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CD Review: Wartime Wagner, Post-war Weber, Weimar Weill and the Inimitable Richard Strauss

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 16 January 2001 - A batch of recordings from Music & Arts featuring a 1942 Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth, Berlin tapes of long extracts from Parsifal and Meistersinger, and Furtwängler's 1954 Salzburg Freischütz evoke a number of questions. While the Parsifal and Meistersinger are new to CD, neither is of such musical quality or interest - a point made in the accompanying texts - that we should feel compelled to listen. Yes, Knappertsbusch conducts a concert performance of the third act of Parsifal, but he did it so much better in the famous Bayreuth performances of the 1950s and 1960s. We do have Ludwig Weber in his prime in the role of Gurnemanz, and the tempi are livelier than was later the case, but does that justify such a reissue, particularly with a nondescript tenor in the title role?

That is even more the case with the Meistersinger, where we have the second act complete, with an unpleasant sounding Eva (Thea Kempff), a boring Walter (Henk Noort) and an interesting Sachs (Georg Hann), all conducted with extraordinary rapidity by Artur Rother that leaves no room for subtlety. Better are the three excerpts from Act 3 that conclude the disc from a different performance with Ludwig Suthaus demonstrating that he knows the meaning of the words to the Prize Song, Jaro Prohaska defending the Meistersinger, and Maria Müller displaying her femininity with a lovely trill. Robert Heger is marginally better than Rother. The sound on both these discs is quite good, with voices closely miked in what were evidently concert performances.

Far more interesting is the Bayreuth Götterdämmerung, also available on Preiser. Karl Elmendorff conducts with the benefit of long experience, while the cast is in amazingly fresh voice. Not even the awful sound of a radio broadcast, with all sorts of subsidiary noise, can detract from the energetic Bünnhilde of Marta Fuchs, showing the advantage of a thoroughly solid grounding as a mezzo before making a successful transition to the soprano repertoire. Set Svanholm's youth is an evident advantage as well, for he has the stamina for the role of Siegfried and sounds far fresher than in his post-war recordings. Friedrich Dalberg's black voice suits the role of Hagen while Camilla Kallab's Waltraute shows that even a single scene will suffice for an intelligent singer to make a deep impression. What is remarkable is the quality of the performance, far more flowing than what we often hear today, and that is where lessons could be learned by aspiring conductors. What I find truly amazing is that instead of breaking naturally at the end of Acts 1 and 2, Music & Arts starts the next act which must then be broken off after ten minutes to change discs. I fail to detect any progress in such an approach.

Even more puzzling is why Music & Arts has issued the 1954 Freischütz from Salzburg with Furtwängler conducting, as it is available for considerably less investment from Gala, while EMI has also just reissued the same performance in its mid-price historic performances series. This is not to deny that the performance is remarkable, with definitive portrayals from Elisabeth Grümmer and Rita Streich. Hans Hopf is far better than his reputation would have one believe, while Kurt Böhme's Caspar is on his best vocal behavior. A model performance, but one that has long been available elsewhere and for less money.

Kurt Weill's Bürgschaft was written in the early 1930s but long lay neglected for a great many reasons, one of which could be the absence of Lenya material that might have rescued it from oblivion. This is Weill treating opera as a means of social commentary, and the music has sufficient tang to appeal to the composer's fans. The election of Hitler effectively terminated performances of Weill's works in Germany. An early post-War revival in Berlin did little to bring the piece back to the repertoire, while a 1998 performance in Bielefeld attracted the attention of the directors of the Spoleto Festival USA, which is to be commended for its enterprise not only in performing but also recording the opera, for this is not a work deserving of such neglect. Julius Rudel and the Festival Orchestra, along with the hard-working Westminster Choir, support Frederick Burchinal and Dale Travis as the two fathers who have the major roles. One might quibble a bit over the American accents in the German text, but that is a minor flaw in the face of the accomplishment. The three conspirators are the other major character (they function as a unit), while we unfortunately hear too little of Ann Panagulias as the wayward daughter Luise. Die Bürgschaft is the missing link between the Weill of Dreigröschenoper and Mahoganny on the one hand and Street Scene on the other.

Richard Strauss composed Friedenstag in 1936 as a companion one-acter to Daphne, a double-bill rarely attempted, not even at the world premiere of either work. Once again, Strauss has obliged us with a demanding soprano role that few have undertaken. Recordings have been limited to the Vienna premiere in the 1940s with the original lead singers and a New York concert performance with Ms Marc in resplendent voice. The recording under review was taken at a concert performance in 1988 and has been available on the secondary circuit although it was only issued commercially last year by EMI. Wolfgang Sawallisch makes an excellent case for this neglected opus, certainly not one of Strauss's strongest works but one with enough near-great moments to make the occasional revival worthwhile. The late Sabine Hass (to whom the recording is dedicated) demonstrates that the vocal requirements of the role of Maria combine elements of the Kaiserin and the Färberin, roles she also sang. Bernd Weikl is his customary stolid self, but his confrontation with the opposing Commander, Kurt Moll, is hair-raising, with Strauss letting us down with an empty final jubilatory chorus.

Renée Fleming, aka The Beautiful Voice, is the star of "Strauss Heroines", but is sufficiently generous to share her spotlight with Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney for excerpts from Rosenkavalier and Arabella. We are treated not only to beautiful singing but meaningful performances, helped by the fact that the three women have sung the opera onstage together. Unfortunately, Christoph Eschenbach occasionally wallows in the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra which tends to accentuate the treacly element rather than keeping it in tow, but this is a recording to please Fleming addicts as well as those who appreciate Richard Strauss. And a pleasing tribute to the late Walter Berry who sings the few lines of the Majordomo and Faninal.

Strauss: Friedenstag

Strauss: Friedenstag
Sabine Hass, Bernd Weikl, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Kurt Moll, Robert Schunk
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera
Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56850 2 5 - texts and translations in English, French and German

Strauss Heroines

Strauss Heroines : Excerpts from Rosenkavalier, Arabella and Capriccio
Renée Fleming, Barbara Bonney, Susan Graham, Walter Berry
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Decca 466 314-2 - texts and translations in English, French and German

Wagner: Götterdämmerung

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Marta Fuchs, Else Fischer, Cammilla Kallab, Set Svanholm, Egmont Koch, Friedrich Dalbeg
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra
Karl Elmendorff, conductor
Music & Arts CD 1058 - 4 CDs - notes in English only

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Act 2 (complete), Act 3 (excerpts)ª
Thea Kempff/Maria Müllerª, Henk Noort/Ludwig Suthausª, Georg Hann/Jaro Prohaskaª
Grosses Berliner Rundfunkorchester and Chor des Deutschen Opernhauses Berlin/Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin & Staatskapelle Berlinª
Artur Rother/Robert Hegerª, conductors
Music & Arts 1068 - notes in English only

Wagner Parsifal

Wagner: Parsifal (Act 3)
Elsa Larcén, Karl Hartmann, Ludwig Weber
Chor & Orchester des Deutschen Opernhauses Berlin
Hans Knappertsbusch, conductor
Music & Arts 1067 - notes in English only

Weber: Der Freischütz

Weber: Der Freischütz
Elisabeth Grümmer, Rita Streich, Hans Hopf, Kurt Böhme, Karl Dönch, Alfred Poell, Oskar Czerwenka, Otto Edelmann
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor
Music & Arts 1064 - 2 CDs ) - notes in English only

Weill: Die Bürgschaft

Weill: Die Bürgschaft
Margaret Thompson, Ann Panagulias, Katherine Ciesinski, Frederick Burchinal, Dale Travis, Joel Sorensen, Peter Lurié, Lawrence Craig, Herbvert Perry, Enrico Di Giuseppe, Mark Duffin, John Daniecki
Westminster Choir, Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra
Julius Rudel, conductor
EMI 7243 5 56976 2 2 - 2 CDs - texts and translations in English, French and German

Joel Kasow writes on opera in Europe and is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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