19 Sep 2007
WAGNER : Lohengrin
What’s outstanding about this Lohengrin is the orchestral playing.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Among the recent recordings of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Valery Gergiev’s release on the LSO Live label is an excellent addition to the discography of this work.
While not unknown, the songs of Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) deserve to be heard more frequently.
Recorded on 5 and 6 May 2008 and 17 and 18 January 2009 at the Lisztzentrum (Raiding, Austria), this recent Bridge release makes available the piano-vocal versions of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder performed by mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselböck, accompanied by Russell Ryan.
Contraltos rarely achieve the acclaim and renown of sopranos. Assigned few leading roles in opera, they are condemned to playing the villain or the grandmother, or to stealing the castrati’s trousers in en travesti roles.
Following their 2011 Decca recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (1566), I Fagiolini continue their quest to unearth lost treasures of the High Renaissance and early Baroque, with this collection of world-premiere recordings, ‘reconstructions’ and ‘reconstitutions’ of music by Giovanni and Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Palestrina, and their less well-known compatriots Viadana, Barbarino and Soriano.
Eternal Echoes is an album of khazones [Jewish cantorial music] for cantorial soloist, solo violin and a blended instrumental ensemble comprising a small orchestra and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony is an outstanding contribution to the composer’s discography.
Oliver Knussen burst into British music with an unprecedented flourish. In 1967, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered Knussen’s First Symphony, with István Kertész scheduled to conduct.
Based on performances given in Summer 2010 at the Lucerne Festival, this recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio is an admirable recording that captures the vitality of the work as conducted by Claudio Abbado.
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) was one of the most popular composers of his day in Poland, and of the many works he wrote for the stage, two are performed from time to time, Halka (1848) and Strazny dwór [The Haunted Manor] (1865).
The Polish alto Jadwiga Rappé is a familiar voice in various stage and concert works, and the recent release of a selection of songs by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) is an opportunity to hear her performing artsongs.
Originally released on multiple discs in 1981 this reissue on two CDs is a comprehensive collection of art songs by Italian and French composers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
An exciting contribution to the discography of this popular opera, the live performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome from the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden is a compelling DVD.
Released in late 2011, Deutsche Grammophon’s DVD of the new staging of Berg’s Lulu at the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona is an excellent contribution to the discography of this fascinating opera.
A recent release by the Metropolitan Opera, this two-disc set makes available on DVD the famous performance of Berg’s Lulu that was broadcast on 20 December 1980 as part of the PBS series “Live from the Met.”
The novels of Sinclair Lewis once shot across the American literary skies like comets, alarming and fascinating readers of that era, but their tails didn’t extend far behind them.
Once the province of only the most dedicated opera fanatics, mid-20th century recordings of privately taped live performances have become more widely available.
Flute players in opera orchestra around the world must look forward to the frequent appearances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, knowing that while the stage spotlight in the mad scene will be on the soprano, the orchestral spotlight will be on their instrument.
What’s outstanding about this Lohengrin is the orchestral playing.
It’s so lustrous that it seems to shimmer, hovering as if suspended in some magical atmosphere. Nagano’s conducting evokes such luminous mystery that literal staging would be intrusive.
Fortunately, with Nicholas Lenhoff as director, we are spared the barbarity of kitsch scenery. We all know this is medieval Brabant, but there’s a lot more to the fundamental drama than that. Lohengrin hasn’t come all the way from Montsalvat just to meet Elsa. Fundamental to this drama is the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. The vaguely Cold War imagery evokes the sense of Brabant as a tense, militarized state which might at any moment be annihilated. This alludes to instability and murderous power struggles which created the situation the country is faced with. This court at Brabant “is” a court in the legal sense, where judgement is being made. It’s a political show trial, for Elsa is being framed for a crime she did not commit. An edge of fear and anxiety polarizes this court : tapestries and fripperies would distract. This production, with its clean, uncluttered lines, pares away non essentials, so the music itself is thrown into stark focus, without distraction. It’s the music, and Nagano’s conducting style, that above all defines this performance.
The Prelude seems to rise out of nothingness, creating a translucence which evokes images to come, when Lohengrin, the shining knight, enters is a blinding blaze of light. Nagano’s precision keeps the orchestral textures clean, so the strings really seem to shimmer and the brass to glow. The playing is exquisite, details tellingly focussed, yet there’s real resonance in the strings and winds. It’s important that Nagano manages to bring out this underlying romance and mystery, because it reminds us what’s at stake – Brabant is a symbol of past and future glory, a place where human values can still flourish even though the present is threatened. This level of playing continues throughout, almost competing for prominence with the vocal parts, for motivs like the “Swan” music were so vividly achieved. Indeed, at times I was listening to the orchestration rather than the singing, longingly waiting for the next interlude. But the music is well integrated into the action. The brass in theVorspiel, for example, are bright and animated, seamlessly leading, at the head of the procession, into the Wedding march. The Morgenröte is particularly entrancing, Nagano getting his musicians to paint in sound a wonderful panorama, depicting the scene aglow with sunrise, trumpets shining, flags unfurled, yet never overwhelming with temporal imagery the fundamentally cosmic nature of the drama.
Solvieg Kringelborn is a charming actress, so despite a constrained vocal range, she’s convincing and full of character. This Elsa, human as she is, has no chance of standing up to Ortud’s machinations, especially an Ortrud as complex and powerful as Waltraud Meier. Meier has inhabited this role so long that she’s able to adapt her nuances to suit the spirit of the production. Here she’s surprisingly glamorous, her wildness contrasting seductively with the stiff formality of Brabant. This may not be her finest performance technically, but her experience only adds to the sense of authority she brings to her characterization. No wonder Telramund, no innocent ingénue, is entranced. Tom Fox has thought his role through, for his Telramund is sympathetic, a good man gone astray, seduced, literally, by the “other” world Ortrud represents. The Telramund/Ortrud relationship is in many ways a counterbalance to the Elsa/Lohengrin relationship, so the humanity Fox brings enhances the levels of meaning. For all the honours bestowed n him, Roman Trekel’s Herald is disappointingly one dimensional.
The moment Lohengrin enters is a devastating piece of theatre. The flash of light which announces him is so blinding that it takes some moments for the eye to adjust. How Wagner would have loved that, had he modern technology. At first Klaus Florian Vogt’s portrayal seemed too solid, particularly against the diaphanous, transparent textures in the orchestration. Yet this, too, added to the realisation. Dressed in an improbably shiny suit, he looks like a creature unused to wearing “normal” clothes. His natural habitat is another, more spiritual plane of existence. Much is made of the swan imagery in his music. At times he even looks like a swan turned into a man. Hence, perhaps the gravity of this portrayal, for swans, though graceful, are immensely strong. It’s also an interpretation that relates to the Old Gods Ortrud serves, who are animist, and carnal, forces of nature. At the end, Ortrud, in defeat, appears in a dress made of feathers. This characterisation of Lohengrin, brings out his essential alien quality. He’s so engrossed at the piano he doesn’t notice his bride approach. Elsa can’t fathom his strange emotional makeup, and is so unsettled that she asks the fatal question. Despite his muscular appearance, Vogt’s voice is pure toned and lucid, his In fernem Land, soaring and floating with the orchestra, evoking the vision of a spiritual existence beyond the ken of the physical world.
Most DVDs come these days with a bonus film, most of them afterthoughts put together as an alternative to a booklet. The bonus with this release, however, is actually useful. Each character talks about their interpretation, as do Nagano and Lenhoff. Nagano was and remains a specialist in 20th century music, which is perhaps why his style emphasises the more esoteric, sophisticated aspects of Wagner’s music. This production is so good because it recognises what Nagano is doing. Lenhoff says, in a moment of great insight, that the Prelude is “the first monochromatic music ever written….the best Philip Glass, you know”. This is a very different Lohengrin, but most intriguing.
Anne Ozorio © 2007