Reviews for IPCD 1032-3
Artur Bodanzky, cond; Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin); Lotte Lehmann (Elsa); Marjorie Lawrence (Ortrud); Friedrich Schorr (Friedrich von Telramund); Emanuel List (King Henry)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, December 21, 1935
Bonus: WAGNER Die Walküre: Act I Finale (Melchior; Lehmann; Leinsdorf). SCHUMANN Er und sie. Ich denke dein. Familien-Gemälde. So wahr die Sonne scheinet. Unterm Fenster (Melchior; Lehmann; Reibold, cond; unidentified orch; from 1939 RCA recordings)
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1032-3, (3 CDs: 213:13)
This is another stunning restoration of historic material by Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances, but it is one with a more specialized appeal because of the poor condition of the original material with which he had to work, and because one of its principal attractions (Melchior’s glorious Lohengrin) is available in later, better-sounding editions. But what this has that others do not is Lehmann’s resplendent Elsa and Lawrence’s galvanic Ortrud.
Caniell states up front, in the excellent “Recording Notes” that accompany this set, that the quality of the original off-the-air 1935 recording is poor. He has worked on it over many years, with earlier restorations of his being released on Archipel and Myto (not with his permission). I have the Myto version and can state categorically that this is a significant improvement. Before we even get to sound quality, we have to examine the other problem with the original: missing material. All copies that have been located break off after the chorus following “In fernem Land” near the end of the opera. The problem is magnified by the existence of no other broadcast with Lehmann, Lawrence, and Melchior. Caniell has solved this here by bringing in some material from other broadcasts (not only from the Met) in order to keep his cast together as a whole. The work he has done is very smooth.
Whereas the Simon Boccanegra reviewed in this issue of Fanfare is a recording that I believe will appeal to anyone who loves Verdi’s music, even if not a dedicated or passionate collector of historic recordings, this Lohengrin is more for the specialist, who not only wants Melchior’s Lohengrin, but Lehmann’s Elsa as well, and who is willing to listen through some serious sonic limitations. Those willing to do that will be amply rewarded.
Even assessing Melchior’s performance, this is the very best of those that have survived. In 1935, the Danish tenor was already 45 years old, but still at his absolute peak. His other recorded performances are from 1940, 1942, and 1943, when he was in his 50s, and 1950 when he was 60. The best of them that I’ve heard is the Met’s 1943 outing, in warm sound recently released by Sony, but only available (as of this writing) in a 25-disc set of historic Met Wagner performances (though affordably priced at $74.99 at ArkivMusic and $76.39 at Amazon). Melchior in 1943 sings a more satisfying Lohengrin than any other tenor except for Melchior in 1935. The younger version sounds just a touch freer and more expansive. But the difference is slight, and the recorded sound would definitely make most listeners prefer the later performance. There is an Immortal Performances release of the 1940, but I have not heard it. If it is up to their usual standard, it should be stunning. Rethberg is the Elsa there.
Elsa in the 1943 performance is the very fine Astrid Varnay. But even her excellent performance is not the equal of what Lehmann gives us. Lehmann, two years older than Melchior, was also still in her prime at 47. The voice is positively thrilling throughout, and London Green has some very perceptive words about her realization of the character in the booklet: “Her view of Elsa is clear, and quite overwhelming, even on Elsa’s first entrance. The voice … is at once youthfully pure and nevertheless sensuous in effect: full of warmth even as she is deeply distraught. In three words (Mein armer Bruder!—My poor brother!) her expression at this point gives us a suggestion of the entire character, a feat that no other recorded performance since has done so masterfully.” Green goes on with many specific examples of Lehmann’s portrayal, comparing it with others. I will simply say here that this is a performance of nobility and humanity, which are characteristics at the core of Elsa and which are conveyed here in a wholly convincing manner, and with unfailingly glorious tone production and phrasing.
The young (26) Marjorie Lawrence, about six years before polio struck and effectively ended her career, is a splendid Ortrud. While mezzos often sing the role, and can be thrilling, they tend also to shriek a bit, particularly in the scene after “Mein lieber Schwann.” Lawrence, a true dramatic soprano with an open top, manages to convey the power and villainy of the character without ever sounding ugly. This too is an important document.
Schorr was, like Lehmann, 47 in 1935, but his voice shows a few signs of wear that hers does not. But the flaws are minor when compared with the depth of his characterization and deep musicality of his singing, and the variety of inflection and color he brings to Telramund. Emanuel List is a magnificent King Henry, and Julius Huehn’s Herald is also an important contribution. Artur Bodanzky, who held up the German wing of the Met for many years, conducts with flexibility and drive. Conducting Wagner convincingly is difficult. Lingering over the long stretches of lyricism can allow things to bog down, but over-emphasizing the music’s drive and rhythmic tension can undervalue its grandeur and melodic expansiveness. Bodanzky gets the balance just right. The Met orchestra, not that many years from having been drilled by Mahler and then Toscanini, plays very well, though the Met chorus is a bit raw-toned and ragged. It really wasn’t until Levine’s time at the Met that resources were dedicated to the chorus to bring it up to the level the company merited.
So we come back, now, to the matter of the recorded sound. Caniell writes that he has modified his philosophy somewhat from the time he first worked on this recording. He now minimizes filtering to remove noise, because at the same time it removes vocal and orchestral color. He writes “I could certainly arrive at the relative quiet reproduced on the Archipel/Myto release of my work, but in the end, I much prefer the lifefulness, the presence of the voices that is hearable only with the least amount of filtering.” I agree, and a direct comparison of this with the Myto and the Melodram releases of the same performance demonstrate the superiority of the Immortal Performances release. However, it cannot be denied that you will still need a tolerance for the surface noise, and the occasional scenes in which congestion and distortion seem almost ready to take over. Caniell is refreshingly candid about the problems in his notes.
As filler, Immortal Performances includes the end of the first act of Die Walküre from their “Dream Ring,” a Met broadcast with Melchior, Lehmann, and Leinsdorf that is as good as it gets, and then five Schumann duets. I don’t believe a collector of operatic recordings would need a libretto/ translation for Lohengrin, as this isn’t likely to be the one recording in a collection. English texts are provided for the Schumann duets. I wish the booklet indicated who did the orchestrations (I don’t believe they are Schumann’s). Having said that, the singing is as beautiful as you would expect it to be from Melchior and Lehmann. The set also includes Milton Cross’s commentary and curtain calls. I rather like that—but if you don’t, it is easy to omit it because it is separately tracked.