Two New Releases of Lohengrin, Part 1: Knappertsbusch’s Only Recorded Lohengrin, Available for the First Time
Richard Wagner, Lohengrin
Ingrid Bjoner – Elsa
Astrid Varnay – Ortrud
Hans Hopf – Lohengrin
Hans-Günter Nöcker – Telramund
Josef Metternich – Herald
Kurt Böhme – King Heinrich
Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Hans Knappertsbusch
Orfeo C900153D [3 CDs, mono] 208 minutes
Available on HB Direct, Amazon, and ArkivMusic.
Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the most renowned Wagner conductors who ever lived. His recordings of Parsifal, especially, are near-legendary among confirmed Wagnerians. 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 opera-goers 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, the Prinzregententheater, which was the temporary home of the Bavarian State Opera between the destruction of the Nationaltheater in a 1943 air raid and the reopening of the reconstructed Nationaltheater on November 21st, 1963, resuming its role as the traditional home of the Bayerische Staatsoper—shortly after this performance, which took place on September 2nd, 1963. The occasion was therefore a notable one: the 59th and final performance of the famed 1954 production of Lohengrin and the final performance (of anything) before the Prinzregententheater closed for renovations. This intimate theater of 1112 seats would not be put back into service until 1988. It is often used for spoken plays and dance performances. It was, for example, used in 2016 for the first recording live, in concert, of Saint-Saëns’s wonderful, though long-forgotten, opera Proserpine.
The Munich production of Lohengrin was a long-admired one, by Rudolf Hartmann, Intendant of the Staatsoper between 1952 and 1967. It hewed a middle ground 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 Deputy Intendant, Herbert List.) 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 entire performance can also be heard on YouTube.) The singers all sound like they know what they are singing about, no surprise as they are mostly native German-speakers or, in the two main female roles, 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-Günter Nöcker (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 Böhme 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. A few 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 Nöcker. When I listen to this new release, the year 1963 seems awfully long ago. In Kempe’s recording, 1963—that very same year—seems like just yesterday.
The Knappertsbusch set lacks a libretto. The 2010 rerelease of the Kempe contains the libretto on a fourth CD.
For my review of a 2015 recording of Lohengrin, from concert performances at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, under Mark Elder, click here.