Wagner: Lohengrin - Bychkov
Profil PH09004 (3 discs)
Classical - Opera
Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
Kwangchul Youn (King Henry)
Johan Botha (Lohengrin)
Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa von Brabant)
Falk Struckmann (Friedrich von Telramund)
Petra Lang (Ortrud)
Eike Wilm Schulte (King's Herald)
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
NDR Chor & Prager Kammerchor
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - April 6, 2009
Studio based recordings of opera have become quite rare over the past few years and one must look back as far as 1999 for one of Wagner’s Lohengrin (Barenboim). This present SACD set combines the benefits, and avoids the pitfalls, of both live and studio productions. It was made immediately following two concert performances of the opera given in the Kölner Philharmonie in 2008, although, as Semyon Bychkov explains in the booklet notes, its origin goes back several years to concerts given in Spain and a new production of Lohengrin that he conducted at the Vienna State Opera. The team of singers he used on those occasions features here, and the close relationship that developed from their collaboration with Bychkov has collectively informed what he calls the “building of the Lohengrin Cathedral”. The results speak for themselves in this gripping account of the work.
Bychkov has assembled a superb cast that one would be grateful to encounter in any Opera House in the world today. Each of the main protagonists is an experienced singer of Wagner, while Bychkov himself is a renowned interpreter of the composer’s works. Before the opera was first staged in Weimar in 1850, Wagner urged Liszt to perform it without cuts. Since then, however, it has been customary to make cuts in staged performances, and these are also to be found on most, but not all, earlier recordings. The most damaging cut is that made to the second section of Lohengrin’s Act 3 Narration, so it is pleasing to report that on this recording Bychkov performs the opera absolutely complete as Wagner intended - a major plus.
The whole opera is accommodated on three discs (lasting respectively 71.29, 73.12 and 70.34) so, as on the majority of other recordings, Act 2 is inevitably split between the first and second discs. Here the break occurs, rather abruptly, ten minutes into the Act.
Before considering the individual performances of the singers, the magnificent contribution of the WDR Sinfonieorchester, Köln must be mentioned. Semyon Bychkov has over recent years built them into one of the finest orchestras in Europe as their performance here testifies. The playing of the string section is rich, cultured and beautifully blended, the woodwind unfailingly expressive and the brass both incisive and weighty. Nowhere throughout this set is the playing anything less than the highest quality.
The experienced and seemingly ageless Eike Wilm Schulte, the King’s Herald, delivers his pronouncements in each of the three acts with firm rounded tone, matching his fine performance on the Philips 1990 Bayreuth recording (RBCD only). A mature singer often assumes the role of King Henry, but here the lighter bass voice of Kwangchul Yuon imbues his assumption with a vigour and sensitivity that give this King a quite appropriate youthful virility. He copes admirably with the wide vocal range of the part and his singing is unfailingly musical. The Elsa of Adrianne Pieczonka is also very fine. She is the possessor of a creamy soprano and although she has recently been singing the heavier roles of Strauss and Wagner (such as Sieglinde in Die Walküre) she manages to convey effectively both the innocence and insecurity in Elsa’s character.
The two villains of the piece are terrifyingly convincing. Falk Struckmann (in much better voice than in the Barenboim recording) portrays the tortured Telramund vividly and only rarely forces his tone, while Petra Lang is the personification of insidious malevolence. Her stage experience of this role shows in every bar and as a mezzo who also sings many soprano roles, she is undaunted by the high tessitura of some of her music. Her delivery of ‘Entweite Götter! Helft meiner Rachel’ is one spine-chilling example, while her exchanges with Telramund at the start of Act 2 are amongst the most riveting moments in this set.
More than in any other of Wagner’s operas, with the possible exception of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the chorus is of paramount importance. In all three acts they both comment on events and drive the action forward. Bychkov has the combined voices of the superbly trained WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor and Prager Kammerchor at his disposal and to say that they emulate the many manifestations of the Bayreuth Festival Chorus is the highest praise one can give. Their lusty singing in the big set pieces and tonal refinement elsewhere is a real joy.
Finally we come to the impressive Lohengrin of Johan Botha (a singer better heard than seen). His huge voice, ringing top notes and endless stamina make him a singer much in demand for the heavier tenor roles. However, that voice is also blessed with an appealing lyricism that is constantly in evidence throughout this recording, making his Lohengrin one to be reckoned with even when compared with some of the great voices of the past. His singing at the opening of the Act 3 love duet is well controlled, even at Bychkov’s surprisingly relaxed tempo, while he manages to deliver a lightly floated, if slightly extended, note on ‘Taube’ during the course of a poised and restrained ‘In fernem Land’.
As already indicated above, the driving force behind this Lohengrin is the conductor Semyon Bychkov. He directs an inspired account of the score in which textures are kept transparent and the music is allowed to unfold naturally. Though his conducting is flexible, he pays close attention to Wagner’s directions and supports his singers with scrupulous care.
The recording benefits from the excellent acoustic of the aforementioned Kölner Philharmonie and manages to encompass the wide dynamic range and scale of the work with ease. There is no attempt to re-create the movement of a stage performance, but instead the singers are spread across the soundstage and clearly positioned in front of the orchestra and chorus. The discs are supplied in a standard triple CD case containing a 95-page booklet with three separate libretti in German, English and French. The rhyming, and often hilarious, English translation is credited to the ‘Grand Opera Syndicate Ltd.’ and contains such gems as:
‘I cannot – Ortrud, say no more, Myself for thee will ope the door.’ (Sic.)
With its varied perspectives, off-stage choruses and spatially deployed brass fanfares, Lohengrin is an ideal opera with which to exploit the advantages provided by multi-channel sound. The end of Act 2 with its triumphant brass and organ sounds magnificent. Even more so is the thrilling orchestral passage linking the two final scenes of Act 3, with trumpet fanfares emanating from all four points of the compass that create a frisson not to be found on any previous recording of the work.
This Profil release is major addition to the SACD catalogue that all Wagnerians will wish to investigate without delay.
Copyright © 2009 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net