels, what distinguishes this release is that Orfeo has an official relationship with the Bayreuth Festival and with the Bavarian Radio. The original masters formed the basis of Orfeo’s release, which is vastly superior to prior issues, which stem from off-the-air sources. Although there are slight hints of overload, on the whole this is well-balanced, natural monaural broadcast sound from the late 1950s. Informative and engrossing notes are also included, but no libretto. The performance, unfortunately, included the small cut in the third act that was fairly traditional at the time.
For those who love this opera, there are a few other important recordings. One is the 1943 Met broadcast with Melchior’s radiant Lohengrin, the young Astrid Varnay, and Leinsdorf’s idiomatic conducting (though it lacks the majesty and beauty of Mata?i?). The best transfer of that performance is on Naxos 8.110235. The Decca/London monaural live Bayreuth 1953 recording led by Keilberth with Windgassen and Steber is also quite lovely. I own it on Teldec 93674, and there is also a Naxos transfer. Other commercial sets worthy of exploration include the RCA Leinsdorf set with Kónya, Amara, and the glorious Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA 50164), and Barenboim’s very moving performance with Peter Seiffert and Emily Magee and the Berlin Staatskapelle on Teldec 21484). For the person who cannot get enough of Lohengrin, Kozlovsky’s remarkable performance has been preserved on Melodiya LPs; I still await its transfer to CD (though Preiser did excerpt all of Lohengrin’s role on one disc).
As wonderful as all of those different recordings are, there is not one among them that I would call superior to this Orfeo release. This is a Lohengrin for the ages.
Henry Fogel, Fanfare Magazine