About this Recording
8.110308-10 - WAGNER, R.: Lohengrin (Windgassen, Steber, Keilberth) (1953)

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 Bayreuth Festival, Wagner’s own creation, was 75 years old in 1951. The opera house re-opened its doors, after closure since 1944, on 29th July 1951 with a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony under Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954). The occasion was recorded by EMI who were also to record Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Ring cycle under producer Walter Legge and engineer Robert Beckett. The new artistic directors of the Festival, Wagner’s grandsons, Wieland (1917-1966) and Wolfgang (b. 1919), were also approached by EMI’s British rival, the Decca Record Company, through its German partner, Teldec, to record Parsifal and the Ring cycle under Hans Knappertsbusch. Decca sent the producer John Culshaw and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson to undertake their recordings, making use of Teldec’s equipment. When the two companies returned to Britain, it was found their respective labours were fraught with problems. EMI eventually released their Meistersinger but only the Third Act from Die Walküre, Decca releasing Parsifal only. Years later Götterdämmerung would eventually be issued, but not by Decca or Teldec. EMI did not return to Bayreuth after 1951, Decca in 1953 and 1955 only.

The Decca project for 1953 was to be Lohengrin in a new production by Wolfgang Wagner. There would be one final dress rehearsal and four performances in which to make the recording. Following their 1951 experiences, Culshaw and Wilkinson were again in charge of the recording. Having recorded the rehearsal and the first performance on 23rd July, however, Teldec decided their engineers would record the final three performances. The upshot was that the balance employed by the two sets of engineers differed and the finished edited master-tape comprised sections of Decca’s and Teldec’s respective versions.

The title rôle in this recording of Lohengrin is sung by the German tenor Wolfgang Windgassen (1914- 1974). Born in Annemasse in Switzerland, he studied with his father, the tenor Fritz Windgassen (1883-1963) and at the Stuttgart Conservatorium with Maria Ranzow and Alfons Fischer. His mother, also a singer, was Vally von der Osten, sister of the soprano Ester van der Osten. He made his début as Alvaro in La forza del destino at Pforzheim in 1941. Four years later he joined the Company in Stuttgart where he would continue until his retirement in 1972. He sang initially in the Italian repertoire eventually taking on Tamino, Max, Hoffmann, and Florestan. His first foray in the Wagnerian Heldentenor rôles was as Siegmund in 1950-51. He appeared in the reopening season at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, continuing there until 1970. He sang all the principal rôles during those years, even if his voice was on the light side for such assignments. He sang in Milan (1952), Paris (1954), Covent Garden (1955-56), at the Metropolitan (1957) and in San Francisco (1970). He was an admired Otello, also singing Adlor (Euryanthe), the title rôle in Rienzi and the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten. He was a sound musician, capable of much sensitive singing, who paced himself in technically demanding singing rôles. In 1972 he became opera director in Stuttgart. His standing as the leading Heldentenor of his time is preserved on a variety of recordings.

Virginia-born soprano Eleanor Steber (1914- 1990) made her formal début as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer in Boston at the age of 22. After success in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air, she made her first appearance at the opera house as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier in December 1940. Renowned as an outstanding Mozartian through her singing of all principal soprano rôles, she also was much admired in the French, German and Italian repertoires. Steber also appeared in the title rôle of Arabella (1955) and as Marie in Wozzeck (1959) in the Met’s first productions in addition to the memorable creation of the title rôle of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958). Her European appearances were confined to Edinburgh (1947, with the Glyndebourne Company), Bayreuth (1953), Florence (1954) and Salzburg (1958). She remained with the Met until 1963, and was a much-admired performer whose spontaneity, energy and versatility went hand in hand with a well-schooled and attractive voice. Her London début was on the concert platform in 1964. In later years she appeared in musicals and concerts, in addition to teaching.

The rôle of the evil and manipulative Ortrud is sung 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). It was in the Strauss and Wager repertoire that she is best remembered but she was much admired in Italian rôles. Despite a less than perfect vocal technique, Varnay was a committed actress and compelling stage performer as can be heard in this recording.

The Bremen born German baritone, Hermann Uhde (1914-1965), undertakes the part of Telramund. Studying as a bass in his native city, it was here that he made his début as Titurel in Parsifal in 1936. He then spent two further seasons there before moving to Freiburg (1938-40), Munich (1940-43) and The Hague (1942-44). He was then conscripted into the German Army and was later captured by American forces. He resumed his career in 1947, singing first in Hanover, and then Hamburg (1947-50), Vienna (1950-51), and returning to Munich (1951-60). His first Salzburg Festival appearance was in 1949 when he created Creon in Carl Orff’s Antigonae. Uhde sang at Bayreuth from 1951 until 1957 where his rôles included Gunther, Klingsor, Donner, Titurel and the Dutchman. He sang with the visiting Munich Company at Covent Garden in 1953 and appeared with the resident London Company as Telramund, the four Hoffmann villains (sung in faultless English) and Gunther between 1954 and 1960. His New York début was as Telramund in 1955, and during his years there he sang sixty performances of twelve rôles, including Amfortas, the Grand Inquisitor and the title part in Wozzeck (in English) in its United States stage première. A much admired and respected performer, Uhde died on stage in Copenhagen during Bentzon’s Faust III in October 1965.

The German bass Josef Greindl (1912-1993) was born in Munich in 1912 and studied singing with the bass Paul Bender and the soprano Anna Bahr- Mildenberg. His début took place with a semiprofessional performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1935, followed by a professional one the following year in Krefeld as Hunding. He sang in Düsseldorf between 1938 and 1942 before moving to Berlin. Engaged first at the city’s Staatsoper, Greindl moved to the Städtische Oper in 1949. His first appearance at the Bayreuth Festival was in 1943 and he returned regularly during the seasons 1951 to 1970, singing all the principal bass rôles in addition to Hans Sachs, the rôle with which he made his London début in 1963. He also sang in New York and Milan. Greindl was a fine Mozartian and a much-admired Boris Godunov in addition to appearing in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in the first German performances in 1959. After retiring he taught singing in Saarbrücken.

Hans Braun sings the rôle of the Herald. Born in Vienna in 1917, as a child he sang in the Wiener Sängerknaben before studying with two famous Viennese singers Hermann Gallos and Hans Duhan. His début took place in early 1938 in Königsberg as the Count in Figaro. This was followed by engagements in Bremerhaven, Saarbrücken and the Deutsches Opernhaus, Berlin. His first Viennese appearance was as a guest at the Staatsoper in 1939. It was not until 1945, however, that he joined the Company, singing German and Italian rôles in addition to Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and John Sorel in Menotti’s The Consul. In 1947 Braun was a member of the Vienna Company which visited Covent Garden in London, and he returned as a guest in 1948-49 to sing the Count in Figaro and Melot in Tristan, and again in 1953, as Orest in Elektra under Erich Kleiber. He also sang in Italy and Spain. The Herald was his single rôle at Bayreuth.

The German conductor Josef Keilberth (1908- 1968) joined his city’s Opera House in 1925 as a repetiteur following studies in his birth place, later becoming chorus-master. He was appointed Generalmusikdirecktor in 1935, a post he held for five years. In 1940 he was selected as conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie in Prague. He was in charge of the Staatsoper in Dresden from 1945 to 1949 but also conducted regularly at the Staatsoper in Berlin between 1948 and 1951. Joining the Staatsoper in Munich in 1951, he was made Generalmusikdirecktor the following year, a position he held until his death in 1968 whilst conducting a performance of Tristan. He appeared in Britain with the visiting Hamburg State Opera Company at the Edinburgh Festival in 1952, the year in which he also first conducted at the Bayreuth Festival. Keilberth conducted the Ring cyle in the years 1952-56 in addition to Lohengrin in 1953-54, Tannhäuser in 1954-55, and Der fliegende Höllander in 1955-56. He was a much-admired interpreter of Bruckner, Pfitzner, Richard Strauss and Wagner. His reading of Die Meistersinger was made at the reopening of the renovated Staatsoper building in Munich in 1963.

The overall view of this whole enterprise is of the superbly smooth and dignified interpretation of Lohengrin by Wolfgang Windgassen, the clear-toned Elsa of Eleanor Steber, the finely characterized and cleanly sung Telramund of Hermann Uhde, the superlative singing of the choral forces (trained by Wilhelm Pitz) and Josef Greindl benevolent as the King. On the distaff side, the powerful and dramatically intense Ortrud of Astrid Varnay, it must be said, is at times a trial with her wide vibrato. Nevertheless, Josef Keilberth controls the whole with a steady almost reverential hand in the accepted Wagnerian manner.

Malcolm Walker

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