Wagner Lohengrin RCA

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1848)
Sándor Kónya – Lohengrin (tenor)
Jerome Hines – Heinrich der Vogler (bass)
Lucine Amara – Elsa von Brabant (soprano)
William Dooley – Friedrich von Telramund (baritone)
Rita Gorr – Ortrud (mezzo)
Calvin Marsh – Herald (baritone)
Boston Chorus Pro Musica
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 1965, Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
RCA G010000476259W [215]

Wagner’s Lohengrin has had a relatively lucky time of it on records over the years. Looking at the studio-based recordings alone, the majority of them have been reasonably successful, especially in regards to the various singers who have taken on the title role. RCA’s 1965 Boston-based recording is a good case in point. On paper it appears to have been planned to showcase the best available American singers of the day (Konya and Gorr notwithstanding).  It had originally been planned to have Leontyne Price making her Wagner debut as Elsa but at a late stage Price pulled out and Lucine Amara was brought in to replace her. One can almost imagine how good Price would have been in the role at that stage in her career if her recording of “Dich Teure Halle” from Tannhäuser is anything to judge by.

Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra has a very firm grip on Wagner’s most Italianate score. He observes all of the composer’s markings in regards to dynamics and phrasing quite scrupulously. This is a very clean and forthright reading which does not lack excitement or lyricism. What he doesn’t attempt to do is to put his own personal stamp on things. One wishes that occasionally he would let his own ideas invade the music-making every now and then as Kempe (review), Solti (review), Sawallisch and Kubelik do on their respective recordings. The members of the Boston Symphony are especially responsive to Leinsdorf’s leadership and play like gods for him.  The recording was made in the cavernous-sounding Symphony Hall. It is an atmospheric, generous acoustic which adds presence to the voices and instruments alike. Some listeners may not appreciate this reverberant sound with a noticeable decay factor, but it is a real acoustical space and doesn’t ever sound mechanical or contrived, serving only to enhance the aliveness of this performance. The repeated trumpet fanfares ring out splendidly in this hall and the conclusion to the Second Act is visceral and goes beyond being merely exciting.

RCA was able to obtain the services of a real star performer in the Hungarian heldentenor Sándor Kónya. He was arguably the most important singer of lighter Wagnerian tenor roles during the 1960s. His performances as Lohengrin, Walther von Stolzing and Parsifal were much admired around the world. Here he contributes a gleaming, silver sound with a fine-grained quality in the timbre. His characterization of Lohengrin is dreamily romantic with a suggestion of always being slightly out of reach to the other characters. He would be well nigh perfect if it wasn’t for the occasional oddity in his German diction, a failing that is replicated by several other members of this cast.

Another real standout among the singers here is the beautifully delineated Telramund of William Dooley. This is a patrician voice among Wagner baritones, never barking or shouting his phrases, yet he manages to convey the pride and calculating nature that is the Count’s eventual undoing. Dooley’s voice reveals a smooth, plush, warmly-resonant baritone that is a wee bit taxed by some of the higher lines he has to navigate in the second act. Despite this, I find him one of the better Telramunds I have ever come across. He is outclassed only by Fischer-Dieskau’s glitteringly dark portrait of the man on Rudolf Kempe’s recording.

It is perhaps unfair to judge Lucine Amara’s Elsa too harshly. She probably had to learn the role specifically for this recording. She doesn’t really sound idiomatic or as if the role is fully incorporated within her voice. Her plaintive lyric sound, with the tiny catch in her timbre, is attractive enough, and she delivers a sweet and shapely account of the “song to breezes”. Ultimately her voice is not a comfortable match with Wagner and I suspect German opera in general. Her German pronunciation is also too soft in focus to be reckoned as a success.

Rita Gorr is a powerhouse Ortrud in every respect. Her voice is not in the tip-top condition that it was for her performances of the role at the 1959 Bayreuth Festival (available on an excellent set of CDs from Orfeo) but her acerbic timbre is well-suited to the malevolent pride of Ortrud. She conquers most of the vocal climaxes with firm, incisive tone. There are a few times (especially when she is rushed by Leinsdorf’s tempo) that a harsh note will invade, but this actually contributes to her fine characterization over all. Next to Astrid Varnay on several recordings, she remains among the top-ranking Ortruds on disc.

Jerome Hines contributes a very fatherly sounding King Henry.  His voice has presence and appeal. His upper range has a touch of wooliness at this stage in his career but it never turns into an outright wobble. His German (along with Gorr’s) is among the better pronounced among this cast. Calvin Marsh’s Herald is sung with a big, strappingly firm tone. There is not much to characterize in this role so he does what a singer can do by singing with an assured line and incisive attack. His scene with the chorus in Act Two is quite exciting indeed.

The Boston Pro Musica Chorus sounds as if they had been drilled like a bunch of army recruits. Their performance is splendidly bold and exciting. Their control of dynamics really comes across in this large scale acoustic. They would rate as one of the best features of this set if it wasn’t for their careless, heavily-accented pronunciation of the German text. It is a small blot on a really fine recording but a blot nonetheless. This and the other little issues that crop up keep this from getting an outright recommendation as a top choice recording of Lohengrin. Still; there is much that is really worth savouring here.

Mike Parr

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