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CD/DVD of the Week: Max Lorenz

Since "Siegfried," if done right, stays in one's system for at least 48 hours, I treated my Wagner hangover after Saturday's WNO premiere with the hair of the dog, finally watching the documentary about Max Lorenz, remembered as one of Germany's greatest Siegfrieds, that was released by Medici Arts at the beginning of this year. The treatment worked: at least insofar as I now have Max Lorenz's Siegfried in my system instead.

As a documentary, the film is rather unsatisfying. True, it starts out wonderfully, with lots of great old singers like Hilde Zadek (and when did René Kollo and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau get old, anyway?) listening to clips of Lorenz and talking about what the voice sounds like to them (Waldemar Kmentt: "He jumps on the notes like a lion").

And it builds up Lorenz's background with what one imagines is an eye to the meat of its provocative title: "Wagner's Mastersinger, Hitler's Siegfried." We get sketches of his childhood and beginnings (he was the son of a Düsseldorf butcher named Sülzenfuß) and, more valuable, footage of him rehearsing the Prize Song in Bayreuth in the 1930s, wearing Lederhosen while passersby gather at the door to gawk. Intimations of homosexuality, plus images of his wife Lotte, to whom he was deeply bound throughout his life and who happened to be Jewish, only spice up the picture, and when you see footage of Hitler arriving in Bayreuth, you await the showdown.
(read more after the jump)

But then, the meat of the story is dispensed with in an oddly cursory manner. Yes, there was a trial about the homosexuality, but it was dismissed. Yes, the SS tried to take Lotte and her mother, but Göring ultimately protected them. The juicy bits are handled evasively, with hints of innuendo, and after that the film never really gets back on track: more reaction shots of rapt old singers listening to Lorenz's recordings, more biography, some clips as we zoom on to the postwar years and a long decline. It's as if, after the thoughtful beginning, the director simply wants to get the rest of the film over with. The bad English translations, both in the supertitles and in the narrative voice-overs, don't help.

Yet if the real point is to get the outlines of the story across to a wider audience, and reawaken interest in a great voice of the past, the film does a fine job. Lorenz was a fantastic singer, but on this side of the Atlantic, he tends to be overshadowed by the other leading Heldentenor of the period, Lauritz Melchior. Melchior may have a more lovable sound, but Lorenz probably has a more heroic one (the film is actually fairly interesting on the subject of heroes and the German need for them). His voice is clear, noble, ardent, huge yet contained. The video footage of him singing enables you to see how he holds air within his powerful torso but keeps his face and mouth almost free of strain: what emerges is a sound with the power of cold fire. It represents a German rather than an American aesthetic, and the images of him with Hitler may explain why he has remained tainted for some listeners. If the film is able to rehabilitate his image with the story of his sheltering his Jewish wife, it's already done a service.

Another reason Lorenz may be underestimated is that many of his recordings document a period after his prime. Included in the package is a CD of previously unreleased recording of parts of a live "Siegfried" in Buenos Aires in 1938. The sound quality of the recording itself is atrocious, to the point of being nearly unlistenable, but the voice that emerges through the scratches and wavers is often full and virile and brilliant. You can hear what Kmentt meant about his springing on the notes: he pounces on them with an emphasis that in his later years degenerated into a swoop, but in his prime enabled him to grab and hold the phrase, and the listener's ear, in the palm of his hand.

Even though I lived in Germany for many years, I feel I've never really appreciated Lorenz before. I'd be curious to hear from readers about their own Lorenz observations, thoughts, or experiences.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 6, 2009; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Next: The Song Continues, in a New Key


Thanks for the wonderful review. I haven't heard Lorenz but I am curious to know whether he actually sang the roles uncut. Melchior, wonderful as he was, always made cuts when singing Tristan for example - or at least the live recordings that came to us are cut.

But this review made me want to hear Lorenz, as well as other leading Wagner tenors of the era such as Franz Völker.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 6, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I hate releases of a recording "never before released", because there was often a very good reason it wasn't released!

That said, I'm itching to see the DVD however imperfect a documentary.

Posted by: prokaryote | May 7, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

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