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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Heroes Anonymous: Five Recordings of Lohengrin

"I want to know your name. Tell me your name."
--Brenda Strong, Catch Me If You Can
Johan Botha and Emily Magee in Act I of Lohengrin
Photo by Dan Rest, © 2011 Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lohengrin is one of Wagner's most popular operas. The medieval of a maiden in distress rescued by a (literal) knight in shining armor was transformed into a grand opera of mythic proportion, and one of Wagner's greatest successes.

The opera is currently playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with South African tenor Johan Botha in the title role. To warm your ears up for the Swan Knight's arrival, here's a list of great recordings of Lohengrin.

This opera has been lucky on disc. That's to say, there are some awesome recordings out there. Here's the top five:

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (Decca/Philips 1962)
Lohengrin: Jess Thomas
Elsa von Brabant Anja Silja
Friedrich von Telramund: Ramon Vinay
Ortrud: Astrid Varnay
Heinrich: Franz Crass
In and out of print, this live recording was made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1962, a very good year for opera. Anja Silja was maybe 20 when she recorded this, lending a youthful vulnerability to the role of Elsa. Jess Thomas is in good form as Lohengrin. But the real attraction here is Astrid Varnay as the villainous Ortrud. Her added sprechstimme cackle ("Gott?! Hech-heh!") in Act Two is worth the price of the set alone. Also, this is the best of the four Lohengrins recorded at Bayreuth, taped in front of an actual audience with a minimum of stage noise.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Rudolf Kempe (EMI, 1964)
Lohengrin: Jess Thomas
Elsa von Brabant Elisabeth Grummer
Friedrich von Telramund: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Ortrud: Christa Ludwig
Heinrich: Gottlob Frick
This is pretty much the "standard" recording of the opera, and it gets re-released about once a decade. Jess Thomas again, this time in a studio setting. He is surrounded by a solid cast, (Grummer is etheral, Fischer-Dieskau and Frick perfect casting) and this captures the Vienna Philharmonic at their peak, right around the time they were finishing the Solti Ring. The recorded sound is excellent and the choral singing, superb. Rudolf Kempe is an exceptional conductor, and this is his finest hour on the podium. A first choice in most record guides, but not my personal favorite.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (DG, 1971)
Lohengrin: James King
Elsa von Brabant Gundula Janowitz
Friedrich von Telramund: Gerd Neinstedt
Ortrud: Gwyneth Jones
Heinrich: Karl Ridderbusch
This is probably my favorite of the bunch--another "unknown" DG recording led by Maestro Kubelik. Except that this one actually got released. The attraction here is the second act, with the pairing of Gundula Janowitz and Gwyneth Jones as Elsa and Ortrud. La Jones has never sounded better, using her demented soprano to great effect in this villainous role.

James King is an effective Swan Knight. The cast is filled out by Bayreuth veterans Gerd Neinstedt and Karl Ridderbusch. Kubelik leads a sweeping, stylish performance of the score.

Staatskapelle Berlin: Daniel Barenboim (Teldec/WBC, 1998)
Lohengrin: Peter Seiffert
Elsa von Brabant Emmy Magee
Friedrich von Telramund: Falk Struckmann
Ortrud: Deborah Polaski
Heinrich: Rene Pape
This is one of only two Lohengrins that opens up the "standard" cut in "In Fernem Land," including the second half of the aria, which was cut by conductor Franz Liszt at the opera's premiere for fear that the singer could not cope with the high range of the part and the extra exposition. This is part of Daniel Barenboim's survey of the ten "mature" Wagner operas for Teldec (now Warner Brothers Classics) and features his signature conducting style.

The cast features Emmy Magee as Elsa (a role she is currently singing in the Chicago production), Peter Schreier as a rich-toned Lohengrin. Falk Struckmann and Deborah Polaski are in fine snarling form as Friedrich von Telramund and his scheming wife, Ortrud. Full review here.

WDR Symphonie-Orchester Köln cond. Semyon Bychkov (Profil-G. Haenssler, 2009)
Lohengrin: Johan Botha
Elsa von Brabant: Adrienne Pieczonka
Friedrich von Telramund: Falk Struckmann
Ortrud: Petra Lang
Heinrich: Kwangchal Youn
This was a welcome surprise, made in Cologne over several concert performances. Johan Botha is at his best as Lohengrin--he is effective in the concert setting and sings with solid tone and understanding of the character beyond being a knight in shining armor. Adrienne Pieczonka is a suitable, dreamy Elsa.

Falk Struckmann is a stentorian Telramund, especially in Act I. However, his scene with Ortrud (Petra Lang) is chilling. Semyon Bychkov's orchestra features exceptionally warm brass playing, recorded at high, but not overwhelming dynamic levels. The chorus kicks ass. A compelling modern alternative, and the first Lohengrin to be released in SACD.

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