Not your 1st set, but could be your 2nd
Laon | moon-lit Surry Hills | 11/17/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This should not be the first _Lohengrin_ you buy. It's pretty good, but there are _great_ performances available: Kempe, with Jess Thomas in the title role, Solti with Domingo, and (I'm told) Abbado with Jerusalem. It's best to get to know the work through a performance that brings out its mix of the political and military with the personal, with the spiritual shimmering in the background as both promise and threat, and its mix of increasingly modern structure and harmonies with old-fashioned Good Tunes thrown out in astonishing profusion. The Kempe, Solti and (apparently) the Abbado make the most of these things; the Barenboim does not. However, this is a serious contender for your second _Lohengrin_ set. This set is special, not because of the performance but because it is one of only two genuinely complete recordings of this opera. The other truly complete set is the older Erich Leinsdorf set, with the superb (if underfamed) Sandor Kolya as the eponymous hero.Just before the first performance of _Lohengrin_, Wagner wrote to his friend, advocate and conductor, Franz Liszt, to suggest cutting the second part of Lohengrin's Grail Narration ("In fernem Land"). Wagner was influenced by doubts about his tenor, and fears that the full version of the Narration, in an inadequate performance, would not make its musical mark, also holding up the drama just as it was reaching its climax. Since then the cut has been observed in almost all performances, and all recordings except these two. But Wagner's uncharacteristic lack of confidence in his Narration was a mistake. With the cut restored, you gain wonderful music, a longer stay in the mysterious silvery-blue harmonies of the Grail. As you'd expect with Wagner the second part of the Narration is not a musical repeat of the first; it strikes out anew to provide a satisfying balance and conclusion. The longer version is also more effective dramatically. The tragic irony is more intense if the characters on-stage -- and the audience in the theatre -- have more time to absorb the marvel of Lohengrin and the Grail, before confronting the sad reality that they have lost these marvels forever.Barenboim and Leinsdorf rightly restored this cut, demonstrating that complete performances ought to be the norm. Wagner no longer needs to be unsure of his audience, and -- don't believe what people say -- there's no shortage of good Wagner tenors.Once I'd decided that I wanted a set with the Narrative uncut, I listened to the two competing complete sets on headphones. It was a pleasant couple of hours because although these aren't the very best _Lohengrin_ sets, they are both fine recordings. I expected to prefer the Baremboim, with its better-known cast, his greater current reputation as a Wagnerian conductor, and modern sound. Barenboim's Peter Seiffert does give a good performance of the title role, though unfortunately for him he's up against the greatest of all recorded Lohengrins, Sandor Kolya, in the Leinsdorf. Seiffert's slightly breathy voice, though attractive, is certainly second best. However his is an honest portrayal, bringing humanity to both Lohengrin's public pronouncements and to his intimate scenes with Elsa. Emily Magee's is a beautiful Elsa, more so than Leinsdorf's Lucine Amara. But Amara has a smaller voice, and is closer to the part. Still, Magee sounds lovely enough, and brings out the way Elsa is not afraid until her "rescuer" arrives; but from then on she is very afraid. As an aside, if Domingo can make the journey from Italian opera to Wagner (and Wagner, who loved bel canto voices, would certainly have approved of Domingo) it's time more Puccini sopranos moved over to take Wagner parts, Elsa for one, also Eva, Freia and Gutrune. As the "villain", Deborah Polaski is far superior to Leinsdorf's Rita Gorr. Polaski's Ortrud is both well acted and well sung, and her invocation to the old gods (a Bellini moment if ever there was one, speaking of bel canto) will lift the hair off your head, without curling the ends. I tend to be sympathetic to Ortrud's point of view in this opera -- she is a member of an old religion at a time when a new and bloodier religion is finishing the job of slaughtering her remaining co-religionists, and she is fighting for survival. Wagner considered that Ortrud represented conservative forces, with Lohengrin as symbol of the new, so I couldn't argue that Wagner was secretly on her side. But his presentation of the mundane Christian world of kings and soldiers is rather more ironical and layered than is often acknowledged. And Ortrud "gets the best tunes", with far more interesting music than Elsa. Falk Struckmann is in good voice as the stupid, weak von Telramund, a study for _Götterdämmerung_'s Gunther. He's in danger of sounding too heroic for the part, though not too intelligent. Barenboim fields better "villains" than Leinsdorf. The smaller parts are much of a muchness. Barenboim is a more thoughtful musician than Leinsdorf, studying and pondering the score, delivering a well-paced performance. Leinsdorf offers stronger forward propulsion, while Barenboim finds more details, and makes more of some of the Big Tunes Wagner almost throws away in this opera. This care has its downside; Barenboim's Prelude to Act III, for example, doesn't have anything like Leinsdorf's brash jubilation. I'm biased towards faster Wagner conducting than is currently fashionable (though in practice many of my favourite Wagner conductors are notoriously slow), so I have a tendency to favour Leinsdorf's approach, but Barenboim's is also legitimate and satisfying.Sooo, after I'd tested these two truly complete sets, I bought the Leinsdorf. But it was a close thing, by no means an easy or quick decision. The Barenboim is a perfectly good set, with strong attractions. Cheers!Laon"
Barenboim is no Leinsdorf!
Ryan Kouroukis | Toronto, Ontario Canada | 06/06/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The only reason to get this recording mianly is for the restored full Grail narration in Act 3.
Barenboim brings alot of vitality and sympathy to the score and the singing is fine too, the quality of the sound is excellent, but the only problem for me is the choice for Elsa and Ortrud. They both have practically the same voice! You have to struggle with pain to figure who is who when they have all that dialogue in Act 2. Lohengrin also doesn't have the throatiness of the grail in his voice as Sandor Konya and Domingo have unfortunately...he could also be more emtionally expressive and involved. I also don't get a sense of the drama and dramatic throughline in this recording as much as in others such as Solti's, Kempe's or Leinsdorf's.
Now speaking of Leinsdorf...I will have to recommend Leinsdorf's recording from the 60's over Barenboim's recording due to the superior acting and quality of playing of the Boston orchestra. Leinsdorf is a much greater intepreter of Lohengrin and of Wagner in general, and the only other person to include the full grail narration in Act 3! Sandor Konya is really my ideal Lohengrin! I totally fell in love with Wagner's Lohengrin again and finally understood it musically and dramatically thanks to Leinsdorf and their whole cast and crew.
If your looking for a Great Lohengrin, get Leinsdorf's stupendously loving and energetic version or Solti's fantasticaly warm edition."