OP3336. LOHENGRIN, Live Performance, 24 March, 1934 (replete with Milton Cross’ commentaries) w. Bodanzky Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Lauritz Melchior, Elisabeth Rethberg, Maria Olszewska, Gustav Schützendorf, Ludwig Hofmann, etc.; LAURITZ MELCHIOR: Two Songs by Strauss; Die Meistersinger - Preislied - Ford Hour Broadcast, 17 Oct., 1937. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1112, w. Elaborate 43pp Booklet. Notes by Dewey Faulkner & Richard Caniell. Restoration & transfers by Richard Caniell. - 644216896653
“In FANFARE 42:2, Ken Meltzer wrote a thorough and very perceptive review of Immortal Performances’ issue of a 1942 Met broadcast of Lohengrin featuring Lauritz Melchior in the title role under Erich Leinsdorf. At the beginning of his review Meltzer listed three prior Melchior/Met Lohengrins issued by Immortal Performances and another issued by Sony. One would never have thought that within a matter of a few months that listing would be obsolete. But apparently Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances, cannot get enough of Melchior’s Lohengrin. So here is a world premiere release of yet another, this one the earliest of them all.
One could be excused for asking whether it is too much of a good thing. My personal answer is no, despite the sonic limitations of this 1934 broadcast (about which more below). Melchior was unarguably (or as close to unarguably as anyone could be) the greatest Wagnerian Heldentenor of the middle third of the 20th century, and Lohengrin was one of his signature roles. Although the part is more lyrical than Tristan, Tannhäuser, and Siegfried, Melchior could lighten his voice appropriately, and his singing was always based on a firm, steady emission of tone and a smooth legato very rare among Wagnerian singers. The combination of tonal beauty and power at his disposal remains unmatched. It is important to remember that Melchior was born in 1890, and we have no complete operatic performances of his when he was in his 30s. By 1934 he was already 44, and all of his other Lohengrin performances postdate this one. Here, the freshness of his voice, and the freedom with which he sings, are nearly miraculous. Melchior was often criticized for rhythmic sloppiness, but as the British vocal authority John Steane has pointed out, there is little evidence of that on his many live recordings. There are moments of dramatic emphasis which vary from the printed rhythms, but they almost always sound intelligently thought through and quite apt. He had a very keen dramatic instinct and rarely sang a performance that sounded uninvolved.
The other major justification for this release is Elisabeth Rethberg’s Elsa. Born in 1894, she was precisely 40 here, and in fresher voice than in the 1940 performance issued by Immortal Performances, as good as that one is. Young voice students should be required to study Rethberg as a model of establishing a firm legato as the basis of singing. She manages to convey Elsa’s character in a believable manner without ever distorting Wagner’s vocal line. Between Rethberg and Melchior we are given a masterclass in how to sing Wagner’s difficult music in a manner that makes it sound natural and easy. Neither singer has to strain to fill out Wagner’s long phrases, and both create believable and engaging characters through details of inflection and vocal color.
Maria Olszewska is as successful as almost any Ortrud with whom I am familiar. There are parts of this role where it is virtually impossible to sound musical, because the demands are nearly inhuman. Ortrud’s fierce outbursts in the second and third acts tend to sound ugly, whoever is performing. But Olszewska’s contralto (she was a true contralto) was rich and full-bodied, and she too was an intelligent vocal actress. Dewey Faulkner, in his wonderful essay in the accompanying booklet, points out how ‘her addresses to Elsa are a mixture of dignity and humility’. The voice, except for those moments where Wagner puts excessive demands on it, is notable for its richness and plumminess of tone.
Gustav Schützendorf is a stolid, unremarkable Telramund. His singing is relatively smooth and even-toned, but he lacks the vocal and dramatic presence of the other singers. Ludwig Hofmann’s King Heinrich is very strong, producing a dark, big sound and singing with dramatic impact. Artur Bodanzky conducts with great drive and energy, while not denying the lyrical impulse of the music. He is responsible for far too many cuts, but such was the tradition at the Met in the 1930s and later. The orchestra plays well for him.
Now we get to the crucial issue of sound quality. This performance has never been issued in its entirety; in the past only excerpts have surfaced. The unevenness of the basic sound is one reason, and another is that certain fragments were never recorded in the first place (the original recordist didn’t have two lathes and thus could not overlap). The original recordist, or someone to whom he lent his records, played favorite parts repeatedly, thus wearing them out. In extensive recording notes, Caniell explains all of the difficulties he encountered, enumerating the insertions he had to make from other performances because the parts either were missing from the original or were completely unlistenable. To demonstrate the degree to which those segments were unlistenable, Caniell has included some of them as addenda to each disc. You will find listening to them one time an interesting intellectual exercise, but are unlikely to go back for pleasure. Their main value is to validate Caniell’s judgment about what was not salvageable.
Another point must be made. Because of the flaws just mentioned, Caniell had to do a great deal of inserting from other performances. Where Rethberg was involved, his only option was her 1940 Met broadcast. Caniell’s achievement here is a wonder - one is simply not aware of the switches. The insertions match seamlessly. His decision to do this is the only thing that makes it possible for us to have a representative example of Rethberg’s Elsa as early as 1934.
If you were a collector who wanted one Melchior Lohengrin in your collection, this new release would probably not be the best choice. Caniell has performed miracles with the original source material, but he could not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I would recommend Immortal Performances’ transfer of the 1940 Met broadcast with Rethberg as essential. There is much to be said for the 1942 version with Astrid Varnay, and the 1938 one with Kirsten Flagstad conducted by Abravanel. And one cannot overlook the glories of Lotte Lehmann in the 1935 broadcast. But overall, as much for sound quality as anything, I would choose that 1940 Rethberg performance if I were choosing only one. But all of them have something special to offer, and with this release Immortal Performances has once again added something unique. We would be much the poorer without this 1934 broadcast, flaws and all. To have the opportunity to experience Melchior and Rethberg in such fresh voice, and in a live performance rather than a studio recording, is something that one might never have thought possible. The thrill of hearing singing at this level will, for anyone tolerant of historic sound, outweigh the deficiencies. The inclusion of Milton Cross adds the atmosphere of Met broadcasts, and the three bonus items (Walther’s Prize Song and two Strauss Lied) from Melchior radio broadcasts is a lovely addition.
As usual, a superb booklet with an excellent analysis of the performance, a detailed plot synopsis, biographies of the performers, lovely period photos, and Caniell’s comprehensive recording notes, round out the production. The three CDs sell for the price of two.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March / April, 2019
“What is the justification for [this] new release, and, by extension, its purchase? First and foremost, the broadcast is a priceless historical document, a representation, 85 years old(!), of the Met during a golden era of Wagnerian singers and performances. And with regard to the Lohengrin and Elsa, we have the opportunity to hear two legendary singers in their absolute primes. Both Lauritz Melchior (1890–1973) and Elisabeth Rethberg (1894–1976) continued to give wonderful performances at the Met into the 1940s….Lohengrin and Elsa emerge not as two-dimensional characters, but youthful and vibrant lovers, albeit ill-fated ones….In the case of the 1934 Lohengrin, both Melchior and Rethberg are in sterling, youthful form, offering beautifully sung performances that are also notable for their passion and humanity.
The remainder of the cast is worthy of the romantic leads. Maria Olszewska, best known as the Octavian in the first studio recording of Strauss’ DER ROSENKAVALIER, is a formidable Ortrud, both in voice and dramatic intensity. As her husband Friedrich, Gustav Schützendorf is rather gruff in voice and delivery, but that is not at all inappropriate for the role. Ludwig Hofmann, one of the leading Wagnerian basses of his era, is a commanding King Henry.
And it is quite remarkable how Richard Caniell is able to draw from the various sources...and have them seamlessly flow into each other to give the impression of being of a piece….This is without a doubt a specialty release. But if you are, like me, a person for whom that specialty is of the utmost importance, you will be grateful for what Richard Caniell has achieved here. Recommended to like-minded Wagnerian/vocal history buffs.”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE, March / April, 2019