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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
König Heinrich – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin - Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa of Brabant – Annette Dasch
Friedrich von Telramund – Jukka Rasilainen
Ortrud – Petra Lang
The King’s Herald – Samuaul Youn
Noblemen of Brabant – Stefan Heibach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun, Christian Tschelebiew
Bayreuth Festival Chorus & Orchestra/Andre Nelsons
rec. live, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 14 August 2011
OPUS ARTE OACD9034D [3 CDs: 198:42]

I enjoyed this recording very much, and expect to return to it often, but I suspect it is one which will divide opinion as it has unexpected elements.

Lohengrin suffers rather from comparison with the great later operas, but it is one that is filled with riches and one to which I find myself returning more often. The orchestration is fascinating, as Wagner develops his style in such extraordinary ways. Most famous is his addition of a ‘third’ woodwind (here cor anglais and bass clarinet), used mainly in higher registers, to create a chorus, principally to support Elsa, representing her purity, while in lower register, these additional instruments emphasise the mischief of Ortrud and Telramund. At some points, the flute plays in a lower register than bassoon, cor anglais and oboe. The effect is to turn normal expectations upside-down and to represent musically the disharmony of evil. The string writing is justly famous, especially in the Prelude, and the brass effects – including off-stage instruments and martial fanfares – are continually striking. This score marks a turning point in Wagener’s development, and I have sympathy with Bruckner, who is said to have spent a complete Wagner opera with his eyes closed, concentrating just on the music.

For me, the special strength of the new recording is the quality of the music. The production at Bayreuth – using a laboratory setting with a lot of rats (as the people of Brabant) – is also available from Opus Arte on DVD (reviews) and Blu-ray, but has divided opinion, roughly between ‘It’s all right’, and ‘Thank you, we’ll let you know…’, but the music-making is not in doubt. Hence the value of having the opera just on CD as here. Andris Nelson’s approach is lucid and I admired throughout his command of the overall arch – the architecture – of the music, which shines through occasionally muffled sound and a rather bronchial audience. Some might prefer their Wagner more reverential, as exemplified by Goodall, Elder or Knappertsbusch, but reverence can sometimes slip into the merely lugubrious.

Characterisation can be an issue. Things are difficult for the singers. In general, the villains in the opera have the slighter challenge, as their roles give the clue to expression. Petra Lang is outstanding as Ortrud – a quite stunning performance from a great artist – though Jukka Rasilainen is much less convincing. Georg Zeppenfeld has both the strength of voice required of Heinrich and also a sensitivity which is impressive, though I thought his recent performance at Covent Garden even more powerful.

The difficulty in this opera is for those playing the lovers. Neither character is noted as an intellectual giant, and Elsa is sweet but dim (though compared with Tosca, a genius) and the listener has to suspend disbelief at the interplay with Lohengrin. (Why does he not make up a name to keep her happy – ‘Call me Bruce’ – and how did he get through a wedding ceremony? - ‘I, not telling you, take thee…’ No wonder the wedding is off-stage.) Annette Dasch as Elsa manages to sound both in love and possessed of the sweetness of youth. Klaus Florian Vogt has made a speciality of this part. Some might find that his voice does not fit the traditional concept of the Heldentenor, but he sings with sensitivity and clarity, and the special character of his voice, I believe, matches the otherworldly origin of Lohengrin as Grail Knight. I have heard him live in the role, and he carries his voice clearly over the orchestra. The original singers in Lohengrin would not have been Wagner singers of later tradition, but rather more Italianate than Vogt.

The quality of recording is acceptable, despite coughs and sneezes, given that this was a live performance. The booklet contains summaries of each act, and a list of tracks, but no libretto or notes on the music.

Overall, then, despite a few drawbacks, this is a most worthwhile release, and a musical performance not disgraced by comparison with the now legendary Kempe recording on Warner Classics (mono only) or – my own favourite – Kubelik on DGG.

Michael Wilkinson


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