Lohengrin – Romantic opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer
Lohengrin – Johan Botha
Elsa – Adrianne Pieczonka
Ortrud – Petra Lang
Friedrich von Telramund – Falk Struckmann
King Henry – Kwangchul Youn
Herald – Eike Wilm Schulte
Prague Chamber Choir
WDR Radio Choir Cologne
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne
Recorded 30 May-14 June 2008 in Philharmonie, Cologne
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: July 2009
CD No: PROFIL EDITION GÜNTER HÄNSSLER PH09004
Duration: 3 hours 35 minutes
This “Lohengrin” is that rare thing nowadays – a studio recording of an opera. It was done on the back of two concert performances in Cologne in 2008 with a cast thoroughly prepared, by conductor Semyon Bychkov, in previous performances in Spain and a staging in Vienna. As lovers of this opera will have discovered from Bychkov’s run of performances for The Royal Opera (in which the only significant difference in the cast was Edith Haller’s superb Elsa), conductor and cast were inside the music to an exceptional degree. This comes through in the recording, which is at all times secure and full of musical and psychological insight. The various relationships jump off the page, and the struggle of good versus evil is played with a subtlety that can get obscured in a staging.
Bychkov’s conducting lets the work unfold with architectural inevitability. The seraphic ‘Prelude’ sets a natural pace that doesn’t falter in the first act, with a carefully prepared build-up to the first appearance of Lohengrin. In Act Two, the Covent Garden production felt more urgent than this recording, and raised the occasional suspicion that Bychkov can get lost in the loveliness of the music. But he is back on track for Act Three, which in some recordings (Solti’s for example) can seem indecently hasty, with events piling on top of each other, although the replacement of the cut in ‘In fernem Land’ (sanctioned by the composer) doesn’t add anything significant. Bychkov fashions a transparent, almost Impressionistic sound from the WDR Symphony Orchestra, and its elegant, mobile playing evokes memories of the noble beauties of Wolfgang Sawallisch’s recording from the 1962 Bayreuth production, the highest praise.
Another inevitable comparison with Sawallisch’s recording (and Kempe’s) is the tenor in the title role. Jess Thomas’s all-embracing portrayal of the Swan Knight is one of the benchmarks of Wagner performance; Johan Botha is not quite, but only ‘not quite’, in that league. Even so, he has the right sense of intimacy and melancholy for the role, but its heroism just escapes him. He is superbly eloquent and mysterious from his first appearance in Act One, up to the moment of the fight, and the Act Three scene with Elsa, in its barely perceptible shift from love-duet to the moment of crisis, is singing and music-making (Bychkov is magnificent here) of great subtlety and insight. ‘In fernem Land’ is full of supernatural expectancy and sadness, but the replacement of the cut I suspect will turn out to be of completist interest only.
Obviously, consistency of performance is more easily achieved in the studio, but Botha sustains Lohengrin’s restrained passion and mystery throughout – and he produces a perfectly poised, limpid Heldentenor sound. ‘Heil dir, Elsa’ gives an idea of the quality and Innigkeit of his remarkable performance.
Botha has a worthy object of his otherworldly affections in Adrianne Pieczonka’s Elsa. Pieczonka (a fantastic Sieglinde at Bayreuth) and her silvery, pliant soprano is well suited to the role. Sometimes the microphones get too near to her vibrato, but in general the mixture of purity and steel must get pretty close to ideal. She floats a radiant ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ effortlessly and accurately, and the ebb and flow of grace versus wickedness in the Act Two scene with Ortrud is another example of how deep the singers are in the music.
I am less certain about Petra Lang’s Ortrud. In the Royal Opera’s staging she was more of an operatic Carabosse than the stern, aristocratic embodiment of the old ways (people still speak of Eva Randová‘s Ortrud with awe), and there is an element of snarling, slightly hammy caricature that comes over strongly in the recording. There’s no denying the drama of her singing, but you sometimes want to fine-tune the sexy opaqueness of her voice for the sake of a bit of clarity. Her pitch is variable, too, and she is the one singer here who takes the most liberties with her role. Having said that, however, her Act Two scene with Telramund is one of the high-points of this version – and there is no shortage of them. It is full of bleak malevolence, and the closing unison ‘Der Rache Werk’ is as pitiless as you are likely to hear it. Falk Struckmann is marvellous as Telramund, conjuring up a figure of tragic grandeur in his inability to curb his wife’s malignancy.
Kwangchul Youn is a solid and even King Henry, and there is a similarly forthright and powerful Herald from Eike Wilm Schulte.
The excellent recording is very flattering to the crucial, full-throated choral passages, and the brass fanfares are just as spacious, with a thrilling feel for depth and distance.
The booklet has an essay about the various cuts made and then restored to the score, and makes a convincing case for the restitution of the Act Three cut. Semyon Bychkov has interesting things to say about the role of Ortrud. Otherwise the booklet is a mess and, for a recording of this quality and importance, a sorry comment on the frequently slapdash approach to the production of written notes these days. For a start, it’s plain daft not to print up Wagner’s German libretto with its English and French translations. There are very good and obvious reasons for this having become almost a convention. The English text is full of misprints – my favourite (Telramund to Ortrud): “Thou sadist” instead of “Thou saidst”, although in the context not inappropriate, I suppose. The translation, from Grand Opera Syndicate Ltd, is hopelessly tortured and ’antique’. Worst of all, none of the three texts includes the words for the much trumpeted complete version of ’In fernem Land’. Oh well, that’s progress for you.