Wagner: Lohengrin

Pieczonka, Lang; Botha, Struckmann, Youn; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Bychkov (Profil PH09004)

7 February 20104.5 stars

LohengrinIn his notes accompanying this superb new recording of Wagner's Lohengrin, conductor Semyon Bychkov shares his personal journey toward the discovery of a new perspective on the character of the scheming, evil Ortrud. Understandably perplexed about how we, as listeners, can feel empathy for such an obvious villain like Ortrud, Bychkov describes his own revelation as occurring during a series of rehearsals of the Elsa-Ortrud duet in Act II.

He points out that the music for the two women is so sublime and imbued with such nobility, that we cannot simply relegate Ortrud to total darkness. Indeed, Wagner's blending of good and evil within the musical texture encourages the listener to hear Ortrud as a multifaceted – if obsessive and complicated – woman, rather than as a merely one-dimensional anti-heroine. Neither is Elsa an untouchable figure of goodness and purity. While Wagner has composed astonishingly angelic music for her, Elsa's basic humanity is her undoing: she cannot love unconditionally. For both Ortrud and Elsa, Wagner depicts the essence of their human weakness in the textures of his music, and ultimately catalyzes our empathy. Bychkov ensures that Wagner's swirling psychological undercurrents are vividly conveyed in the orchestra from first note to last, trumping the dramatic stasis of the opera, and carrying the listener along on wave after wave of gloriously detailed emotion.

Of course, all successful performances of Lohengrin start from the bedrock of emotional engagement. What makes Bychkov's approach so special, is his willingness to paint the complete picture – not just the obvious musical moments composed in high relief and designed to make a big impact (for good or ill), but also the quieter, ephemeral moments: the pauses, the subtleties, and the emotionally rich connective tissue between the grand statements. Never before, in this opera, have I been so strongly pulled into the sonic picture by virtue of the 'quiet' rather than the 'loud'. With the heralds' trumpet calls fading into the distance, the moments of silence spent waiting for Elsa's champion seem to resonate with as much color and vibrancy as the blaring of the trumpets themselves. Bychkov takes plenty of time here, and throughout the score, to let the plot unfold naturally and give the listener the chance to hold his breath while wondering what will come next. The atmosphere of breezy darkness that envelops the conversation between Ortrud and Telramund almost takes on three dimensions as created by Bychkov with the diaphanous details he coaxes from his winds and strings. The sheer vitality of the quiet moments ensures that Wagner's grandiose tableaux make their full impact as well. Each scene unfolds naturally and fades seamlessly into the next with both swells and diminuendi precisely calibrated, yet feeling spontaneous and organically linked to the storyline as it progresses. It is a thoroughly invigorating, technicolor reading of this immensely moving score.

None of Bychkov's ideas would count for much without a first rate orchestra willing and able to execute them. Plainly put, the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln sound magnificent, from the contemplative, infinitesimally threadlike pianissimi to the thundering concerted passages of pageant and heraldry. It would be impossible to single out specific sonorities, as the whole effort is much greater than the sum of its parts, and there doesn't seem to be a single misplaced note or over-played effect. The dynamic range of the recording is almost too wide, but this only serves to accentuate the revelatory quality of the quiet moments. Both preludes are breathtakingly lovely, and wholly unfettered by the weight of stand-alone duty on the gala orchestral 'hit parade'. Here, they function as intended: they set the stage and beguile the ear. So too, does the Prager Kammerchor, strongly supporting the narrative with their pitch-perfect cohesiveness at all dynamic levels.

Johan Botha's subtle Lohengrin and Adrianne Pieczonka's shimmering Elsa powerfully lead the vocal soloists. Botha has always been a reliable tenor, able to surmount the vocal challenges of dramatic roles with seeming ease, but with little depth to his characterizations. Here, he proves to be a remarkably versatile artist, singing confidently at all dynamic levels, and imbuing the titular hero with a good measure of sensitivity. The earnestness with which he asks for Elsa's love and commitment is touchingly believable. Pieczonka is an ideal Elsa, magically shining forth over the combined forces of chorus and orchestra in her high range and girlishly vulnerable in her naïveté. She vividly conveys the yearning of a woman in love as well as the gnawing insecurities planted so insidiously by Ortrud. Her voice has the ideal weight – just large enough to ride Bychkov's thrilling climaxes without being swamped, but also lyric and flexible enough to suggest youth and impetuousness.

Petra Lang is in a similar class, singing the role with absolute security, and characterizing with point and detail. Very occasionally, she is taxed in the high range, but if anything, this adds to our sense of Ortrud's vulnerability. Falk Struckmann's Telramund is a fearsomely proud Brabantine Count, steady in his mission, and genuinely baffled when his accusations are rebuffed. Though he does exhibit a wavering in the voice when singing especially high or loudly, his vocalism overall is secure, aggressive, and equipped with the necessary snarl that identifies him as the 'villain'. Kwangchul Youn's Heinrich is richly intoned, but too youthful sounding. His vocal profile blurs with Eike Wilm Schulte's impeccable Herald, and even to a degree, with Struckmann's Telramund. I would prefer a darker, more authoritative sounding King, but Youn's contribution does indeed blend nicely with the 'youthful' and lyric flavor of the ensemble as a whole.

It is worth mentioning, that this recording is absolutely complete, including the second half of Lohengrin's 'grail narrative' that was cut by Wagner prior to the Weimar premiere in 1850. There is little point in arguing the efficacy of this restoration, but this is only the third recording to include it (as far as I am aware). Wagner was worried about the dramaturgical effects of such a long recounting from Lohengrin, but on disc, these concerns more or less evaporate. The booklet for the recording is unfortunately poor, with textual translations separate (in micro-print) rather than side-by-side, which isn't helpful. Aside from this minor quibble, this is a brilliant addition to the discography.

By David Laviska