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Compared to Rudolf Kempe's atmospheric Vienna EMI Lohengrin, Erich Leinsdorf's Boston version, in spite of expert orchestral playing (the first-desk soloists truly stand out) seems inert and studio bound by comparison. Sandor Kónya delivers the title role with personality and authority, but the remainder of the cast lacks the ensemble momentum that distinguishes the aforementioned Kempe recording. Leinsdorf, by the way, restores several bars of music to Lohengrin's Narrative originally cut by the composer. --Jed Distler
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Leontyne Price was reportedly the first choice for Elsa. It would have been an interesting opportunity to hear her in a German role. There are a few glimpses of her singing in Richard Strauss excerpts in good vocal estate and they pique my interest for what she would have done in this role. (The complete Strauss Ariadne came a few years too late to showcase her great vocal gifts.) Lucine Amara is adequate but not much more. She no Janowitz, Norman, or especially, Grummer.
The rest of the cast is significantly outclassed, especially by Fischer-Dieskau and Christa Ludwig in the rival EMI/Kempe effort. Rita Gorr, an artist I admire, handles much of the role of Ortrud pretty well, but the final scene's squalling is a trial to the ears.
The Boston Symphony is tonally opulent and brings out much of the beauty of the orchestration, an accomplishment shared by Maestro Leinsdorf. The conducting isn't, however, on a par with Kempe.
This is an interesting recording for fans of Konya and the curious. Yes, it is absolutely complete with Lohengrin's uncut grail narrative, but for a reference recording, look elsewhere. My recommendation is EMI/Kempe.
And then there are two sets that are special: the Leinsdorf and the recent Barenboim. Unfortunately it's not the performances that are special; neither is in the first rank of _Lohengrin_'s, and so people who want to own just one _Lohengrin_ would be best to start with Kempe or Solti or, apparently, the Abbado.
The Leinsdorf and Barenboim sets are special because they are the only truly complete sets. Just before the first performance of _Lohengrin_, Wagner wrote to Liszt, who was to conduct, to suggest that the second part of Lohengrin's famous Grail Narration ("In fernem Land") be cut. Wagner was influenced by doubts about the tenor who was to sing the name part. Since then the cut has been observed in almost all performances, and all recordings except these two.
What you lose with the cut is some wonderful music, a longer stay in the mysterious realm of the Grail. As you'd expect with Wagner the second part of the Narration is not a musical repeat of the first; it strikes out anew to provide a satisfying balance and conclusion. Wagner managed to convince himself that the cut would benefit the performance because the full Narration would delay the climax of the plot. But tastes and audiences have changed since that first performance, and it's time that complete performances became the norm. Dramatically you gain greater impact as Lohengrin's on-stage audience (and Wagner's audience, in the theatre) have more time to absorb the marvels they were living amongst, then have to confront the tragic reality that they have lost them, forever.
Barenboim and Leinsdorf both restore this cut. When I decided I just had to have a truly complete _Lohengrin_ I listened carefully to both. Neither set is in the very front rank, though as standards for this opera are high they are nevertheless both fine performances. I expected to prefer the Baremboim, with its better-known cast, his greater current reputation as a Wagnerian conductor, and modern sound. But after a couple of very pleasant hours listening, comparing notes, I bought the Leinsdorf.
The main reason is the Lohengrin of Sandor Kolya. It's a mystery that this wonderful tenor didn't become an international recording star, instead remaining a well-regarded live performer with many of his finest roles never preserved, or at best caught in live recordings never intended for release. But this is the ideal Lohengrin, heroic and otherworldly, better than Thomas, Domingo, Windgassen, and certainly greater than Peter Seiffert's slightly breathy performance of the title role for Barenboim.
The Elsas let down both of these sets, though Lucine Amara for Leinsdorf is perhaps slightly better than Barenboim's Emily Magee. Amara was actually a second choice, in one of the great missed opportunities of recording. The original Elsa for Leinsdorf was to have been Leontyne Price, who had the purity, warmth, beauty of voice and the acting skills and instincts to be a great Elsa, if not the very greatest. But commitments clashed and it was not to be.
The rest of the cast in both sets are adequate, sometimes excellent, but neither set has the depth of casting of the Kempe, Solti, Abbado, Jochum, Keilberth and so on. Rita Gorr, for Leinsdorf, is a shrill Ortrud (some of her notes cracked so badly I thought I was listening to Callas! <-- a joke, or nearly), but with dramatic experience and intelligence. An ugly Ortrud isn't wrong, necessarily, and this is a compelling performance. But Baremboim's Deborah Polaski is just as sinister without resorting to stripping paint, or my ears, with her top notes.
Actually Jessye Norman, who was Solti's Elsa, might be the definitive Ortrud of one kind: the sexy Bad Girl. Ortrud can and should be portrayed more sympathetically. Her character is more interesting than Elsa's, and there are grounds for being on her side; as a member of an older religion at a time when her beliefs were being put down by fire and torture and execution, among other things, she had every right to fight for her survival. And once Lohengrin freed Gottfried, Elsa's brother, he went on (in real history) to lead the Crusaders into Jerusalem, with enormous slaughter of non-combatants, and consequences we are suffering from to this day. Frankly, we'd all be better off if he'd stayed a Swan like Ortrud made him, part of the aquatic transport system between Montsalvat in Spain and Brabant in Belgium. (It might be interesting to work out Lohengrin's route some time, since he was restricted to swan-driven river traffic. Am I off the point yet?)
Finally, Barenboim is a more thoughtful musician than Leinsdorf, studying and pondering the score, and making a superbly planned performance. But Leinsdorf offers stronger forward propulsion, keeping the drama taut while letting the romantic scenes breathe, captured in brilliant sound. My bias at present is for faster Wagner than most conductors are giving us just now, so I tend to favour Leinsdorf's approach. But even if I discount that bias, as far as I can, I'd rate Leinsdorf high for sensitivity as well as compressed energy.
Sooo, after I'd tested these two complete sets, I bought the Leinsdorf. But it was a close thing, and it took me some pleasant hours to reach that decision. Both sets are perfectly good, and both have strong attractions.
Recording Richard Wagner is a troublesome task. His works require such power that something in each recording seems to be missing. Sometimes it is the quality if the singing, at other times it is the orchestra or perhaps the conductor cannot hold the piece together. The Boston Symphony Orchestra's version of LOHENGRIN with Erich Leinsdorf seems to come pretty close to being perfect. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has a reputation for excellence and Leinsdorf was certainly one of its legendary conductors. He is able to use the full depth and abilities of the BSO to give this great work its due. Sandor Konya is Lohengrin. At one moment he can be a powerful heldentenor, at other moments he is able to sing with delicate grace and beauty. Lucine Amara's Elsa is sheer beauty. Jerome Hines is superb as the King. My only objection to the set is Rita Gorr's Ortrud. While she is a mezzo with great ability, and her character in this opera is supposed to be a bit shrilly, at time she is too brash and it comes across almost as screaming rather than singing. Once a person is used to her rendition of Ortrud, it becomes barely noticeable, but it dopes take some getting used to.
I have listened to other recordings of this work, as well as live broadcasts from the Met, (quite honestly it is difficult to judge the work from a Met broadcast a few years ago since the audience let its displeasure with the sets be known with a series of boos that seemed to have an effect on the music as well), yet this continues to be the recording I enjoy most. As another reviewer noted, there are cuts in this version, which was not uncommon for longer operas recorded in 1965 as this recording was, however the strengths of this recording still make it my favorite rendition of this work.
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