Recording of March 1988: Wagner: Lohengrin

Wagner: Lohengrin
Placido Domingo, Lohengrin; Jessye Norman, Elsa; Eva Randova, Ortrud; Siegmund Nimsgern, Telramund; Hans Sotin, Heinrich; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Heerrufer; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Georg Solti, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
London 421 053-1 (4 LPs), 421 053-2 (4 CDs). James Lock, John Pellowe, engs.; Christopher Raeburn, prod. DDD. TT: 222:54

It's always surprised me that Lohengrin, Wagner's most awkward, transitional, and static opera, was, for its first 100 years, his most popular. It didn't help, I suppose, that I began my study of things darkly Teutonic with The Ring and Tristan, working forward and backward from there. In Lohengrin we can hear the last reluctant pullings away from operatic conventions—especially choral—of the first half of the 19th century, and the gropings toward full-blown musikdrama—especially in Act II, scene i.

The pace is slow, even for Wagner, with a portentous reverence unrivalled even by Parsifal, and the character of Lohengrin, even less human than the out-and-out gods, dwarves, and dragons of The Ring, is so endlessly correct, never once succumbing to self-doubt or even second thoughts, that identification with him is difficult (although that didn't seem to stop Ludwig II, who wove an entire life's worth of expensively castled fantasies around the legend of the Swan Knight).

After living for some time with the authoritative 1963 Kempe/VPO recording, with its once-in-a-lifetime cast of Jess Thomas, Elisabeth Grummer, Christa Ludwig, Fischer-Dieskau, and Gottlob Frick, it was hard to imagine a better performance. In many ways, that recording has not been bettered here—certainly not in the soloists. (With the exception of Frick, who did an excellent job but whose voice is simply too black for Heinrich. In the otherwise unnecessary Kubelik/Bayerische Rundfunk performance, Karl Ridderbusch, one of my favorite baritones, is a much better choice.) It's hard to imagine a more grippingly dramatic Act II Telramund/Ortrud scene, with two such consummate vocal actors as Fischer-Dieskau and Ludwig ripping into each other, and Thomas and Grummer are perfectly matched in nobility of purpose and purity of tone. And, of course, there's always the 1953 Keilberth/Bayreuth recording (Richmond, op), whose rough and ready vigor is unfortunately countered by poor recorded sound (see John Culshaw's Putting the Record Straight for the rather political explanation), but which preserves an indomitable Astrid Varnay as Ortrud and an oddly introspective Windgassen in the title role. (There's also a long-out-of-print Leinsdorf recording, which I remember for a rousing Act I swordfight and little else.)

Such strong competition makes Georg Solti's achievement all the more welcome. There has always been an epic inevitability in his conducting of Wagner, and it is hardly lacking here, as is evident from the first bar of the perfectly built Act I Prelude. There is a wonderful, uncloying sweetness in the opening string octet, and it builds seamlessly to a stunningly prepared-for climax. Throughout, his handling of Wagner's one- and two-note string and brass punctuations in the tenser scenes are tight, dramatically perfect. Solti has been taken to task elsewhere for his slow tempi here, but if indeed they are slower (I'm not convinced), such is his intensity, drive, and analytical passion that they hardly lag.

This is most evident in the long choral passages. More than any other of Wagner's operas, a Lohengrin lacking stellar soloists can stand or fall on the precision of its choruses, and Solti's (and chorus director Walter Hagen-Groll's) direction is bracingly alive, fully involved in the dramatic action, emotionally demonstrative, and musically precise in the many dense split-chorus passages. The complex counterpoint at the first sight of Lohengrin in Act I is heard with perfect clarity for the first time on record, and the same act's finale is triumphant; the entrance of the women in II.iv., too, sends chills up the spine. Of course, the Vienna State Opera Chorus is famous for the powerfully rich, dark, male tones that one seems to find only in native German-speaking choruses. In short, this most intrusive of Wagner's "Greek choruses" here enjoys a performance unequalled anywhere.

Placido Domingo's is a sensual, emotional Lohengrin, quite unlike the severely spiritual Jess Thomas's. His reiteration of "Nie sollst du mich befragen" is bitingly insistent; "In fernem Land" is masterfully structured: hushed, triumphant, reverent, and proud by turns; but "Mein lieber Schwann," though achingly tender, is marred by Domingo's theatrically correct but sonically muffled turning away to address his upstage swan. Jessye Norman gives the impression of endless vocal reserves, so effortless is the power of her floating, perfectly supported tones. But she lacks emotional urgency; in this case, the emphasis is on the music, not the drama—her Elsa seems never to leave the dreamy reverie of her opening Act I narration until Act III.

Hans Sotin is a strong, warm Heinrich, though not as supple as Ridderbusch; Siegmund Nimsgern's Telramund is solid, but smacks more of Alberich's strained posturing; and Eva Randova's Ortrud, though assured and considerably more than adequate, simply cannot compare with those of Ludwig or Varnay. A delightful treat, however, is Fischer-Dieskau as the Heerrufer: in reviews of his recent lieder recordings, much has been made of the inevitable deterioration of his voice; but in the opera studio, at least, his singing is unimpaired. This compulsively human singer brings life to this cardboard part as no other has, and with great force and musicality.

For this, the conclusion of Solti's Wagner cycle for London/Decca, he returned to the VPO after the misguided CSO Dutchman, and that orchestra is in fine voice—the brasses and woodwinds are strong and mellow, unlike the CSO's often stentorian harshness, and the Sofiensaal's liquid acoustic serves this digital recording as it always has: extremely well. The Act III Bridal Chorus, for example, is begun far, far back in some remote side-hall, and approaches with slow, even stateliness. Solti conducts here with almost Handelian lace and grace, coaxing the fine textures of the vocal writing to match the opening strings' etherialness in the Act I Prelude.

For the sheer vocal power of its cast and the resultant compelling drama, the Kempe recording remains unparalleled. But in all other ways, including exciting, gripping drama from the podium, and orchestral sound of great fullness and beauty, I heartily recommend Solti's heroic Lohengrin.—Richard Lehnert

Pro-Audio-Tech's picture

As a lifelong Wagner fan it's great to see such a review, great depth and detail. Heck I gotta get this, I am sold.