Notes and Editorial Reviews
Here is a real interpretation, conceived in theatrical terms and executed with such intensity and excitement that Wieland's production can easily be conjured up in the mind's eye to complete the experience.
My greatest regret as an opera-goer is not to have seen more of Wieland Wagner's productions when the opportunity was there. I did, in fact, experience the Tristan and Parsifal represented here, although in different seasons, and they were unforgettable occasions. I am delighted these recordings have been reissued for the Bayreuth Centenary, but the performance I most want to write about, because it is new to the catalogue and an extraordinarily vivid reading, is the Lohengrin. Wagner himself might have been surprised, and perhaps irritated, that while Euryanthe and Oberon are represented in the current catalogue, Lohengrin is not. That has now been put right in no uncertain terms.
To my mind this performance, like the reissued Tristan and Parsifal, is the most cogent argument imaginable for preferring live to studio performances (the Meistersinger might swing the argument slightly the other way, but we'll come to that). Here, in spite of intrusive coughs, the occasional missed or ill-timed entry and sound that may not meet the most fastidious standards, is a real interpretation, rather than an artificial one, conceived in theatrical terms and executed with such intensity and excitement that Wieland's production, illustrated in the accompanying booklet, can easily be conjured up in the mind's eye to complete the experience, Here, too, in the place of artists who, in the words of some managers, have "good voices for recording" are several great singing-actors who impart flesh-and-blood accounts of their roles in place of so much than seems aseptic and cold in studio-based sets.
Then we have the Bayreuth orchestra and chorus at its very best. The string sound, for instance in that tranquil/a melody in the Ortrud/ Elsa duet, is of a unanimity and vibrancy unequalled in that passage, while the choral singing throughout is a renewed tribute to the late William Pitz's training and again something that could never be simulated in the studio for sheer theatrical presence. WSM, in his interesting note on this production included in the booklet, comments that Sawallisch stood aside at the end of the performance when it was his turn to be applauded, "pushing Pitz forward to accept the cheers. Sawallisch's action was modest and generous but absolutely right as these records attest". Just so; but Sawallisch's own part in the success of the performance must not be neglected. From first to last, the élan and sensitivity of his direction are manifest. This is an interpretation in the tradition of the late Rudolf Kempe's on HMV (now deleted), an object-lesson in the virtues of direct, unfussy musicality and an instinctive feeling for what is right in relating tempi to each other in a work where that is far from easy to achieve.
As I have suggested this is a cast that few recording managers would have assembled in the studio, not all the voices taking easily to the microphone, but the vocal shortcomings pale beside the full understanding shown by each singer under the tutelage of Wieland Wagner and Sawallisch. At the twin poles of good and evil, Anja Silja's Elsa and Astrid Varnay's Ortrud are equally convincing. Silja, then at the start of her interesting career, manages successfully to convey both Elsa's rapture in Act I, her goodness in Act 2 when taking in Ortrud under her wing, and her touch of desperation, even madness when demanding Lohengrin's name in the bridal chamber scene. Her affirmations in the first act, "Als Ritters will ich wahren" and "Mein Held, mein Retter" have that total conviction always so much the hallmark of her singing. No less involved in another way is the passage "0, war' es so und durft' ich wissen", where with increasing urgency Elsa seeks that fatal piece of knowledge about her saviour. This Elsa isn't so sweet and innocent as the customary impersonation, but it ideally fitted Wieland's concept.
Varnay, who also sang Ortrud on the earlier Bayreuth records, a Decca set long deleted but announced for reissue shortly, repeats her performance here. In less happy vocal state, indeed with some high notes that recall Philip HopeWallace's comment on Callas ("I reached for my safety belt"), she sings with such dramatic variety—witness the unexpectedly light touch on "Ha, wie begreifst du schnell und wohi" when she compliments Teiramund on quickly grasping her intentions—and understanding that one soon forgets and forgives the occasionally worn patch in her tone. In any case it is not inappropriate to Ortrud.
Lohengrin has not perhaps been wholly adequately cast since the days of Völker or Melchior, but Jess Thomas came close to coping with its extreme demands. At times he tires in the third act and his pitch suffers in consequence. He too, is inspired to eloquent heights by the spirit of the Green Hill, although an element of mystery is missing from his interpretation just as it was from his later performance under Kempe. His adversary, Friederich von Teiramund, is sung by that baritone-turned-tenor-turned-baritone Ramón Vinay who, without Hermann Uhde's incisiveness (Decca) or Fischer-Dieskau's subtlety (HMV), is nevertheless able to project the character's vicious ambition and ultimate weakness. Crass is a benevolent man of action as King Henry; Tom Krause makes much of the small but important part of the Herald.
The sum is then greater than the total of the parts, and for that Wieland Wagner is surely to be thanked, an inspiration that can be felt even over the fourteen years since this performance took place. He and Sawallisch renew one's faith in this great but faulted score, as far as Wagner was to go in a conventional direction and showing, especially in Act 3, as Newman pointed out, that he could trump anyone's ace working in the old forms—hence my remark about Weber at the start.
The sound is what one has come to expect from Bayreuth on record. To my taste the close immediate recording and the not-tooreverberant acoustic are much preferable to the cleaner, slightly empty sound of a studio. The audience's presence is palpable—and I don't mean only in the negative sense of coughing and applause. That adds to the sense of being present at a great operatic occasion, warts and all. If Kempe's version ever becomes available again it will afford strong competition, but I'm glad that this set has been issued separately as well as in the huge box—and on only four records.
-- Gramophone [7/1976], reviewing the Bayreuth Centenary release on Philips 6747 243