OP3343. LOHENGRIN, Live Performance, 19 Feb., 1938 (replete with Milton Cross’ commentaries) w. de Abravanel Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Karin Branzell, Julius Huehn, Ludwig Hofmann, etc.; LOHENGRIN - Act I Excerpts, Live Performance, 11 Nov., 1938, Chicago Opera, w. McArthur Cond. Kirsten Flagstad & René Maison. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1075, w. Elaborate 55pp Booklet. Notes by Richard Caniell. Restoration & transfers by Richard Caniell. - 019962528415
“This release is part of Immortal Performances’ Opera House of Our Dreams series, where producer and restoration master Richard Caniell brings into existence broadcast performances that should have survived but for some reason did not. In the case of this LOHENGRIN he has created something of beauty and managed somehow to make it seamless.
In 1937 the Met broadcast LOHENGRIN with essentially the cast you see above, except for inexplicably using the Belgian tenor René Maison instead of Lauritz Melchior in the title role. I say ‘inexplicably’ because Melchior sang all the non-broadcast performances that year! The present broadcast has survived and been issued on a number of labels. In it, Maison sings well enough but with little personality or involvement in the drama. The following year, 1938, LOHENGRIN was broadcast with Melchior and Flagstad, but NBC didn’t retain the discs; only a privately made transcription of the second act survives. Later on, Flagstad and Melchior sang the opera together five times in 1939, 1940, and 1941, but never on a Saturday broadcast. Thus there is no surviving complete broadcast of this opera with these two great Wagnerian stars.
What Caniell has now done, using his extraordinary skill, is to insert Melchior from the various latter performances into the 1937 broadcast in place of Maison. Maurice Abravanel was the conductor in both 1937 and 1938, which helps maintain consistency (I’m using the name by which we know him today; in the 1930s he went by Maurice de Abravanel, which is what Milton Cross calls him on the broadcast and how Immortal Performances identifies him). In a lengthy essay included in the wonderful booklet accompanying these discs, Caniell explains in detail how he accomplished the substitution of tenors. The biggest challenge ‘was the ensemble near the end of Act I, as all the principals sing simultaneously. What I did was to bring in Melchior, or Flagstad in whatever portion either of their voices was most prominent. If Flagstad was very forward in 1937 I could take those phrases and put them behind Melchior’s voice so they are heard simultaneously. Thus, by these patches, the experience of hearing Melchior and Flagstad in the ensemble is sufficiently achieved to maintain the necessary verisimilitude’.
Despite the fact that the second act in 1938 was recorded privately, the sound quality wasn’t at the level of the 1937 broadcast, so Caniell used the 1938 only to bring Melchior into the 1937 performance. For the bridal chamber scene, he did not use the commercial RCA recording of that scene in its entirety (with Edwin McArthur conducting), because it lacked the dramatic presence and immediacy of the live performance. He used that set only where the two sang jointly, and otherwise took Flagstad from 1937 and Melchior from Met broadcasts of 1940 and 1943. What astonishes me is that one would expect the bridal chamber scene to lack any kind of flow or shape, given the variety of sources (and conductors). But in addition to technical wizardry, Caniell has keen musical instincts, and he has managed these edits without interrupting the flow of the music. I found myself listening to the opera, after some initial suspicion, without regard for the nature of what this hybrid is, simply as a single performance of LOHENGRIN. (We do have to remember that some of our favorite studio recordings were made over a span of months or, in some cases, a year or two - with the scenes recorded completely out of order.)
Immortal Performances has two other Melchior Lohengrin performances in its catalog already: 1935 with Lotte Lehmann’s Elsa and Artur Bodanzky conducting, and 1940 with Elisabeth Rethberg and Erich Leinsdorf on the podium. I would recommend the latter as a first choice for a Melchior Lohengrin (any Wagner collection must have a Melchior Lohengrin). The sound on both the 1935 broadcast and this 1937-38 compilation is occasionally congested and compressed by comparison. Caniell himself refers to the problems, due to microphone placement and Lord knows what other technical limitations imposed by inadequate equipment or inferior engineers. However, when comparing Caniell’s remastering to the sound quality on any prior releases of the 1937 broadcast, his is significantly better.
Clearly it’s the attraction of having Flagstad and Melchior together that justifies Caniell’s labors, and a buyer’s interest. All told, we have Melchior with a range of other fine Elsas (Lehmann, Rethberg, Varnay, and Traubel), but not until now with Flagstad. Beyond them, here we have the electrifying Ortrud of Branzell and Julius Huehn’s richly sung Telramund. In particular, Branzell is a miracle: a rich, evenly produced voice with no seams from top to bottom, and an intensity that thrills without ever becoming hectoring.
The strengths of Melchior’s Lohengrin have been commented upon by many over the years. In FANFARE alone James Miller and I reviewed the 1935 Immortal Performances release (37:2) [OP2863]. Colin Clarke and Lynne René Bayley reviewed the 1940 broadcast from the same label in 36:2 [OP2552]. To be fair, Bayley sounded a dissenting note because she didn’t like the sound of Melchior’s voice to begin with. Most others, however, have found that voice to be a miracle of beauty, firmness, and brilliance. What distinguishes Melchior from virtually all other Heldentenors is the combination of heroic and lyrical singing, of power and warmth, that one rarely finds in a single singer.
In Flagstad we have her own unrivaled combination of assets: a glowing voice unique in its timbre, along with a sense of inner strength and conviction that’s singularly appropriate for Elsa. The performances of Lehmann and Rethberg may have a bit more specificity of characterization through their inflection, but there’s a glorious beauty to the Flagstad sound that’s irreplaceable. Any thought that she is dramatically a cipher can be put aside whenever we hear her onstage performances, which are almost always stronger than Flagstad’s studio recordings.
Abravanel’s conducting combines warmth with drama in just the right proportions. Ludwig Hofmann’s strong King Heinrich and Arnold Gabor’s steady Herald round out a superb cast. Some brief chunks from the 1938 Chicago Opera broadcast of the same opera, with Flagstad and a stronger Maison than was the case in his 1937 Met performance, make an interesting if fragmentary bonus. The booklet is up to the high standards of this company, which is to say it’s in a different world from anyone else reissuing historic material. Included in its 60 pages are in-depth essays and some lovely historical photographs.
Summing up, this release doesn’t replace the essential Immortal Performances issue of the 1940 Met Lohengrin [OP2552] with Rethberg and Melchior, but it’s a wonderful supplement that uniquely brings Flagstad and Melchior together. Caniell’s skills restore for us what the Met and NBC, with various wrongheaded decisions, conspired to try to keep from us.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE