Reviews

GHCD 2278/79/80 – LOHENGRIN – Wagner – Metropolitan Opera – Leinsdorf – 1940

Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Erich Leinsdorf – Conductor, LAURITZ MELCHIOR, ELISABETH RETHBERG, KERSTIN THORBORG, JULIUS HUEHN, EMANUEL LIST, LEONARD WARREN

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BBC Music Magazine  July 2004

The Kirsten Flagstad-Lauritz Melchior era at the Metropolitan Opera 1945-41) tends to be regarded as a Golden Age of Wanger performance. Broadcast recordings partially confirm but sometimes confound such a verdict. On the one hand, there can be alluring vocalism – in Guild’s Lohengrin, Elisabeth Rethberg’s Elsa possesses firm, vibrant tone and palpable conviction, and Melchior’s ringing sound precludes neither affecting emotion in the closing stages of Act III nor and interestingly restrained treatment of his entrance in Act II; even the Herald is sung impressively by none other than the young Leonrad Wareen. On the other hand, only uncritically partisan ears can pretend that Melchior’s rhythmic waywardness is not a serous distraction.

International Record Review July/August

For any lover of historic opera performances, this is a most exciting issue. Not only is Lauritz Melchior in resplendent voice, and demonstrating that there has never been a more sensitive interpreter of the title-role, but he has for the larger part very distinguished colleagues. At various times there have been quite a number of versions of Lohengrin with Melchior, all of them from the Metropolitan, but while the Grammofono issue is conducted most impressively of all by Fritz Busch, by 1947 Melchior’s voice was sounding a bit old for the knight in shining armour, and the Elsa, the lovely Helen Traubel, is calm to the point of impassivity.

One of the reasons for listening to this Guild issue is that it gives us a rare chance to hear Elisabeth Rethberg in a complete opera. She was nearing the end of her career at the Met, and the earlier performances of opera with her in the cast are in inferior sound or fragmentary, while the nearly contemporaneous Figaro finds her in poor voice. Anyone who has listened to her commercial recordings of arias and duets will know that her voice was incredibly beautiful, and that the beauty was clearly founded on a flawless technique. She does appear to lack temperament in them, however, or to be unwilling to display any in the studio. In this performance we hear a singer of quite a different character, abandoning herself to ecstasy at the end of Act 1 after Lohengrin has won the fight with Telramund, giving voice to fearful anxiety, gradually and subtly mounting to hysteria in the love duet in Act 3. There is no more committed Elsa to be heard, though Maria Müller on the Preiser recording made in 1942 in Berlin is also vivid, and she has a comparably lovely voice. But time had taken its toll of both singers, and in the end it is Rethberg who leaves the stronger impression. There are flaws that one wouldn’t have expected, such as singing slightly below the note in Elsa’s dream, and sounding edgy, even acidic, from time to time. Dramatically, though, it is impeccable, and she and Melchior seem to bring out the best in one another.

He is so much the noblest of Lohengrins that one would just like all his critics to listen to this and be humiliatingly silenced. There are a few places where he gets out of time with the conductor and where he alters Wagner’s note values, but mainly he is not only accurate but continuously inspired. The range of colours in his voice, his extraordinarily refined pianissimos, the trumpet tones which he can summon tirelessly, the way he can convey by purely vocal means tenderness, urgency, warning, all are things which no other singer of the role comes within hailing distance of. Franz Völker, singing under Robert Heger on the Preiser set, is wonderful too, but his is a lyric rather than a heroic voice, and the authority which Melchior exudes just escapes him.

The villains here make a striking if not a great pair too. Kerstin Thorborg is stretched where every Ortrud is, in her final explosion; but she manages her earlier ones, as well as her insinuations and her cajolings, with aplomb and plenty of volume where required. Julius Huehn is quite up to Telramund too, though he is often thought of as a capable second-rater. Here he is depicting a weak but ambitious character with powerful vocal means, and he brings it off. The young Leonard Warren is a distinguished Herald, making his announcements with enough variety of tone to avoid monotony. And Emanuel List, whipping boy of most commentators, makes a decent attempt at singing King Henry until his voice more or less shudders to a halt in Act 3.

One of the biggest surprises of this set for me is the fine conducting of Erich Leinsdorf, no fan of his tenor but offering him strong support. Most of Leinsdorf’s Met conducting of this period is competent but routine, but there are plenty of places in this Lohenqrin where he ignites his singers and orchestra, sometimes even the chorus, though it tends to be weedy. It’s a score, notoriously, which tends to sound foursquare unless there is plenty of subtle rubato applied to it, or elicited from lt. Much more than in his later commercial recording Leinsdorf seems willing to caress the score, and through a certain amount of crackle – not an intimidating quantity or quality, and I’m pleased that Guild left it in rather than indulging in the alternative – often there well sounds of grandeur and warmth. I fell in love with the opera all over again.

There are cuts, but they are less drastic than they had been under Artur Bodanzky. They make possible the inclusion of four solos by Melchior, introduced by the ultra- gentlemanly Milton Cross. One of the excerpts shows once again how skilfully Melchior built up his Act 3 narration in Lohengrin, even when he sang it as an aria out of context.
Michael Tanner


Music Web  02.04.04

Collectors will need to weigh the merits of Melchior with that of other interpreters on historical and more modern recordings and then decide if investment in this issue will be worthwhile. …
In his introduction to this performance Richard Caniell, archivist and guiding light of the series notes at page 5 of the booklet, that the 1939-1940 season at the ‘Met’ was a feast for lovers of Wagnerian opera. The Guild series has already picked from the Met’s rich orchard including ‘Die Walküre’ and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ both featuring Melchior and Flagstad. The roster at the theatre included the greatest Wagner singers of the age, and in the case of Melchior and Flagstad, of any age. Erich Leinsdorf had taken over the German repertoire at the house on the death of Arthur Bodansky in November 1939. Bodansky is notorious amongst Wagnerians for the often savage ‘cuts’ he made and this is true of the present performance. Over 40 minutes of music are missing compared to Kempe (EMI ‘GROC’). Worse, as far as some of the great Wagnerian singers were concerned, was that Leinsdorf wasn’t Bodansky who they were used to. In those days Leinsdorf was considered lacking in authority and experience. Whatever the tensions, they were buried in the creativity of the performance heard here, with Melchior strong and secure throughout, even a little lachrymose in his ‘farewell’ (CD 3 tr. 12). As Lohengrin’s lover, Elsa, Elisabeth Rethburg’s silvery soprano shows some signs of her age; she had debuted at the theatre as Aida in 1923. Thorburg, two years her junior and on the Met roster since 1936, is formidable as Ortrud, although as Caniell admits (p.11), Wagner’s tessitura defeats her in the ravings in Act 3.

Of the lower male voices Huehn is steady as Friedrich if not ideally refulgent of tone (CD 2 tr. 14). He is a paragon compared to List’s wobbly King. By comparison, in one of his earliest performances at the Met, Leonard Warren as the herald gives every indication of the vocal virtues he was to bring as the leading Verdi baritone at the theatre. This was a mantle he was to wear until his untimely death on that stage on March 4th 1960 during a performance of La Forza Del Destino.

This Lohengrin has appeared on various labels since the days of ‘EJS’ LPs. With some commendable restraint Richard Caniell recounts (p 34) how an entrepreneur, posing as a student, joined the Immortal Performance Recorded Music Society, who had been given the right to access the then copyright NBC performances, and stole various tape restorations. These including this performance were issued on various labels naming ‘Eklipse’ and ‘Walhal’. This issue has undergone much further work since then. Whilst still conforming to the philosophy of unfiltered presentation and pitch corrections this is perhaps best compared to the transfer of the same performance issued on ‘Arkadia’ in 2000. On this Guild issue un-correctable defects in Melchior’s ‘Höchstes Vetrau’n’ (CD 3 tr. 6) have been patched out from other sources, as has the Prelude to Act I. In an opera so full of pageantry, sound has an important part to play in enjoyment. Collectors will need to weigh the merits of Melchior in the opera (and the four arias in the appendices) with that of other interpreters on historical and more modern recordings and then decide if investment in this issue will be worthwhile.
Robert J. Farr