SAMUIL SAMOSUD

1884-1964

I have a long shelf of Lohengrin recordings, many of them with the usual suspects, and good ones, Fritz Busch, Erich Leinsdorf and so on, at the helm; but no Lohengrin has given me greater satisfaction than the 1949 recording by the USSR Radio Symphony conducted by Samuil Samosud. Perhaps this is like finding a great bouillabaisse in a German restaurant — not, in short, what you’d expect. But on the other hand, why not? Look at Koussevitzky and his high comfort level with Howard Hanson, Bruno Walter with Tchaikovsky. We mustn’t type! At all events Comrade Samosud reveals himself as a fastidious and expressive Wagnerian, as lyrical as Leo Blech or moreso; he balances grace and verve so felicitously the musical line suggests at once the curves of a beautiful woman and the power of a gentlemanly knight, the latter of course emerging from some phantasmal woodwork. His rhythm is refreshingly clean, meanwhile soul is not shortchanged.

The first act prelude comes on sweet and curling, then after its big climax (post coitus?) an atmosphere of resignation is vivid in Samosud’s  l-a-r-g-a-m-e-n-t-e  phrasing, so unrushed and discreetly debonair: one’s reminded of the great Giulini asking his strings for a “long bow.” Even Telramund’s introductory rant has lyric grace – this before an Elsa’s Dream that has the special intensity of a first class trance. Pingy and pointed is the chorus as Lohengrin, the fabled Ivan Koslowski, approaches, then the interlude to his first speech is rapturous. Something elemental here, turned into art. Nowhere is Samosud’s admirable technique more at work than when, page 80 of the G. Schirmer vocal score, he moves so deftly – or shades, as Nabokov would say — from the rhythmically tricky five part vocal harmony on into — there can easily be a glitch HERE — the great roll of the men’s chorus, “Des reinen Arm . . .”, all this in the three quarter time only employed by the author of Lohengrin in this scene. The conductor George Szell’s under-appreciated sense of humor came into play in pre-war Prague when he gleefully telegraphed Jan Popper, his assistant who was taking over the evening’s Lohengrin, “Don’t forget the three-four!”

The grand and conspiratorial Ortrud-Telramund scene that opens the second act is very neatly done, there’s great elegance in the passage highlighted by a staircase of sliding chords in muted strings (“Do you want to know who that strange fellow Lohengrin is?” Ortrud whispers) which may, I suspect, have inspired the Verdi of Otello. The procession to the Munster is fashioned in a rapt and leafy legato VERY broadly paced (well, Wagner did ask for what Mr. Schirmer translates as largo e solenne), the music losing nothing in thrust while seeming, like a great Airbus gliding above the Greenland sun, to be almost motionless. After the disastrous finish to the “love duet” of act 3, the heroine having persisted in trying to pry loose the secret of her savior’s name, Samosud’s monotonous trudge leaves us in no doubt of the barrenness of the situation, but the ultra brassy festivity of the succeeding interlude wipes the blight away very nicely indeed.