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Lohengrin Met 1938 | IPCD 1075-3
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Reviews for IPCD 1075–3


WAGNER Lohengrin: Maurice Abravanel, cond; Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin); Kirsten Flagstad (Elsa); Karin Branzell (Ortrud); Julius Huehn (Friedrich); Metropolitan O Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1075-3 mono (3 CDs: 203:21) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 1937–1938

& Lohengrin: Excerpts, Chicago, 1938 with Flagstad and René Maison

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
March/April 2017

This release is part of Immortal Performances’ Opera House of Our Dreams series, where producer and restoration master Richard Caniell brings into existence broadcast performances that should have survived but for some reason did not. In the case of this Lohengrin he has created something of beauty and managed somehow to make it seamless.

In 1937 the Met broadcast Lohengrin with essentially the cast you see above, except for inexplicably using the Belgian tenor René Maison instead of Lauritz Melchior in the title role. I say “inexplicably” because Melchior sang all the non-broadcast performances that year! The present broadcast has survived and been issued on a number of labels. In it, Maison sings well enough but with little personality or involvement in the drama. The following year, 1938, Lohengrin was broadcast with Melchior and Flagstad, but NBC didn’t retain the discs; only a privately made transcription of the second act survives. Later on, Flagstad and Melchior sang the opera together five times in 1939, 1940, and 1941, but never on a Saturday broadcast. Thus there is no surviving complete broadcast of this opera with these two great Wagnerian stars.

What Caniell has now done, using his extraordinary skill, is to insert Melchior from the various latter performances into the 1937 broadcast in place of Maison. Maurice Abravanel was the conductor in both 1937 and 1938, which helps maintain consistency (I’m using the name by which we know him today; in the 1930s he went by Maurice de Abravanel, which is what Milton Cross calls him on the broadcast and how Immortal Performances identifies him). In a lengthy essay included in the wonderful booklet accompanying these discs, Caniell explains in detail how he accomplished the substitution of tenors. The biggest challenge “was the ensemble near the end of Act I, as all the principals sing simultaneously. What I did was to bring in Melchior, or Flagstad in whatever portion either of their voices was most prominent. If Flagstad was very forward in 1937 I could take those phrases and put them behind Melchior’s voice so they are heard simultaneously. Thus, by these patches, the experience of hearing Melchior and Flagstad in the ensemble is sufficiently achieved to maintain the necessary verisimilitude.”

Despite the fact that the second act in 1938 was recorded privately, the sound quality wasn’t at the level of the 1937 broadcast, so Caniell used the 1938 only to bring Melchior into the 1937 performance. For the bridal chamber scene, he did not use the commercial RCA recording of that scene in its entirety (with Edwin McArthur conducting), because it lacked the dramatic presence and immediacy of the live performance. He only used that set where the two sang jointly, and otherwise took Flagstad from 1937 and Melchior from Met broadcasts of 1940 and 1943. What astonishes me is that one would expect the bridal chamber scene to lack any kind of flow or shape, given the variety of sources (and conductors). But in addition to technical wizardry, Caniell has keen musical instincts, and he has managed these edits without interrupting the flow of the music. I found myself listening to the opera, after some initial suspicion, without regard for the nature of what this hybrid is, simply as a single performance of Lohengrin. (We do have to remember that some of our favorite studio recordings were made over a span of months or, in some cases, a year or two—with the scenes recorded completely out of order.)

Immortal Performances has two other Melchior Lohengrin performances in its catalog already: 1935 with Lotte Lehmann’s Elsa and Artur Bodanzky conducting, and 1940 with Elisabeth Rethberg and Erich Leinsdorf on the podium. I would recommend the latter as a first choice for a Melchior Lohengrin (any Wagner collection must have a Melchior Lohengrin). The sound on both the 1935 broadcast and this 1937–38 compilation is occasionally congested and compressed by comparison. Caniell himself refers to the problems, due to microphone placement and Lord knows what other technical limitations imposed by inadequate equipment or inferior engineers. However, when comparing Caniell’s remastering to the sound quality on any prior releases of the 1937 broadcast, his is significantly better.

Clearly it’s the attraction of having Flagstad and Melchior together that justifies Caniell’s labors, and a buyer’s interest. All told, we have Melchior with a range of other fine Elsas (Lehmann, Rethberg, Varnay, and Traubel), but not until now with Flagstad. Beyond them, here we have the electrifying Ortrud of Branzell and Julius Huehn’s richly sung Telramund. In particular, Branzell is a miracle: a rich, evenly produced voice with no seams from top to bottom, and an intensity that thrills without ever becoming hectoring.

The strengths of Melchior’s Lohengrin have been commented upon by many over the years. In Fanfare alone James Miller and I reviewed the 1935 Immortal Performances release (37:2). Colin Clarke and Lynne René Bayley reviewed the 1940 broadcast from the same label in 36:2. To be fair, Bayley sounded a dissenting note because she didn’t like the sound of Melchior’s voice to begin with. Most others, however, have found that voice to be a miracle of beauty, firmness, and brilliance. What distinguishes Melchior from virtually all other Heldentenors is the combination of heroic and lyrical singing, of power and warmth, that one rarely finds in a single singer.

In Flagstad we have her own unrivaled combination of assets: a glowing voice unique in its timbre, along with a sense of inner strength and conviction that’s singularly appropriate for Elsa. The performances of Lehmann and Rethberg may have a bit more specificity of characterization through their inflection, but there’s a glorious beauty to the Flagstad sound that’s irreplaceable. Any thought that she is dramatically a cipher can be put aside whenever we hear her onstage performances, which are almost always stronger than Flagstad’s studio recordings.

Abravanel’s conducting combines warmth with drama in just the right proportions. Ludwig Hofmann’s strong King Heinrich and Arnold Gabor’s steady Herald round out a superb cast. Some brief chunks from the 1938 Chicago Opera broadcast of the same opera, with Flagstad and a stronger Maison than was the case in his 1937 Met performance, make an interesting if fragmentary bonus. The booklet is up to the high standards of this company, which is to say it’s in a different world from anyone else reissuing historic material. Included in its 60 pages are in-depth essays and some lovely historical photographs.

Summing up, this release doesn’t replace the essential Immortal Performances issue of the 1940 Met Lohengrin with Rethberg and Melchior, but it’s a wonderful supplement that uniquely brings Flagstad and Melchior together. Caniell’s skills restore for us what the Met and NBC, with various wrongheaded decisions, conspired to try to keep from us. 


WAGNER Lohengrin: Maurice Abravanel, cond; Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin); Kirsten Flagstad (Elsa); Karin Branzell (Ortrud); Julius Huehn (Friedrich); Metropolitan O Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1075-3 mono (3 CDs: 203:21) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 1937–1938

& Lohengrin: Excerpts, Chicago, 1938 with Flagstad and René Maison

Colin Clarke
FANFARE magazine
March/April 2017

Before we get to the nitty gritty of the technical details surrounding this issue, it needs to be stated that the Prelude to act I of this performance of Lohengrin is one of the finest Wagner performances the present writer has experienced. The performance is lit from within, and perfectly shaped. The sound supports the unfolding musical argument fully, and one can hear the control of the New York strings with remarkably clarity. Throughout, Abravanel’s ear for texture and detail marks this out as a very special Lohengrin; specifically because the results routinely raise the opera out of Wagner’s near-maturity and instead confirms it as the masterpiece it is. His ability to project structure, too, means that the climactic parts of act I take full effect. His players seem preternaturally disciplined, and not only in the treacherous act I Prelude; highly impassioned string writing in act II emerges with real power and unanimity.

The darkness Abravanel finds to the opening of the second act is quite remarkable; it really is identifiably of the theater. While the acoustic is a little dry, the lower strings still carry magnificent menace. The Prelude to act III is another lesson in Wagner conducting: The red-hot energy of the orchestra’s opening contrasts with a balancing eloquence. And when that sense of darkness returns in act III (when Elsa falls senseless and Lohengrin then laments the loss of their happiness), it is again the orchestral darkening, not to mention a particularly expressive solo oboe, that really transports the listener to Wagner’s mythic realm. Yet when it comes to pageantry, Abravanel can create just the right feeling of the grandeur of old (as with the Knights in the third act). Further, listen to the care lavished on the orchestral contributions to Lohengrin’s final narrations; especially, perhaps, to the discipline of the upper strings at speed.

In one of their modern day “magics,” the original Lohengrin in this 1937 performance, René Maison, has been replaced by an inserted Lauritz Melchior. Richard Caniell’s reasoning is convincing: “There were 26 performances of Lohengrin with Melchior and Flagstad and only one complete recording was made of a complete performance with them and it didn’t survive. Are you happy with that? I’m not.” There is indeed magic here, to the extent that in the ensemble in act I, Caniell has substituted Melchior and Flagstad in those passages where the two characters’ voices are most prominent. Caniell has also reinstated a Bridal Chamber Scene cut that exists in the Abravanel performance. This release comes under Immortal Performances Opera House of our Dreams banner, the result of pure enthusiasm (and no little hard work).

Flagstad’s Elsa is strong, not quite the innocent we may wish to believe in (“Einsam in trüben Tagen,” accompanied with miraculous delicacy in the orchestra). Instead she has a steel rod of Faith (with a capital “F”) to see her through her ordeals, and this is audible from her very first entry. Of course, Melchior matches her strength. One can hear his lungs of steel right from Lohengrin’s act I entrance, and it is not long before those lungs are given full flight. The conjunction of Melchior and Flagstad in these two roles has a vocal rightness; both have a core of steel, can effectively sing until their heads fall off, and yet are capable of ardent expression as well as tenderness. Perhaps the human (as opposed to heroic) tenderness exists in Abravanel’s orchestral web of sound; act III finds Melchior in ringing form (“Elsa, mein Weib!”), and Flagstad his perfect timbral partner. She finds tenderness too, even the odd hint of vulnerability

The all-important, radiant final panel of the third act features stunning orchestral contributions here. The Immortal Performances restoration enables one to really appreciate the sheen to the strings; Lohengrin’s halo, in fact. Melchior opts not to linger on the way to his revelations about the Grail itself; the dove gets short shrift, its symbology there only for the keenest listener. Yet the strength at the revelation of his name is all there, magnificent and unwavering. His farewell carries perhaps a touch of over-emotionalism (nearly but not quite sobs).

Karin Branzell was a great Ortrud, and her scene with Friedrich that opens the second act carries great power; this is an Ortrud of many sides, capable of dark interior expression as well as outbursts of evil. Her moment at the end of the opera is taken with great enthusiasm. Huehn, too, is fully inside his part, and both have the vocal strength for the higher dynamics.

Immortal Performances’ achievement (restoration, recreation, creation, take your pick) is remarkable, as we get to experience a remarkable viewpoint on Lohengrin thanks to Abravanel who, it turns out, has the dream team of Melchior and Flagstad at his disposal. The Met Chorus is exceptional throughout. The chorus plays such an important part in act I, and here its vibrant presence is near palpable; in act III, the Bridal Chorus comes with a superb sense of lightness and balanced textures.

Commentator John Hotzman introduces the NBC broadcast of the Chicago extra. Flagstad is the star of these excerpts, with the orchestra rather recessed for her “Einsam in trüben Tagen,” but her imperious voice is intact. There is a fair amount of noise, and the strings are not of the highest caliber, but in Flagstad’s “In lichter Waffen” one can still determine her wonderful phrasing. Excerpts end rather abruptly, it has to be said, but this is a valuable addendum. Maison is actually a fine Lohengrin, and John Gurney a King nicely focused in his lower registers. Unfortunately, in the original broadcast, the commentator talked over Flagstad’s final passage, so Caniell has once more waved his wand, and 1937 comes in to save the moment.

This set is a magnificent addition to any Wagner collection.

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