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 Recording of the Week  Wagner Lohengrin - BBC Awards

This year’s BBC Music Magazine Awards were announced last week and the big winner was a recording of Wagner’s Lohengrin, performed by the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. It won the Opera Awards and the coveted Disc of the Year. Other winners receiving Awards included Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya for her radical interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Orchestral Award), the British Elias String Quartet (Newcomers of the Year) and the Jerusalem Quartet, winning the Chamber Award for the second time for their disc of Haydn Quartets. Antonio Pappano won the Choral Award for his masterful reading of Verdi’s Requiem with the National Academy of St Cecilia, Rome, featuring Rolando Villazón among the soloists. Distinguished pianist Murray Perahia won the Instrumental Award for his Beethoven Piano Sonata disc and Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn the Vocal Award with her fabulous disc of Tchaikovsky Songs with pianist Julius Drake. You can view full details of all the winners here.

Semyon Bychkov
Semyon Bychkov

But today I’d like to tell you a bit more about the Wagner and Semyon Bychkov. Studio opera recordings are these days a bit of a rarity, and it has been over ten years since the last studio recording of Lohengrin, but after performances in Spain and at the Vienna State Opera, Bychkov felt he had assembled the nucleus of a truly memorable cast for the project and with his own orchestra in Cologne and the support of Günther Hänssler (and his label Profil) it soon became a reality.

The cast is superb and it is hard to spot a weak link. I must admit I worried a bit when I saw Johan Botha cast as Lohengrin as I have never been that impressed when I have seen him on stage or heard him before, but here he really sings out of his skin – he shows he can be sensitive and lyrical or dramatic and powerful as his part demands. Whether Bychkov should take the credit for Botha’s achievement I don’t know but either way there aren’t many better Lohengrins than this on disc. Elsewhere Adrianne Pieczonka's Elsa is similarly impressive, while Petra Lang makes a fearful Ortrud. The Cologne Radio Orchestra and its Chorus (which has a big part in this opera) are superb but the overall power and sweep of the performance comes from Bychkov’s inspired reading of the score.

I think some listeners find it puzzling in Wagner that even the vilest characters get some of the noblest music. It is true that earlier composers would typically have given a character like the scheming evil Ortrud only music to portray her as a one-dimensional anti-heroine. Wagner, however seeks a much more complicated characterisation than this. He wants us to understand Ortrud’s inner feelings, that she is not pure evil, but actually longs to find love, and it is only from being deprived of this that she turns into this evil monster. By giving the nasty characters enchanting music we’re drawn into them in a much more emotional and empathetic way than we would otherwise, and it is this which I think makes Wagner’s operas so all-consuming.

It is a really stunning performance of an exquisite score, superbly captured with a lush and rich sound both in SACD and normal stereo. If you’re not familiar with the work (or Wagner operas in general) this is an excellent place to start. You’ll need to make an investment not just financially, but in time, to really get the true reward from it. It is three and a half hours long and you’ll probably want to follow it through with the libretto (included) at least the first time through. I’ve given you two samples to whet your appetite – firstly the Act 1 Finale, and then an extract from the Elsa and Ortrud Act 2 duet (don’t miss the fabulous string sound – it really is to die for). Enjoy!

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Wagner: Lohengrin

Kwangchul Youn, Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka, Falk Struckmann, Petra Lang & Eike Wilm Schulte, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor & Prager Kammerchor, Semyon Bychkov

Available Formats: 3 SACDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC