WAGNER: Lohengrin highlights – Jess Thomas, tenor/ Elisabeth Grummer, soprano/ Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano/ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone/ Gottlob Frick, bass/ Otto Wiener, bass/ Vienna State Opera Chorus/ Vienna Philharmonic/ Rudolf Kempe – EMI

by | Jan 31, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

WAGNER: Lohengrin highlights – Jess Thomas, tenor/Elisabeth Grummer, soprano/Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone/ Gottlob Frick, bass/ Otto Wiener, bass/ Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/ Vienna Philharmonic/ Rudolf Kempe – EMI Classics 0 94894 2, 65:22 ****:
Richard Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin successfully combines several themes, including the Romantic conceit that a mysterious knight make the impossible demand that his wife should not ask his name or his origins, that he should find acceptance “just as he appears to himself.” At the same time, the opera confronts the Grail legend with a series of claims by purveyors of false gods and bad faith. The roles of True Belief and the power of witchcraft and sorcery in the life of a people finds potent expression in the kind of musical archetype Wagner exploits in one of his most popular operas, this the quickest to find an eager public beyond the borders of Germany.
Recorded over the course of months from November 1962 through April 1963 at the Theater an die Wien, Vienna, this EMI production boasts a talented cast led by veteran Rudolf Kempe. We open as Elsa (Grummer) in Act I sings Einsam in trueben Tagen, “Alone in dark days,” of a dream which came in time of trouble, in which a knight in shining armor volunteered to be her champion in her defense of having killed her brother Gottfried. Friedrich of Telmarund (Fischer-Dieskau) dismisses Elsa’s dream as a ruse, but he accepts a challenge of a trial by ordeal. The trumpet work already announces musical motifs that will saturate the Ring cycle. Gottlob Frick’s resonant bass-baritone conveys both power and sympathy in his role as King Heinrich. Grummer (1911-1986) enjoys a lyric role within her flexible tessitura, though critics might argue that spinto and helden-soprano roles were beyond her vocal powers. Jess Thomas (1927-1993) specialized in Wagnerian roles, a clear and resonant voice, the American equivalent of Ernst Haefliger. His entry aria, Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan! combines mystery, heraldry, and naive optimism. He offers Elsa solace and loyalty on the condition of his anonymity. Elsa’s glad acceptance has Grummer’s vocal buoyancy and Thomas’ guileless sincerity. Lohengrin proceeds to defeat Telramund in the name of God: Durch Gottes Sieg ist jetzt dein Leben mein, revealing the quality of mercy by sparing Friedrich’s life, a feat applauded by al except Friedrich and Ortrud (Ludwig).
Of Act II and its psychological manipulations, we have only the dialogue-aria of Friedrich and Ortrud, the latter beautifully characterized by Christa Ludwig (b. 1928) in Du wilde Seherin!  Ortrud convinces Friedrich that their power can be restored if Lohengrin’s victory can be ascribed to black magic, and if Elsa can be cozened to betray her oath to keep her knight’s secret origins. Ludwig and Fischer-Dieskau enact a cruel series of gestures that easily point to future scenes in the Richard Strauss Elektra. The orchestration takes Weber’s tones from Der Freischuetz even further, combining mystery, malice, and Gothic terror, a conspiracy worthy of Macbeth and his Lady.
Act III opens with the renowned Prelude, a brief taste of the kinds of (pre-nuptial) energies Kempe could unleash with the most responsive orchestra in middle Europe.  The wedding scene culminates in Treulich gefuehrt, the bridal chorus of infinite renown that lets the two lovers have their first moments alone. Elsa and Lohengrin affirm their troth in Das Suesse Lied verhallt, in which each hails the other as true spouse, and each confirms his heavenly bliss. Here, we might wish Jess Thomas were more perspicacious than merely warm and intimate, his “psychology” a surface beauty merely. Faithful to human nature rather than to idealized love, Elsa poses the fatal question of Lohengrin’s origin, propelling his tragic admission, In fernem Land, before the King’s court that he comes from Montsalvat, shrine of the Grail, and that he is the son of Parsifal. Elsa swoons, Mir schwankt der Boden! while Lohengrin insists on the purity of his love, though thwarted, and his grief at his inexorable departure: the Grail’s principles reign supreme. The swan returns to bear Lohengrin away: Mein lieber Schwan!  Lohengrin now reveals that Elsa’s brother Gottfried lives, the very swan drawing the barque, his having been transformed by Ortrud’s evil magic. Gottfried would have returned after a year of Elsa’s fidelity; but Lohengrin prays, and a white dove effects Gottfried’s return to human form. Lohengrin departs, and Gottfried rushes to embrace King and Elsa, only to see Elsa gaze in regret at her lost love and fall lifeless with a cry, “My husband!”
—Gary Lemco

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