About this Recording
8.110235-37 - WAGNER, R.: Lohengrin (Melchior, Varnay, Leinsdorf) (1942)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

The legends, which eventually resulted in the operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, came to the notice of Wagner while he was in Paris in 1841. In the summer of 1845 the composer returned to the Lohengrin story, briefly told in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem Parzival, and in fuller detail in an anonymous thirteenth-century German poem entitled Lohengrin and a French epic Le Chevalier au Cygne. Having drafted a prose scenario for a possible opera after returning to Dresden on 3rd August, Wagner then set about constructing the poem, which he completed by 27th November. By 1846 he began composition on the work, starting with the Third Act first, then the First, and then the Second (which was completed by 30th July), finally finishing with the opening Prelude for the opera, the whole complete draft being finished on 29th August. (He had realised from the beginning that the middle act would prove the most problematic.) The work was finished in full score by 28th April 1848. Six months later the composer conducted a concert performance of the Finale of the First Act.

Lohengrin was the last opera in which the composer could bring himself to make use of the more conventional operatic expression; the stage is alive with crowded scenes and awkward-looking trumpet-players, the chorus contributes much onlooker’s comment, and there are occasional ensembles for solo voices. The opera was conceived as a drama in historical terms between Christianity and Paganism. Lohengrin represents the former, Ortrud (Wagner’s own creation) and her husband Telramund the latter. Heinrich is the historical Henry the Fowler, King of Saxony and champion of German unity against the invading Hungarians. Elsa of Brabant is accused of the abduction and murder of her brother Gottfried, heir to the Brabant Kingdom. Her defender, a mysterious Knight, arrives in the swan-drawn boat, defeats her accuser Telramund, egged on by Ortrud, and claims Elsa as his bride. She must not ask him to reveal his identity. The villainous Ortrud is determined to find the name of Elsa’s husband and demands she ask the forbidden question. Having slain Telramund in self-defence, the Knight announces he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, a Knight of the Holy Grail at Montsalvat in Spain. At the end the swan, which had been transformed by Ortrud’s witchcraft, is restored as Gottfried.

Wagner’s part in the Dresden revolt of 1849 obliged him to flee the Saxon state. Furthermore, the intended première was removed from the schedule of the Court Opera. At the composer’s request, Lohengrin was first produced at the Court Theatre in Weimar on 28th August 1850 under the direction of Liszt, while Wagner had taken refuge in Switzerland. The orchestra comprised 38 players, and the initial reception was muted, with the opera not taken up elsewhere. It was eventually given in Vienna in 1861, and later seen in London, Milan and St Petersburg. Thereafter it has remained among the composer’s most performed works.

Lohengrin has been popular with film-makers since 1902, the year when a three-minute silent sequence was used in a black and white film. A fifty-minute silent German adaptation appeared in 1916 when live singers and orchestral forces were used to accompany screenings. In 1947 a more expanded Italian-language film was directed by Max Calandri and ran for more than a hundred minutes. It employed a cast of actors miming to a separate cast of singers for the soundtrack.

The rôle of Elsa is sung here by the American soprano, later mezzo-soprano, of Austrian and Hungarian parentage, Astrid Varnay (b. 1918). Her father was the Austrian singer Alexander Varnay (1889- 1924) who later became stage manager at the Stockholm and Oslo opera houses. Studying first with her mother, the coloratura Maria Yavor, and Hermann Weigert, whom she married in 1944, she made an unheralded short notice début without any rehearsal, replacing an indisposed Lotte Lehmann, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in December 1941. Six days later she replaced Helen Traubel as Brünnhilde. She would continue to sing at the Met until 1958, but returned again in 1974, giving 158 performances in a total of 24 rôles over nineteen seasons. In May 1948 she first sang rôles in the Italian repertory, including Aida, Gioconda and Tosca, in Mexico City. Her European début at Covent Garden was as Brünnhilde in Siegfried in November 1948. Varnay would return in 1951, 1958-59 and 1974, also singing Isolde. She appeared in the reopening season at Bayreuth in 1951, continuing every year until 1968, singing the principal soprano rôles (and some mezzo rôles from 1962). She also appeared in Florence (1951), Paris (1956) and Milan (1957). By the early 1960s she had moved to the mezzo repertory. It was in the Strauss and Wagner repertoire that she is best remembered but she was much admired in Italian rôles. She was the most significant Wagnerian dramatic soprano between Flagstad and Nilsson.

The title rôle is sung by the Danish-born but later naturalised American Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) Originally a baritone who studied at the Royal Opera School in Copenhagen, he made his official début in Copenhagen in 1912. Six years later he essayed the tenor title rôle of Tannhäuser before a further period of study resulted in his noteworthy Covent Garden début in 1924 as Siegmund in Die Walküre. For the ensuing quarter century he was the foremost Wagner tenor of his time, with a career that extended throughout Europe (including Bayreuth and Berlin), North and South America. He also sang heroic Italian (including Otello) and some French rôles. His untiring vocal stamina allied to a robust physique was ideally suited to heroic Wagnerian rôles. After leaving the stage in 1950 he appeared in a number of Hollywood films. At the age of seventy he sang Siegmund in a broadcast concert performance of the first act of Die Walküre in Copenhagen. His many recordings reveal Melchior as the outstanding Heldentenor of his era. He died in California.

The rôle of the evil and manipulative Ortrud is taken by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg (1896-1970). Born in Venjan, she studied in Stockholm, later making her début there in 1924 as Ortrud with the city’s opera company, where she remained a member for six seasons in addition to appearing throughout her native country. Her international career began with her engagement as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung in Dresden in 1929, quickly followed by engagements in Nuremberg (1930- 31), followed by Prague (1932-33), Berlin (1933-35), Vienna (1935-38), Salzburg (1935-37) and Covent Garden (1936-39). In 1936 she joined the Metropolitan in New York, first appearing as Fricka in Die Walküre and remaining until 1950. In her thirteen seasons she sang 243 performances of some nineteen rôles. Her other American engagements included San Francisco and Chicago. Generally regarded as the finest Wagnerian mezzo of her time, Thorborg excelled as Kundry in Parsifal, Ortrud, Brangäne in Tristan and Fricka in The Ring. She was also much admired as Klytemnestra in Elektra, Herodias in Salome, Delilah, and in the title rôle of Gluck’s Orfeo. Her recorded legacy includes a live version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under Bruno Walter in Vienna in 1936. After retirement she returned to her native Sweden, dying there at the age of 73.

As Telramund, the weak and put-upon husband of Ortrud, we have the Hungarian baritone Alexander (born Sandor) Sved (1906-1979). Born in Budapest where he undertook his initial studies, he later went to Italy where he worked work with the distinguished baritones Marco Sammarco and Riccardo Stracciari. Sved made his début as Conte di Luna (Il Trovatore) in his native city in 1928. He later appeared at the Staatsoper in Vienna (1936-39, 1950), La Scala, Milan (1938) and the Metropolitan in New York, where he remained between the years 1940-50 and during eight seasons sang sixty performances of Renato (Un ballo in maschera), Escamillo (Carmen), Alfio (Cavalleria rusticana), Amonasro (Aida) and Telramund. He returned to Budapest in 1950, singing there until his retirement in 1956, after which he taught singing in Stuttgart. Sved’s admired singing technique, allied to powerful but warm-toned voice, made him well suited to the Italian repertoire, and his interpretations of Rigoletto, Boccanegra and Macbeth were admired in Italy. He recorded for both EMI and Supraphon.

The bass-baritone Norman Cordon (1904-1964) was born in Washington DC and studied at the Nashville Conservatory in Tennessee and later in Chicago. After his début in the latter city as the King in Aida with the San Carlo Company in 1933, his first appearance with the Metropolitan Opera was as Monterone in Rigoletto in May 1936. In the eleven seasons he sang with the company he sang 377 performances of some 55 rôles which included the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Colline in La Bohème, Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Méphistofélès in Faust and the King in Lohengrin. Although Cordon sang in Chicago (1933-35) and San Francisco (1936- 39), his career was entirely confined to the United States. His of recordings display a firm, well-schooled voice with an excellent technique.

The American baritone Mack Harrell (1909-1960) studied first in Texas and later at the Juilliard School of Music in New York before winning the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in 1938, the year he made his début in that house as Biterolf in Tannhauser. He sang for twelve years with this company, his rôles including Kothner, Jochanaan and Amfortas, and Nick Shadow in the American première of Stravinsky’s The Rake Progress in 1953. He also sang at the New York City Opera. He enjoyed a most successful career in the concert hall, being a fine Bach singer and an equally impressive Lieder performer. He was the father of the distinguished cellist and conductor Lynn Harrell.

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf (born Landauer) was born in Vienna in 1912, later studying composition, piano and cello at both the Academy of Music and University. His early experiences were as a rehearsal pianist where his fluency and remarkable memory were quickly noted, and he soon found himself engaged as repetiteur to both Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini in 1934, an association which would continue in Salzburg until 1937. Recommended to Artur Bodansky in New York, Leinsdorf joined the Metropolitan as an assistant conductor later that year. Making his début with Die Walküre in January 1938 he would remain with the company until 1943. Then followed a brief one-year period in which he conducted the Cleveland Orchestra before military service intervened. This was followed by an eight-year spell with the Rochester Philharmonic in New York State before an unhappy appointment with New York City Opera. During the years 1957-62 he served as a musical consultant to Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan before following Charles Münch at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From 1969 onwards Leinsdorf guest conducted worldwide while also working at the Metropolitan. In all he conducted nearly four hundred performances of some 26 operas in that house. He also directed Meistersinger at Bayreuth in 1959. A safe pair of hands in all he undertook, Leinsdorf recorded a prolific number of complete German and Italian operas. He died in New York in 1993.

This live recording from January 1943 is a fine example of the prevailing standard of Wagnerian performance to be heard in New York during the wartime years. The young Astrid Varnay at the start of her illustrious career and the stalwart Lauritz Melchior contribute markedly to this performance as do Kerstin Thorborg, and Alexander Sved in his only German rôle. Erich Leinsdorf’s admirable pacing of the score is also a reminder of the excellent work he did during this period.

Malcolm Walker

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