Knappertsbusch’s Only Recording of Lohengrin Released for the First Time

It was thus with some excitement that I opened a new 3-CD set from Orfeo,
consisting of the first release
of any performance of Lohengrin conducted by the conductor
sometimes known among musicians and operagoers as “Kna.”

There are many things to admire in the recording, as one might expect from a
live recording made in a major opera house, namely the Bavarian State
Opera’s theater on the Prinzregentenstrasse. The performance took place
on 2 September 1963. The occasion was a notable one: the 59th and final
performance of Lohengrin before the theater closed for renovations.
That same year, the Nationaltheater—which had been largely destroyed in
an air raid in 1943—reopened. From that time onward, it has served as
Munich’s main opera house. The Prinzregentenstrasse theater—with
its relatively intimate size: 1112 seats—would not be put back into
service until 1988. It is often used for spoken plays and dance

The production was a long-admired one, by Rudolf Hartmann. First seen in
1954, it hewed a middleground between the detailed, quasi-realistic stagings
that had long been traditional for Wagner’s operas and the highly abstract,
concept-driven renderings that Wieland Wagner was, around then, introducing in
Bayreuth and elsewhere.

We of course are left here only with the recorded sound of the production,
and of one particular performance, to respond to. Unfortunately, the sonics
vary greatly. Whereas selected Bayreuth productions were recorded
professionally for broadcast and then released commercially–and whereas those
Bayreuth recordings used stereo as early as the mid-1950s–this one is in mono
and seems to have been made for archival purposes only. (The tapes were
apparently found years later in the papers of the opera company’s general
director.) I would guess that a single microphone was used throughout, in a
fixed position in front of the stage, causing predictable problems in such a
complex work.

The conducting, not surprisingly, is in capable hands. (One can get a quick
sense of Knappertsbusch’s stylistic mastery, and occasional lack of
discipline, from the excerpts from the present recording that can be heard on
YouTube: the Prelude to
Act 1
and the end of
Act 2, with its choral peroration immediately countered by the motive of the
promise that Lohengrin has wrung out of Elsa
.) The singers all sound like
they know what they are singing about, no surprise as they are mostly native
German-speakers or, in two cases, Scandinavians. The singing—in the
strict sense of vocal production, rather than interpretation—and the
quality of the orchestral playing vary more, as of course is often the case in
live recordings of highly demanding operas.

Ingrid Bjoner, from Norway, makes generally beautiful sounds as Elsa, and
also develops appropriate toughness in her confrontations with the nasty
Ortrud. Astrid Varnay, a Swede, sings Ortrud in commanding manner. She offers a
splendid scene here in Act 2 with Hans-Guenter Noecker (as Telramund). Their
voices are similarly tough in quality, and they even handle sneering
portamentos in much the same way. These two villains clearly deserve each

In the title role, Hans Hopf is not as secure as Jess Thomas (on
Kempe’s famous studio recording) nor as wonderfully vivid as Sandor Konya
(on Leinsdorf’s). He sounds metronomic at times, as if he is reading the
score in his head. This is most unfortunate in the intimate love duet with Elsa
in Act 3. Kurt Boehme is occasionally a bit unsteady as the king but enunciates
admirably. Metternich is a first-rate herald. The chorus sings in a resonant,
slightly messy opera-house manner. Their shifting moods “tell”: one
senses, as one rarely does in opera recordings (whether recorded in a studio or
during a performance), a group of real people responding plausibly to one or
another event on stage.

Occasionally a solo singer is somewhat far from the microphone, or goes
flat, or both. Hopf is flat for long stretches. The chorus, as a whole, tends
to keep pitch with the orchestra, but sometimes the individual members or
sections are not perfectly tuned with each other. The winds and brass, too, do
not always tune their chords tightly. Some stretches of solo singing are
afflicted with a quick echo. I think this happens when a singer was far from
the microphone, and the engineer (then or for the rerelease) raised the volume
level and, in the process, picked up each note a second time, after the sound
bounced back from the auditorium walls. The CD firm (the often admirable Orfeo)
should have put some kind of explanation in the booklet and a warning on the

The informative booklet—excellently translated by Chris
Walton—stresses that this is the first time any Knappertsbusch recording
of Lohengrin has been released to the public. I have long heard
complaints about Knappertsbusch’s fondness for slow tempos, but the
tempos here are actually similar to those on the Kempe recording, and
Knappertsbusch is just as ready as Kempe to adjust the pace to make a dramatic
or musical point. Nothing ever sounds stodgy or inert. The recording would have
been only a few minutes longer than Kempe’s except for the fact that
Knappertsbusch makes a substantial cut in Act 3 that was traditional in many
opera houses (though not at Bayreuth). The cut begins when Elsa faints after
Lohengrin reveals his name and ends just before the chorus’s cry “Der Schwan!
Der Schwan!”

I can recommend the recording for its authentic feel—especially if you
enjoy, as I do, hearing portamentos not just in the voices but also in the
strings—and for its feeling of “You are there.” Still, some
of those same virtues are to be found, and in much better sound, in two
much-praised Bayreuth recordings that likewise have Varnay as the Ortrud: those
conducted by Keilberth (1953) and, in stereo, by Sawallisch (1962). If you are
happier with studio recordings, the longstanding recommendation from most
critics remains the one conducted by Rudolf Kempe (1962-63), with a superb cast
and in sound that holds up beautifully after more than half a century.

One ironic plus: this new release (from 1963) gave me occasion to sample the
Kempe for comparison. Many details emerge on that famous studio recording with
greater clarity, and the work seems to move more quickly because we hear so
much more specificity and variety from moment to moment. Christa Ludwig and
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bring fascinating nuances to the Ortrud/Telramund duet
in Act 2 that are nowhere to be found in the admirable but relatively
straightforward reading here by Varnay and Noecker. When I listen to this new
release, the year 1963 seems awfully long ago. In Kempe’s recording, 1963 seems
like just yesterday.

The Knappertsbusch set lacks a libretto. The 2010 rerelease of the Kempe
contains the libretto on a fourth CD. The libretto is also available online here.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of
Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He has written extensively on opera
and symphonic music and on the relationships between music and society. The
above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in
Record Guide
, and appears here by kind permission.


image_description=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin (Orfeo C900153D)
product_title=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
product_by=Ingrid Bjoner (Elsa), Astrid Varnay (Ortrud), Hans Hopf (Lohengrin), Hans-Guenter Noecker (Telramund), Josef Metternich (Herald), Kurt Boehme (King Heinrich). Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Hans Knappertsbusch.
product_id=Orfeo C900153D [3CDs]