Semyon Bychkov
WDR Rundfunkchor Köln
NDR Chor, Prager Kammerchor
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
30 May – 14 June 2008
Philharmonie Köln
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Heinrich der VoglerKwangchul Youn
LohengrinJohan Botha
Elsa von BrabantAdrianne Pieczonka
Friedrich von TelramundFalk Struckmann
OrtrudPetra Lang
Der Heerrufer des KönigsEike Wilm Schulte
Vier brabantische EdleMarkus Francke
Giovanni da Silva
Hee-Kwang Lee
Alexander Schmidt
The Guardian

This is a gloriously played and sung account of Wagner’s first unqualified masterpiece. It was taken from concert performances in Cologne a year ago, and is now released in Britain presumably to coincide with the revival of the Royal Opera production of Lohengrin, which has the same conductor and four of the same principals. Semyon Bychkov’s handling of the huge score takes pride of place on these discs, for its dramatic sweep and power, the delicacy and finesse with which the more lyrical passages are teased out, and for the superlative performances he extracts from the Cologne Radio Orchestra and its chorus. The ceremonial set pieces that are studded through the opera have a grandeur that never overwhelms their dramatic function, and Bychkov shapes the crucial confrontations, such as that between Petra Lang’s Ortrud and Adrianne Pieczonka’s Elsa in the second act, with a clear sense of purpose. Most of the solo singing is outstanding, too, right down to the luxury casting of Eike Wilm Schulte as the Herald. As Lohengrin, Johan Botha combines all the necessary vocal heft with a wonderfully musical shaping of every line. And if Pieczonka’s tone is sometimes a bit pinched under pressure, there is a radiance to much of her singing that more than compensates. You have to go back quite a few years to find a new Lohengrin as accomplished as this on disc.

Andrew Clements | Friday 15 May 2009


This remarkably “alive” performance of Lohengrin was made after a couple of concert performances (we are told in the accompanying booklet) and it features the type of ensemble work and comfort that we associate with familiarity. Semyon Bychkov leads a performance with naturally flowing tempos: the lengthy exchange between Ortrud and Telramund has the sort of tension that might come from a couple who have known each other for so long and have a poisoned relationship; they snap at one another in real time. The Ortrud/Elsa scene in Act 2 is frighteningly seductive, the former knowing just how to “get” the latter. And the love music in the Bridal Chamber Scene–the only part of the score that Bychkov takes at a more leisurely that usual pace–is wonderfully sincere and sensual, with a build-up of nervousness that never seems plugged in. His orchestral texturing is transparent throughout, with the winds prominently featured and plenty of room for the brass to shine.

The WDR Sinfonieorchester plays superbly and each of the sections has great moments (the glistening Prelude!), while the overall effect is one of superb integration. In addition, Bychkov is incredibly sensitive to the singers’ needs. This is music-making of the highest order. And the cut in the Grail Narrative that we have become accustomed to has been re-opened here and completes the story.

The singing is as good or better than on any other available recording. I admit to never having enjoyed a performance by the South African tenor Johan Botha before; he’s clumsy on stage and, at least when I’ve heard him, has tended to sing everything with the same dramatic intent, albeit while scrupulously observing dynamic markings. Well, bravo to Bychkov if he is responsible for the stunning Lohengrin Botha sings on these discs: sensitive, tireless, other-worldly in those weird, introspective moments, potent and manly when called for, accompanied by crisp diction, exciting exclamation, and lyricism–all that one wants in a Lohengrin.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s Elsa is in a similar class. Her distinctive soprano easily manages Elsa’s strangeness, her misapprehension, her doubts, and her naiveté. She’s gorgeous in her opening narrative and in “Euch luften”, stronger in the Love duet and dark when she realizes what she’s done. She does not erase memories of Elisabeth Grümmer, but she’s splendid. Falk Struckmann delivers a mustache-twirling Telramund, angry and filled with self-hatred, and ferocious.

He is bettered by Petra Lang, whose Ortrud is perhaps the easiest sung available–most mezzos have to reach for the big notes in “Entweite Götter”; Lang is comfortable and secure. There’s snide malevolence in every note she sings, but fans of Christa Ludwig and Astrid Varnay will prefer a darker sound. Eike Wilm Schulte intones the Herald’s music with authority and Kwangchul Yuon is an impressive King. The chorus is superb throughout.

Audiophiles will revel in the sonics. Clear, big, and delineated, with marvelous resonance from the organ and lower strings and brilliance from the brass, we also get an ideal balance between voices and instruments. This is the finest Lohengrin to come along since Kempe’s. Highly recommended.

Artistic Quality: 10
Sound Quality: 10

Robert Levine | 4/30/2009


In 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.

David Laviska | 7 February 2010


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.

Peter Reed | July 2009

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Profil 9004
Technical Specifications
615 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 922 MByte (flac)