Lohengrin

Marek Janowski
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Date/Location
12 November 2011
Philharmonie Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
Heinrich der VoglerGünther Groissböck
LohengrinKlaus Florian Vogt
Elsa von BrabantAnnette Dasch
Friedrich von TelramudGerd Grochowski
OrtrudSusanne Resmark
Der Heerrufer des KönigsMarkus Brück
Vier brabantische EdleRobert Franke
Holger Marks
Sascha Glintenkamp
Thomas Pfützner
Gallery
Gramophone

After a bumpy, uneven ride through Parsifal, Marek Janowski’s new live Wagner cycle continues somewhat more majestically with Lohengrin. I should warn straight away that his light-voiced lovers – already hailed by the German press as the ‘Bayreuth dream pair’ – may frustrate those used to, say, Jess Thomas and Elisabeth Grümmer (for Kempe, EMI), let alone Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann (Myto, from a 1935 Metropolitan Opera broadcast). Dasch, here denied the armour of that unique Bayreuth acoustic (see her, and Vogt, on the Opus Arte DVD of the 2011 Festival production), is the ne plus ultra in slim-sounding, girlish Elsas. But it sounds and works so beautifully, a complete contrast to Resmark’s (very mezzo-ish) Ortrud, a perfect Weber-like foil to Lohengrin in their interrupted Act 3 love duet and – because she projects the text so well – moving and vulnerable in the confrontations with Ortrud or the loss of her husband. Vogt’s voice is less compelling without the bonus of his visible stage presence but (in what is now his third recording of the role) his understanding of the part triumphs, there is much lovely quieter singing and he is able to bring special atmosphere to the Grail narration and the climactic negotiations (here heard complete) thereafter. With Eberhard Friedrich getting a strong sound from his Berlin Radio Choir, doing justice to the intricate and radical writing of Wagner’s most extensively choral opera, Janowski is able to lead an exciting performance in his best style. That is to say swift, of its (1840s) time – wholly free of the Tristan-ising of Solti (Decca, 10/87) or Karajan (EMI, 1/83R) – and with much care given to varying the balance and rhythm of the recitatives. Resmark is pushed at times by the tessitura (I feel an Alan Blyth-style lecture coming on about what are really soprano roles) but gives such a firecracker Ortrud that no one should care. If the other three male leads are less distinctive, they never fall short of a committed contribution to a performance that, in the Act 1 finale, the pacing of a complete Act 2 and the crescendo of Act 3, touches greatness. There’s a terrifyingly long list of worthwhile Lohengrin recordings, to which this newcomer is a serious competitor. Elsewhere, don’t miss Kempe (EMI, 2/64R), Barenboim (Warner, 1/99) or Bodanzky (Myto) and try to hear Fritz Busch (anywhere), Klemperer (old Hungaroton), Kaufmann singing the Grail narration in Bayreuth (Decca, 9/10) or Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry in the Ortrud/Telramund duet in South America.

Mike Ashman

Opera News

The performance history of Lohengrin has been a curious one. A Top Ten opera for most of its existence, in the past generation it seemed to be taking a light nap. Suddenly, in just the past few years, it is back in a big way. Four performances of interest — two audio-only versions, conducted by Semyon Bychkov and James Levine, and two DVD productions, from Munich and Bayreuth — have been released. Now Marek Janowski’s version, part of the conductor’s planned traversal of the ten canonical Wagner operas in live concert recordings, offers a performance unlike any of the others. Janowski’s Lohengrin is distinctive in two ways. One is the choral singing. No opera exposes weakness in the choral contingent the way Lohengrin does. The men are frequently divided into four parts rather than two, and sometimes the men even split into eight parts, as the Saxons and Brabants square off. Freed of any staging (or in the case of Robert Wilson’s Met production, of having to stand stock still), the men of Berlin’s Rundfunk Chor demonstrably have no weaknesses. The other distinctive element here is Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin. He sings with cherubic, choirboy purity; his entrance sounds like Gregorian chant, and his lines to Elsa in Act II have an unusual, perhaps even unique, comforting quality. For a time, it’s effective, since Lohengrin is a being from another world, but ultimately it seems that Elsa could best him in any competition of his choice, and we end up wishing for a knight of more unassailable strength. But just about anything is preferable to yelling, and Vogt never, ever yells.

Lohengrin was Wagner’s last pre-Ring opera. The first section of the Elsa–Ortrud duet — the part where Elsa is still upstairs on the balcony — is particularly indicative of the direction Wagner was heading, and Janowski catches the insinuation and the slipperiness of the music. Janowski’s prelude is notable for the way in which the persistent eighth notes a few minutes into the piece seem to be portraying the eternal workings of the Grail or the rays of light emanating from it. He makes an unexpected, effective parallel with the similar figuration underneath Elsa’s entrance into the minster in Act II that now seems obvious (it has to do with purity) but that nobody seems to have made before. Janowski produces an especially vital string tremolo at moments such as Elsa’s desperation just before Lohengrin’s initial appearance; string players don’t really want to work this hard, so they clearly find Janowski inspiring. But his brisk tempos don’t work so well in this opera. Act I is fine as a setup. The action and urgency, as opposed to contemplative qualities, relate to the plot. But Act III — all of it — is too quick. Even prepared for how fast it is going to be on a second try, it is hard to hear it as anything other than a scramble. Janowski’s timing for Act III is identical to Kent Nagano’s in Munich and Levine’s at the Met, but Janowski has opened the standard theater cut. He plays one hundred seventy measures more music than they do in the same amount of time.

Janowski has not been building a repertory company of singers for his Wagner project, so the series is turning into a survey of today’s practitioners. As Ortrud, Susanne Resmark confirms the impression she made in Kasper Holten’s Copenhagen Ring and Tannhäuser: she certainly has the power for the roles she sings, but her voice is unwieldy and her tuning above the staff approximate. Annette Dasch has a hard time projecting any character as Elsa, and her top B is pinched. But it is easy to wonder how much better she might have been had Janowski given her enough room to keep her bearings in Act III. The Telramund, Gerd Grochowski, is unsteady and careless about pitches in Act I but considerably better in Act II. Günther Groissböck is a reliable King Heinrich, one who shows the importance of religious deference to Lohengrin. Markus Brück is fine as the Herald, but it is fascinating how so many other baritones have made so much of this part, which looks like the antithesis of an operatic role on the page but turns out not to be so.

The riches in the new crop of Lohengrins are spread around. The Munich production — Richard Jones’s Elsa-as-architect conception — did not win many fans in the theater but plays beautifully on video, helped no end by the glamorously sung and acted performances of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in the leading roles. Levine’s Met performance from 1998 features string playing of shocking accomplishment; clearly an unholy pact was involved. Levine also has Ben Heppner, the Lohengrin of our time and the singer perhaps uniquely qualified to deliver Levine’s conception of the role. But the recording is knocked out of contention by the Met audience in its everyday mode of mindless coughing. Ultimately, everyone should hear Bychkov’s recording. It is brilliantly conducted, as if accompanying a very specific staging. It features Adrianne Pieczonka, the rare Elsa who can meet Wagner’s considerable demands while still sounding pure and youthful. Pentatone’s recorded sound for Janowski is less flattering to the strings than it is in the other entries in his series, but great attention has been paid to the disposition of the offstage instruments. The wedding march starts in the wings, as it is supposed to, and when the pit orchestra strings join in, the effect is as magical as Wagner wished. The great composers really knew what they were doing.

WILLIAM R. BRAUN | OCTOBER 2012 — VOL. 77, NO. 4

MusicWeb-International.com

Janowski’s Wagner cycle arrives at Lohengrin and by this point in the series some things can safely be relied on. The first is Janowski’s penchant for fast tempi which, in this context, carries the welcome advantage that each act fits onto one disc. It seldom feels rushed, however. When he broadens out it is for the more famously contemplative moments, such as In fernem Land or Einsam in truben tagen. In fact, the dawn interlude in the third act begins remarkably slowly but gathers pace as it develops, an effect that not everyone will enjoy.

The other normally dependable advantages are slightly less reliable this time around. One is the beauty of the orchestral playing, which is still extraordinary. However, it takes a while for the shimmer effect to set in. The divided strings of the prelude are ever so slightly shaky in the opening bars and I couldn’t really relax into it until the entry of the woodwinds. The scenes surrounding Lohengrin’s entrance in Act 1, however, are wonderful, as is the playing around In fernem Land. The string tone for the opening of Act 2 is wonderfully dark. The other advantage is the quality of the recorded sound. It’s very good, bringing clarity and light to the string and wind sound especially. However, the brass feel slightly recessed this time around: the important trumpet fanfares at the climax of the prelude are difficult to hear, and most of the big climaxes are a little underplayed, including the prelude to Act 3. It’s most damaging in the final bars of the second act where the theme of the forbidden question should thunder out on the brass but here struggles to make itself heard above the general orchestral texture which can come across as slightly thick and muddy. Perhaps I’m only noticing these flaws because these aspects have been so excellent in other instalments of the series, but it’s a pity that the magic is less forthcoming this time around.

Still, get over this and there’s a lot to enjoy. Most discussion will probably centre around Klaus Florian Vogt’s assumption of the title role. I’d heard the name before but I’d never heard him sing until I put on this recording. At first hearing I found the voice very difficult to place. Initially it is very light, almost childish in places, and it almost entirely lacks the burnished quality that so distinguishes, say, Domingo’s reading of the role. There are times when he can even sound a little pinched and he is certainly a far cry from the traditional heldentenor sound of, say, Siegfried Jerusalem or James King. However, the more I heard of him the more I liked him. The finest quality he brings is one of vulnerability, something that is undoubtedly an important part of the character’s make-up, particularly in Act 3, but something we so rarely hear. In Vogt’s hands the character appears sympathetic and genuinely interesting. We actually feel for him when he is summoned back to the realm of the grail at the end. His voice has a wounded, pleading quality to it in his interactions with Elsa, both in the third act and, perhaps even more convincingly, the closing scene of Act 2. Vogt’s reading may be a little unconventional, but he brings something new and valuable to the role and for that reason alone he demands to be heard. Like Vogt, Annette Dasch does not have a voice one might normally associate with her role. She is a touch mature and even a little effortful in her first appearance, but she grows in stature as the opera develops and she makes an urgent foil for Vogt. Their duet at the start of Act 3 is very compelling, perhaps the highlight of the set. A genuine conversation seems to be taking place between them and there’s heightened sense of tragedy when she eventually asks him his name.

Gerd Grochowski is a vital, wide-eyed Telramund who refuses to accept his own defeat and has a convincing, dark urgency which suits the role well. Susanne Resmark does not sound happy in the role of Ortrud, however. Her voice appears big and unwieldy and she squawks a little when going for some of the higher writing. More damagingly, she lacks the subtlety that the role really requires: this Ortrud is blankly malevolent and little else. Günther Groissböck is a vigorous King Heinrich, sounding younger than you might expect for the character, but he is grips the attention and adds an extra sense of energy to the part. Markus Brück’s herald is dependable, as are the cameo roles. The choral singing is also first rate, and here again the quality of the recording comes into its own, with lots of transparency revealing inner lines and balancing the voices well against the orchestral background.

Somewhat like his Meistersinger, this is a good addition to Janowski’s Wagner cycle, but despite its evident attractions it falls short of being essential. Lohengrin is, after all, probably the best represented of all Wagner’s operas on disc, and each set – including this one, to be fair – has something special to set it apart. Domingo’s singing is exceptionally beautiful and well rounded, both for Solti on CD or Abbado on DVD. Siegfried Jerusalem for Abbado on CD gives perhaps the best overall interpretation of the title role. He is backed up by a sensitive Cheryl Studer as Elsa and an extraordinary Orturd from Waltraud Meier. James King and Gundula Janowitz are the sweetest sounding pair on disc – if slightly anonymous at times – for Kubelik. Barenboim’s men are outstanding while his women are a little bland, and Kempe’s extraordinary Vienna performance still holds its own decades after it first appeared.

When you compare this Pentatone release to these, or even to other modern DVD releases, most notably Kaufmann and Harteros in Munich or Nagano’s Lyon production (also featuring Vogt in the title role), Janowski is solid but not superb.

Simon Thompson

Rating
(7/10)
User Rating
(3.7/5)
Media Type/Label
Pentatone
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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 504 MByte (MP3)
2.3 Mbit/s VBR, 88.2 kHz, 3.3 GByte (SACD flac)
Remarks
Broadcast (DLR Kultur) of a concert performance