Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
Heather Harper – Elsa
Grace Hoffman – Ortrud
James King – Lohengrin
Thomas Tipton – Herald
Donald McIntyre – Telramund
Karl Ridderbusch – King Heinrich
Bayreuth Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Rudolf Kempe
Orfeo C850113D [3 CDs] 206 minutes
The names of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper and Kansas-born tenor James King may not resonate for younger music lovers, but they sure do for folks my age. Harper was the glowing, nimble soprano in Colin Davis’s renowned 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah and in Davis’s top-flight recording (ca. 1978) of Britten’s Peter Grimes, featuring Jon Vickers. James King was a steady, sturdy singer, though less magical in sound than Harper. Among his memorable recordings are Das Lied von der Erde (with Fischer-Dieskau, Bernstein conducting) and Solti’s Ring Cycle (in which he sang Siegmund to Régine Crespin’s utterly lovable Sieglinde).
Here we have the two at Bayreuth, in a broadcast recording of a performance of Lohengrin from July 30, 1967. This was the first season of a new staging for the work, by Wolfgang Wagner, replacing a highly abstract one by his brother Wieland, who had died the year before. Five tenors appeared in the course of the summer in one or more of the eight performances. In the performance released here, James King took over from Sandór Kónya on three hours’ notice, and received much praise for his “wonderfully bright-toned, heroic tenor voice that is expressive without ever sounding schmaltzy.” The other singers were also praised to the skies.
Critics can be easily swayed, of course, and I was prepared for some disappointment when I started to listen. Astonishingly enough, the critics were right! These performances are among the best ever recorded, and without the benefit of patch sessions or even of having two or three performances to blend together. Five of the six singers named above produce a stream of firm tone, clear in pitch and without excessive vibrato, while also conveying the dramatic meaning vividly. What a relief this must have been to Wagner lovers who had become accustomed to much barking, ranting, and wobbling. (There are many instances of the latter in a Munich performance of Lohengrin from 1963, under Knappertsbusch, recently released and featuring entirely German and Scandinavian singers. (See my somewhat pained review.) There are instances also in the recent Concertgebouw recording, which I likewise reviewed here. The one truly cherishable element in the latter recording is the luminous reading of the title role by Klaus Florian Vogt.)
Harper and King, caught in their prime, are marvelous to hear. Her Elsa is at once warm and ethereal. (Don’t ask me how this is achieved.) His Swan Knight conveys a sense of natural command and self-control. True, King could have started the bridal-chamber scene more quietly (as Jess Thomas did, memorably, on Kempe’s 1962-63 studio recording), but his interpretation shows keen awareness of the shifts in the Lohengrin-Elsa relationship in the course of the scene, including some memorable touches of ruefulness as Lohengrin begins to realize that Elsa cannot hold to her promise not to question him about his origins. King’s reading of the role is familiar to collectors from a studio recording (apparently otherwise of uneven quality) conducted by Rafael Kubelik. As for Harper, Elsa seems to be one of the “biggest” roles that she undertook. Strauss’s Arabella was another. I imagine that this demonstrated good judgment, enabling her to protect the core of her sound for some years.
The one weak point in the casting, for my taste, is Donald McIntyre in the dramatic-baritone role of Telramund. McIntyre was a highly intelligent artist, much recorded (e.g., for Boulez: Golaud, 1969, and Wotan, 1976). When he sings quietly or in half-voice, as in parts of his long Act 2 colloquy with Ortrud, this is a major assumption of a major role. But other passages, even in that same scene and also near the end of Act 2, show him forcing the voice and producing much woofy tone or a spray of consonants with little linking tone. I suppose, though, that a case can be made for having Telramund, when he gets frustrated, sound like the nasty, petty dwarf Mime in the Ring Cycle.
Grace (born Goldie) Hoffman, from Cleveland, ended up making her career in Europe, singing major roles (e.g., Brangäne) in Vienna and at La Scala. Here she shows her extensive stage experience, creating a credible character for Ortrud yet always keeping the sound clear and full. (A revealing detail: Harper, Hoffman, and King all have enough flexibility to manage the occasional mordent in their vocal lines.)
Karl Ridderbusch was one of the world’s great exponents of such leading roles as Hans Sachs and Baron Ochs. As King Heinrich, he is unsurpassable: authoritative and eloquent. (Here is his Act 1 address.)
American baritone Thomas Tipton was a new name to me: he, like Hoffman, performed mainly in Europe, and he also acted in some films. His enunciation in the role of the Herald is splendid, his tone solid and sweet.
Even the small roles are admirably taken, such as the Four Noble Boys, sung by women who manage to sound like adorable piping youngsters.
The Bayreuth orchestra plays superbly. I have rarely heard a live recording of such a complex work in which ensemble and intonation were so precise. (YouTube offers the Preludes to Acts 1 and 3.) The brass are particularly splendid, except for some almost inevitable mismatches of pitch in the passage—with multiple fanfares coming from all directions—that begins the opera’s finale scene. I was put off by the sound of the solo oboe and clarinet in quiet episodes in the prelude to Act 3, but that is probably a matter of taste. (I have often disliked the sound of German and Austrian oboists.) The Bayreuth chorus, under the renowned Wilhelm Pitz, is, if anything, even better than the orchestra.
Kempe (1910-76) is heard here in his last season at Bayreuth. (He would thereafter devote himself more to orchestral conducting, notably in Zurich, Munich, and London.) He chooses tempos astutely and artfully adjusts them to match the twists and turns of the drama and the capabilities of his marvelous singers. All in all, his reading is self-effacingly masterful, fully up to the level of his aforementioned studio recording.
One warning: microphone placement is not always ideal. Heather Harper’s first statements in Elsa’s Act 2 scene with Ortrud are somewhat undefined because she is at that point singing from the castle’s balcony (as the stage directions require). Once Elsa joins Ortrud downstairs, Harper’s voice registers beautifully again. The orchestra is often a bit more recessed than in the best studio recordings, but I never felt that I was missing anything crucial.
I would recommend (as do many other critics) Kempe’s studio recording, on EMI, as anybody’s first introduction to the work. It shows all the usual advantages of the studio process, with none of the disadvantages. Everything sounds as spontaneous as in a live performance. The Elsa, Ortrud, and Telramund are Elisabeth Grümmer, Christa Ludwig, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and all are unsurpassed in their roles, though Fischer-Dieskau’s voice might not have been able to carry as Telramund in a large hall such as the Met. The Lohengrin, Jess Thomas, was, like James King, an American. He sings almost as beautifully (though somewhat less steadily toward the end of the bridal-chamber scene), and his pronunciation of German is better. (King often pronounces the letter “r” the American way, toward the front of the mouth. “Ich” often becomes “ick.”)
For his studio recording, Kempe opened the usual five-minute cut in Act 3 after Elsa faints. The CD re-release of that EMI recording includes the libretto and translation on a fourth disc.
There are other major studio recordings of Lohengrin that are worth getting to know: I have read much praise for the ones conducted by George Solti, featuring Jessye Norman, Plácido Domingo, and Hans Sotin, and by Claudio Abbado, featuring Cheryl Studer, Siegfried Jerusalem , and Kurt Moll. Mark Elder’s concert recording (mentioned above) has marvelous playing, plus Vogt as a most unusual Lohengrin.
Still, Kempe’s 1967 Bayreuth performance, despite making the 5-minute cut in Act 3, leaps into the top class of performances available to the eager lover of Wagner and of great singing. Not least, it sounds alive and exciting, never like the product of a sleek recording factory. We’re lucky to have it, 50 years later, in what I suspect is better sound than ever. (An earlier release of the same performance can be heard on YouTube.) The booklet-essay is very informative, full of quotations from newspaper reviews of the performance, and well translated. No libretto.
The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide. and then, lightly updated, at OperaToday.com. The current version appears here by kind permission of American Record Guide and OperaToday.com.