Rudolf Kempe
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker
23 November – 5 Dezember 1962
1- 3 April 1963
Theater an der Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerGottlob Frick
LohengrinJess Thomas
Elsa von BrabantElisabeth Grümmer
Friedrich von TelramundDietrich Fischer-Dieskau
OrtrudChrista Ludwig
Der Heerrufer des KönigsOtto Wiener
Vier brabantische Edle?

EMI’s sound may have less presence and a narrower perspective than other versions but 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. However, it’s the all-round excellence of the cast, plus the bonus of an uncut Act 3, which makes this the leading mid-price recommendation.

Jess 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 Grümmer 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 isn’t as distinguished, nor as distinctive, as Jess Thomas’s here. Even more importantly, Keilberth’s reading lacks the visionary quality that Kempe finds in the score. Ultimately, it’s the power of that vision which raises this performance above its rivals.


One of the most classic Wagner sets of all time appears as part of EMI’s Home of Opera series at upper mid-price price with notes and libretto on a CD-ROM. Long recognised as a glorious reading it becomes all the more appealing in its newest incarnation.

The chief glory of the set is Kempe’s conducting. While he has long been considered one of the greatest Wagnerians, it is interesting that his legacy has recently been even better appreciated by his re-released Testament recordings of The Ring and Parsifal, both from Covent Garden. In this light it is all the more pleasurable to return to his stereo studio work. His concept of the piece is apparent from his visionary, rapt account of the prelude with the amazing strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. Kempe’s finest gift was as a storyteller and throughout this set there is a tangible sense of a world developing before your ears. Look no further than the prelude to Act 2 to hear this in motion, a spellbinding piece of slowly unfolding atmosphere. Its antithesis, the Act 3 prelude, explodes off the stave and makes the ensuing tragedy all the more poignant. All this would be worth little if it were not for the astonishing musicianship of the Vienna Philharmonic, caught here mid-way through the Decca Ring. They confirm themselves to be the finest Wagner orchestra of their time, fully inside the music and doing Kempe’s every bidding at just the right pace. Their distinctive sound is quite remarkable at that, particularly in the oboe section which sounds astonishingly sharp (“soured-cream-and-capers”, as Richard Osborne calls it in his booklet note): just listen to Elsa’s Act 1 entry to see what I mean. Comparing this sound with their Decca reading for Solti more than twenty years later, the VPO sounds like two entirely different orchestras: the 1986 reading may well be more conventionally beautiful, but we should always be glad that Kempe coaxed such a wonderfully distinctive sound out of them when he did.

Happily the set is complemented by one of the finest collections of Wagner singers ever assembled. Jess Thomas as the Swan Knight himself is ethereal and mystical in Act 1 but heroic for his exchanges with Telramund in Act 2. His grail narration is perhaps a little pale and Act 3 sounds one-dimensional at times. He is nowhere near as attention-grabbing as Peter Seiffert for Barenboim or, in his very different way, Domingo for Solti, but his commitment to the role is beyond question. Next to him Elisabeth Grümmer gives us the ideal Elsa, the purity and clean-ness of her voice giving us the very type of the damsel in distress. Her very first sigh, Mein armer Bruder, is laden with pathos and evokes our total sympathy for the character in just that one phrase. She is innocence embodied in Einsam in truben tagen though she gives way to girlish excitement at the thought of her hero’s arrival. These qualities mean that her betrayal of Lohengrin in Act 3 comes as all the more of a shock, and throughout her reading her voice is redolent with the class of a former era. Gottlob Frick was an exceptional choice for King Heinrich, radiating authority and humanity in a way that few of his successors have managed.

Finer still, however, are the darker characters. Christa Ludwig delivers a hair-raising Ortrud, the finest on disc. She chews up the drama in every scene in which she appears, both musically and in her remarkably vocal acting, giving us the epitome of malice with a smile on its face. Grümmer’s Elsa never stands a chance against her! Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gets stuck into the role of Telramund unlike anyone I have ever heard: just listen to the relish with which he describes Gottfried’s disappearance in Act 1 or his cry of horror at his wife’s blasphemy. The first scene of Act 2 is absolutely riveting, both dramatically and musically, and Kempe whips up the orchestra into a frenzy to keep the tension wound tight. By the end of it Telramund is audibly a broken man, entirely in thrall to his wife. Magnificent.

The sound for this first stereo recording of the opera is good, if a little hissy, and the commitment of all performers helps to make this what is probably still the finest all round choice for the opera on disc. Kempe delivers the traditional cuts in the final act, but you’d have to be a purist of the worst kind to let this rule the set out of your estimation. Barenboim’s knight is more heroic, Solti’s sound is more satisfying and Bychkov’s Ortrud may come the closest to challenging Ludwig, but overall Kempe still leads the field more than forty years later. There is no reason to hesitate.

Simon Thompson | 10 June 2010

New York Times


JESS THOMAS gained entrance to the Metropolitan Opera last season by a route familiar to many other American singers — by way of Europe’s opera houses. The roundabout trip from his home in Hot Springs, S. D., to the Metropolitan has not taken very long though, since he only started singing professionally in 1957, when he won the San Francisco Opera auditions, and he is now one of the decade’s most promising Heldentenors.

He made his European debut in Karlsruhe as Lohengrin in 1958 and he will sing that role here for the first time later this season. An indication of how he will do the role, vocally at least, can be got by listening to the recent Angel release of Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which Mr. Thomas sings.

The recording is complete on five disks (3641 E/L; stereo S3641 E/L) . The performance in general is quite good, with strong principals, orchestra and chorus under the direction of Rudolf Kempe.

Mr. Thomas wears Lohengrin’s mantel with elegance. His voice is stamped with a virile quality but his singing often is more poetic than declamatory. This means that where lyricism best expresses the music, it comes off very well, but when heroic affirmation is needed, the result is not as commanding as one would like. For instance, the opening “Nun sie bedankt, mein lieber Schwan,” has clarity, lightness and sweet simplicity. Likewise, in the long duet with Elsa, the tender phrases Mr. Thomas spins out are most effective.

But at the other end of the emotional scale, the voice, which seems capable of heroic declamation, loses some of its stability.

This may be the reason so much of the singing is lyrical, for even in the quiet passages, one gets the impression that Mr. Thomas is being very careful about the placement of each tone. Especially so with notes around the “break” in the tenor voice, which is normally around the F above middle C (actual pitch). When loud notes are called for in this range, Mr. Thomas’s placement seems to vary from a deep position to a more forward one with a resultant insecurity. On some occasions, the singing takes on a driven quality while above this break, on the A’s for instance, the voice rings out gloriously.

This limitation sometimes detracts from the powerful impression the knight should make when he is at his most stentorian, but between this extreme and that of his sweetness, Mr. Thomas details a character of subtle variation. Best illustrating this is the love duet (Act III, Scene 2), where Lohengrin’s mood undergoes the slow transformation from sublime rapture at being alone with his bride for the first time to tearing anxiety over Elsa’s fateful questioning. Mr. Thomas is aided in this scene by Elisabeth Grummer’s ecstatic Elsa, for the soprano’s dramatic intent and ability are one with the tenor’s.

Like Mr. Thomas, Miss Grummer is most expressive in the poetic moods, but she falls down in those demanding greatest vocal strength. Her opening vision, “Einsam in truben Tagen,” shimmers with excitement. But her highest notes, in the confrontation scene with Ortrud, for example, lack security of pitch, diminishing the vocal effect.

Dietrich Fischer‐Dieskau’s Telramund and Christa Ludwig’s Ortrud provide high points in the recording.

Mr. Fischer‐Dieskau’s Friedrich of Telramund is the strongest role in this performance, because the baritone acts with his voice more persuasively than do the others. His ability to suggest mood by subtle vocal inflections, all couched in a rich, beautifully produced tone, adds to the usual dark, evil Telramund some facets not usually brought out in the role.

There is a feeling of nobility, for instance, that makes his tragic end poignant. He does not seem the cliché blackguard but a fine man whose ambition and whose wife have led him to overstep himself.

Miss Ludwig’s Ortrud is also strong but more one‐sided. She is quite vituperative in her scene with Elsa before the Minster, making good use of her deep mezzo‐soprano quality.

Gottlob Frick is an imposing King Henry and Otto Wiener is a lyrical Royal Herald.

Mr. Kempe weaves his Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra together for some beautiful effects. The awe‐struck feeling of the crowd sighting the swandrawn boat is conveyed with slow tempos and subdued dynamics. The Bridal Chorus is gossamer light, while the men’s chorus hailing the King rings with pomp.

Feb. 9, 1964

User Rating
Media Type/Label
EMI, HMV, Angel, Eterna, Electrola
EMI, Angel
Tower Records
Technical Specifications
625 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 888 MByte (flac)
2.5 Mbit/s VBR, 96.0 kHz, 3.8 GByte (flac SACD)
First studio Lohengrin in stereo