Just as the drying-up of studio recordings (never plentiful) of Wagner’s ‘romantic opera’ seemed to threaten the work with ill-earned rare status, a steady trickle of often historic live performances – Frankfurt/de Billy, Vienna/Böhm, Munich/Knappertsbusch – have come swan-like to the rescue.
The latest of these is the present issue, intended to be led by Andris Nelsons as a sequel to his lauded Holländer from the same address. It actually found in Mark Elder a chief for whom the word ‘substitute’ would be an insult. British audiences will recall both a completely realised reading of Lohengrin as his first guest return to ENO in the early 1990s and a stream of excellently prepared and articulated large-scale choral works from his Hallé Orchestra. This Wagner shares with the recent Gerontius broadcast a rare ability, almost Furtwängler-like, to stand the music still (without losing momentum) for better display in the grandest passages – try especially the choral interventions of Act 2. This conductor manages well the tricky balancing of stately operatic grandeur and musically dramatic momentum in this work.
So the biggest hurrahs go to Elder, the choruses (try the Act 1 women in those beautiful and novel cocktail splashes of colour that fire up Elsa’s plea to her silent rescuer) and the orchestra in its own home. Add Nylund’s vocally fearless heroine, well portraying Wagner’s heightened Weber style and hurling forwards the victory celebrations of Act 1 in a way not all her colleagues dare, Youn’s imposing Herald and Struckmann’s textually so clear and more baritonal-sounding than usual King, and that’s nearly enough. And yet – and I don’t know whether this is something to do with the ‘semi-staging’ that illustrated this supposed concert or the unblinking clarity of the Concertgebouw acoustic – not all the voices as recorded here quite live up to their reputations.
Lohengrin has almost inevitably become a ‘Paraderolle’ for the angelic yet penetrating tones of Klaus Florian Vogt, here in (no less than) his fourth complete recording of the part. Perhaps comparative listening to the bigger voices of Hans Hopf (for Knappertsbusch) or Jess Thomas (for Böhm) made me dream of more heroic Lohengrins (Melchior!) but for once I wanted more simple ‘welly’ from our hero when confronting Telramund and Ortrud. And those two – for all their obvious commitment – disappoint. Neither paces the essentially recitative nature of much of their roles well: compare, cruelly, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry (with Böhm) where the silences really bleed in the great Act 2 duet. Nikitin in his brutality seems often just under the note; Dalayman sounds less focused than normal and is insufficiently terrorising in her final ‘Fahr’heim’ (compare the shattering live Furtwängler excerpts from 1936).
Despite these reservations, this performance – and its recorded sound – is a valuable and mostly compelling document.