21 April 2017
I had the pleasure of experiencing the then plain Mark Elder conducting Lohengrin in 1992 at the ENO and whatever drawbacks there were in the production and cast-and there were many!-his musical direction was impeccable. I have only had to wait a mere 25 years for a recording of him in the same work, and so the question must be, is it worth the wait
I will begin by voicing the same complaint I express in all my various reviews of this work that no recording has managed to put together a cast where ALL the main roles are well taken, despite this being far from the most challenging of Wagner’s works vocally.
The last new recording was the live Frankfurt production well conducted by Bertrand de Billy and in my review I expressed the view that none of the principals were dire, but none were outstanding compared to other exponents in earlier recordings.
The same is not quite true of this new recording, but I’ll return to this later.
The recording was made from live concerts in 2015 in the Concertgebouw, and from the booklet photographs it looks like it was semi-staged but in modern dress.
The recording is excellent, well balanced, detailed and catching the rich string tone as well as the brilliant brass of the RCO on top form.
Without wishing to denigrate the excellent Hallé with which Sir Mark has such an exalted relationship, it is wonderful to hear him direct one of the world’s truly great bands and he elicits playing from them of the standard that gives them that reputation!
His reading is masterly-every phrase perfectly nuanced with tempi that are so natural that one forgets about the conductor-and that is a great compliment.
What we hear is Wagner’s music “comme il faut.”
Elder does not shrink from the tub thumping brashness in Act 3 at the summoning of the armies after the death of Telramund, a controversial passage but which thrills and impresses as it should in this recording. The chorus is mighty-and marvellous!
After a prelude of beauty and grandeur, the work opens with the Herald, an important role in this work. Samuel Youn is a young Korean Bass who has already sung the Dutchman and Scarpia in the recent ROH production. He is dry voiced and strained in his opening salvo-but this was live and the voice evidently needed to warm up for he recovers a strong legato and in his later pronouncements is fine.
Falk Struckmann is now singing the full Bass roles including Hunding and Hagen, and here he repeats the King Henry the Fowler that we heard on the de Billy performance. He is in better voice and lacks for nothing in technique and characterisation, but he strains at the top of the register and this is far from the golden resonance of Moll or the assuredness of Frick and Ridderbusch, but I like his performance here better than previously.
Evgeny Nikitin took us all by surprise as a fine Amfortas on the Gergiev Parsifal and has assumed many of the leading Wagner roles since then. He starts like Youn with a dry forced tone, strained at the top and barking out his phrases in what is reputedly German!
Thankfully, like Youn he improves vocally-the German does not- and in Act 2 especially delivers a decent, petulant and defiant Friedrich-not the best (Thomas Stewart) but far from the worst (Hartmut Welker).
Camilla Nylund also repeats her Elsa, and she too is in better voice than was the case for de Billy, no doubt aided by it not being a fully staged production. There is a slight tremulous quality to her legato, most prominent in her opening number but in a way it is not inappropriate to the character. She is very good in Act 2, especially in her scenes with Ortrud, and intelligent artist that she is her characterisation is first rate.
Again, she is not the best Elsa of the stereo era (Janowitz, Studer, Voigt-take your pick) nor is she the worst (Pieczonka, Sharon Sweet-take your pick) but I have to say that I enjoyed her performance on this set.
The Ortrud is Katarina Dalayman. Her performance is just immense-riveting, passionate, venomous and SO brilliantly sung! Her confrontation near the end of Act 2 where she can no longer suppress her contempt of Elsa is hair raising! She brings out the best in Nikitin and Nylund in their scenes together, and so strong is her performance the work could be renamed “Ortrud” with total justification! She has the fire of Gwyneth Jones, the beauty of tone of Ludwig, and the vocal heft of Nilsson!
This brings us to the Lohengrin of Klaus Florian Vogt. A few years back when Jonas Kaufmann was recording for Decca and Vogt for Sony the PR depts. whipped up a “Kaufmann” or Vogt? phony competition for “greatest heroic tenor”.
To my ears there was and is no competition-Vogt is TOTALLY unsuited to the heroic tenor roles he undertakes having a light tenor voice totally devoid of the baritonal heft especially necessary for the leading Wagner roles.
His Parsifal for van Zweden rendered that recording all but unlistenable for me, as though he sang steadily and with a fine legato the voice is just too lightweight and I classed it as sounding like “Harry Potter and the Holy Grail”.
I fear that I find it to be even worse in this “Harry Potter and the Enchanted Swan” version. His first entry, when bids farewell to his faithful swan, is not even crooned-it is sung falsetto, and throughout the performance there are times when crooning, more falsetto and some very uneven tone are the order of the day
He is capable of producing a fine lyrical legato at times-but the voice has suffered and there are some very ugly sounds at other times.
A good example is again in Act 2 when the King’s entourage enters, I thought that Mime had entered from the wrong production so ugly is Vogt’s tonal production-he would probably be a good Mime or Loge, but Lohengrin?-not for me!
He has the Legato for “In Fernem Land…” and he sings well enough-but to put it simply, it sounds “weedy” and undernourished.
Reviews of the concert performances were ecstatic and it must be remembered that all the artists here have tremendous stage presence-in particular Nylund is a statuesque beauty and Vogt is tall, blonde and handsome, physically every inch a Lohengrin and live performances are a visual as well as an “audio” experience- and I too have been influenced at times by what I saw as much as what I heard, but as a pure listening experience I find it difficult to assess.
Vogt has his admirers who do not share my reservations, and to them I can give a reasonable recommendation-there is nothing else that will ruin the experience for you and much that is truly superb. To those who share my reservations I can only issue a warning-the real positives in this set are likely to be outweighed by the negative that is Vogt in the title role.
I have been all but eviscerated by Kaufmann loyalists (of which I am one-sort of!) for daring to suggest that his “all singing” Das Lied von Der Erde was a poor showing, and I can no doubt expect the same from the Vogt League, but I must express my own view.
The recommendations for this work in stereo remain the Kempe, which is in astonishingly fine sound from its 2000 remastering and is only let down by Otto Wiener’s awful Herald (why was he cast?), the Kubelik which would benefit from remastering as it is a tad bass light but which is superb especially if you don’t mind Gwyneth Jones’s squally Ortrud, and the Abbado, which is extremely exciting despite Hartmut Welker’s poor legato.
Other recordings are too flawed to be safe recommendations despite their occasional strengths.
Those who don’t mind a Mono recording will find the 1953 Keilberth Bayreuth recording surprisingly vivid, and the Bohm Vienna recording on Orfeo vocally unsurpassed.
I SO wanted this recording of a work I love to be great-some elements are, but overall it falls short. Was it worth the 25 year wait?-sadly not! 3 Stars (4 if you can take Vogt!) Stewart Crowe.