CD Review: Lohengrin - Swarowsky
|Original Cover Art for Westminster|
Elsa - Leonore Kirschstein
Ortrud - Ruth Hesse
Lohengrin - Herbert Schachtschneider
Telramund - Heinz Imdahl
Heinrich - Walter Kreppel
A Herald - Hans Helm
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
South German Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor - Hans Swarowsky
The history of this recording is almost as fascinating as the recording itself. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, members of the Czech Philharmonic fled to safety in Germany. The result being that this Lohengrin was recorded alongside a complete Der Ring des Nibelung using similar talent in Nuremburg within the space of a month.
Published under several labels over the years, including Fabbri and Westminster LP, this neglected recording of Lohengrin is greatly underestimated. Hans Swarowsky, a pupil of Schoenberg, Webern and Richard Strauss, assembled a cast of singers relatively unknown in the West, Ruth Hesse being the probable exception. Ultimately the casting is successful, each can more or less hold their own against more illustrious competitors on other labels.
Leonore Kirschstein sings Elsa with grace. She possesses a voice reminiscent of Elizabeth Grummer in purity and steadiness of line, crossed with the vocal heft and colour of Marianne Schech. It is a beautiful portrayal, her voice even and only in ensemble pieces does it seem to spread and lose colour under pressure.
Einsam in Trüben Tagen is beautiful with just the right amount of wistfulness, as is Elsa’s desperate plea only moments before the appearance of the swan. Kirschstein is convincing in the love music of Act Three and her shock at Lohengrin’s strength of conviction and the death of Telramund is dramatically heartfelt. She’s an Elsa one can easily sympathise with especially in Act Two. A moving performance.
Lohengrin demands a smooth, steady tenor with an almost supernaturally honeyed timbre. The relatively high tessitura can be taxing but Herbert Schachtschneider has the strength to convincingly vocalise the Swan Knight. His voice is bright and steady with a pleasing vibrato that is rarely obtrusive unless under pressure. His memorable first entrance is aided by some superbly paced support from Swarowsky, chorus and orchestra.
While nicely done, In Fernem Land shows a lack of light and shade due mostly to inflexibility on the part of Swarowsky and during the love music of Act Three I sense a of lack of intimacy, that Schachtschneider was only remotely involved emotionally. Mein Lieber Schwan is a gem however, so very delicate and spacious to begin with, opening up beautifully as it progresses, his cries of Leb’ Wohl aptly anguished. Schachtschneider’s open, honest voice is perfect for Lohengrin, it captures the rapt, dreamlike quality so important for a successful vision of the mysterious knight.
As Ortrud, Ruth Hesse provides the requisite firm, dark tones that embody one of the most evil women in all music drama. Her manipulations of both her husband and Elsa in Act Two are superbly realised. While she doesn’t quite have the venomous impact of one or two of her more famous recorded rivals, hers is a memorable portrait. Her hurled curse in the final moments of the opera is triumphant.
Heinz Imdahl imbues Friedrich von Telramund with a sense of nobility almost too deserving of the character. While his voice is a shade too light to be completely convincing it’s an intelligent portrayal and he possesses excellent diction. His Telramund unfortunately is easily overshadowed by those on other sets. While Hesse and Imdahl are more than adequate as the villainous pair, they both lack a degree of intensity and nastiness that can make these characters really unforgettable.
Walter Kreppel is strongly cast as Heinrich der Vogler. His is a sympathetic presence particularly with Elsa in Act One. As the Herald, Hans Helm is more than adequate, his declamations in Act One carry across the assembled brass and chorus well and his voice is clearly focused.
With a uniformly strong cast, the standout performance is that of Hans Swarowsky. Tempos are on the slower side, allowing the singers plenty of room to breathe. The tension only seems to waver occasionally, the finale to Act One being a case in point. Swarowsky is sometimes unsuccessful in disguising the often noted 4/4, squarish nature of Wagner’s composition in Lohengrin especially in the love music of Act Three. He is however, deft at shaping a phrase and using a wide dynamic range providing much drama and poignancy, particularly in Lohengrin’s first appearance and throughout Act Three.
This is recording benefits greatly from a natural, well spaced accoustic. Spaciously recorded with voices set relatively forward, there is atmosphere aplenty in the scenes that require it, notably in the approach of the swan in Act One, the finale of Act Two and the public scenes of Act Three.
In this recording one has the advantage of being able to hear all of the solo voices distinctly in the larger ensemble scenes, something not all other recordings successfully achieve, notably in the finale of Act One. In this scene however, the chorus is set too far back to make a powerful enough impression to lift this scene to the heights it's capable of. The scene transformations with the use of multiple trumpets at various depths of the stage are beautifully realised in Acts Two and Three and captured in superb sound.
This is ultimately a very successful recording, worthy of more attention. Available now at a super bargain price it is certainly worth investing in, either as an inexpensive first foray into the opera, or to add to a larger collection.
More straightforward in its interpretation than some of it’s more illustrious competitors, it's not quite in the same league as Solti, Kempe or Karajan. It is however an invaluable recorded testament to the artistic spirit that outshines politics and oppression.