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Wagner: Lohengrin - Janowski

Wagner: Lohengrin - Janowski

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186403 (3 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Opera


Wagner: Lohengrin

Günther Groissböck (Heinrich der Vogler)
Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin)
Annette Dasch (Elsa)
Gerd Grochowski (Friedrich von Telramund)
Susanne Resmark (Ortrud)
Markus Brück (Der Heerrufer des Königs)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Marek Janowski (conductor)

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Review by Graham Williams - June 27, 2012

PentaTone have definitely established a winning formula for success with the ten Wagner operas they are currently recording in association with Deutschlandradio Kultur in Berlin.

First assemble a cast of the finest and most experienced Wagner singers available. Secondly engage a conductor with a lifetime of experience in both the Opera House and the Concert Hall who also has a special affinity with Wagner's works that has matured, like fine wine, over many years. Thirdly perform the whole opera live in a single evening in a hall with good acoustics. Finally appoint a team of some of the best engineers around to record the performance and make any post-production edits that might be necessary before release on SACD.

This has worked spectacularly well up to now, so it is pleasing to report that this new Lohengrin is well up to the standard of the three earlier issues. However, this new SACD recording has to face formidable competition from the award winning Lohengrin from Semyon Bychkov and his WDR forces that I reviewed back in April 2009 Wagner: Lohengrin - Bychkov . That superb version was made in the wake of live performances in the Köln Philharmonie, and manages most effectively to combine the benefits of both 'studio' and 'live' recordings. To make any objective judgement as to which of these two SACD versions is the finer is not an easy task and will, as so often, ultimately come down to matters of personal taste in which the choice of singers, quality of the orchestral playing, conducting and vividness of the recorded sound will all play their part.

The performance that constitutes this recording of Lohengrin, the fourth Wagner opera to be released by PentaTone to date, took place on November 12, 2011 in a totally sold out Berlin Philharmonie. I was lucky enough to attend this concert so it has been particularly fascinating for me to compare my reactions to the live experience, via the notes I made that evening, with what is present on these three SACDs. Thanks to Janowski's generally urgent pacing of the opera each act is accommodated on a single disc where most recordings have to break the second Act at some point usually to the detriment of the drama. Timings are Act I 59.24, Act II 79.34 and Act III 61.36. Unlike Bychkov, Janowski makes the customary cut to Lohengrin's narration 'In fernem Land' which may bother some listeners more than others, though its excision is often considered advantageous to maintain the scene's dramatic flow.

The string sound in the opening Prelude does not have the fullness of tone that one might expect if it were performed by Berlin's premier orchestra, and the brass seem rather held back as the climax approaches, but elsewhere the Berlin Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester play with great sensitivity and character for their artistic director. Janowski's conducting is, as always, both purposeful and considerate to his singers, and the orchestra respond to his direction with complete unanimity throughout. Their fleet account of the famous Act 3 Prelude could hardly be bettered in conveying celebratory excitement.

The undoubted stars of this recording are Klaus Florian Vogt as the eponymous hero and Annette Dasch as his hapless (some might say hopeless) bride Elsa. Both singers are the leads in the current production of this work at Bayreuth, and their familiarity with their respective roles is clear through the relaxed ease and flexibility with which they sing their parts – without, at the concert, recourse to scores. In Ms. Dasch's case this is especially praiseworthy as she was heavily pregnant at the time yet manages to sound as fresh at the conclusion of the opera as at its beginning. In passing, it is worth noting these two singers can be seen on a Blu-ray release of a 2011 performance from Bayreuth conducted by Andris Nelsons, though visually the production by Hans Neuenfels that sets the opera in an laboratory with the chorus costumed as rats may be too much for more conservatively minded Wagnerites. Good though the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound on this Blu-ray disc is, PentaTone's sonics on these SACDs provide much more immediacy and capture considerably more orchestral detail.

Klaus Florian Vogt is the possessor of a very distinctive, sweet and caressing voice with an almost virginal quality, but one that has gained in strength and heft over the past few years. Add this to his film star looks and fine stage presence and it is easy to see why for many opera houses Vogt is the current first choice for the roles of both Parsifal and Lohengrin. He sounds equally at ease in both the dramatic and lyrical aspects of this taxing role. In Act 3 he sings 'In Fernem Land' with unfailing beauty of tone but still delivers 'Hochtes vertraun' with considerable force and authority. Naturally the Act 3 love duet with Elsa suits his voice to perfection and thanks to his rapport with Annette Dasch an impeccable account of this crucial scene is assured.

Annette Dasch's Elsa conveys a touching vulnerability and if she sounds a little tentative at first this accords perfectly with the character's disturbed state of mind. As her character gains confidence during the course of 'Einsam in trüben Tagen' her voice gains in radiance and power. Her total identification with Elsa is in no doubt through each of the operas three long acts and overall I found her performance to be most engaging. The other main roles are also strongly cast. I especially enjoyed the performance given by the superb bass Günther Groissböck. His youthful sounding and absolutely secure singing conveys the regal authority of Heinrich der Vogler in a manner not always encountered on record. Gerd Grochowski is an experienced Telramund and though the slightly dry quality of his voice may not appeal to all listeners he sings with intelligence and convincing commitment. Thanks partly to Janowski's forward moving tempi, the scene between Telramund and Ortrud that opens Act 2 is exceptionally gripping. The Ortrud of Susanne Resmark is slightly more problematic. Though her use of vibrato is generally well controlled she sometimes pushes her voice too much, as in her call to the gods 'Entweihte Götter!' and especially in her final outburst at the work's conclusion (Disc 3 tr.11.) Marcus Brück is a finely projected and firmly sung Heerrufer, but his placement on the platform with the four players of the King's trumpets (extreme left, behind the first violins) – presumably necessitated by an already crowded platform - does somewhat lessen the impact of his pronouncements.

The marvellous Rundfunk Chor trained by Eberhard Friedrich sing with impeccable diction and thrilling projection of the text in an opera which demands, and here receives, the finest choral contribution. All the great set pieces of this opera – Lohengrin's arrival in Act 1, Elsa's bridal procession to the minster in Act 2 etc. will lift you off your feet. Try the great ensemble before Lohengrin's Act 1 fight with Telramund (Disc 1 tr.11) to get a sense, not only of the magnificent singing by the soloists and chorus but also Janowski's authoritative control of his huge forces.

The PCM Hi-Res recording faithfully captures the Philhamonie acoustic, and an added frisson is provided for those listening in multi-channel by Wagner's use of an off-stage band and various brass groups strategically placed around the hall - here comprising 32 extra instrumentalists. Thanks to the careful positioning of the microphones the presence of an audience is virtually undetectable though there is some platform noise at the start of the orchestral passage linking Scenes 2 and 3 of the last Act.

The presentation of this set is excellent. Thankfully, it includes a well translated German/ English libretto (unlike the travesty supplied with the Bychkov version), a thought provoking essay on the opera by Steffen Georgi and full artist biographies.

Though my own allegiance to the Bychkov version among recent recordings remains steadfast this Janowski account is unlikely to disappoint. It will surely be welcomed by avid Wagnerites and makes one eager for the next issue in what is proving to be a superlative series.

Copyright © 2012 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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