WAGNER Lohengrin – Kempe
For some years now it has seemed increasingly anomalous that the Kempe Lohengrin (remastered for CD reissue in 1988) should remain available at full price. Since 1995, collectors in search of a mid-price version with Jess Thomas in the title-role have been able to rely on the 1962 Bayreuth Festival recording, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch, deemed ‘mightily impressive’ by Alan Blyth (12/95): and less than a year later came DG’s mid-price reissue of their 1971 Kubelik performance, with James King as Lohengrin, a studio recording superior in sound quality to both Kempe and Sawallisch.
Not that the sound on EMI is ever less than adequate. Although, as I said in 1988, it may have ‘less presence, a narrower perspective’ than other versions, neither the ‘studio’ ambience – the recording was made in the Theater an der Wien – nor the occasionally excessive prominence of the voices prevents Kempe’s reading from projecting a strongly theatrical quality. But it is the all-round excellence of the cast, plus the bonus of an uncut Act 3, which makes this the leading mid-price recommendation. Thomas combines ardour and anguish as well as any, and with Fischer-Dieskau a formidable (but never over-emphatic) antagonist, and Gottlob Frick a majestic King Henry, the drama of the opera’s central conflict remains supremely immediate and powerful.
As Elsa and Ortrud, Elisabeth Grummer and Christa Ludwig are ideal opposites, the former radiant yet quite without the simpering overtones that afflict some Elsas, the latter as potent in seductive insinuation as in demonic ferocity. Not even Ludwig can surpass the visceral intensity of Astrid Varnay in the 1953 Bayreuth set under Keilberth, and Keilberth’s Telramund and Elsa (Hermann Uhde and Eleanor Steber) are also outstanding: yet Wolfgang Windgassen’s Lohengrin is not as distinguished, nor as distinctive, as Jess Thomas’s here. Even more importantly, as AB observed, Keilberth’s reading lacks ‘the visionary quality that Kempe finds in the score’. Ultimately, it is the power of that vision which raises this performance above its rivals.'