Friday, 2 November 2012

Two CD reviews: Schreker, Der Schmied von Gent, and Lohengrin

These reviews originally appeared (in slightly edited form) in the October and November 2012 issues of OPERA:

Franz Schreker, Der Schmied von Gent

Judith Kuhn: Arstate, Angel; Anna Erxleben: Mary; Christiane Knappe: Squire; Undine Dreißig: Smee’s Wife; André Riemer: Flipke; Edward Randall: Slimbroek; Viktor Sawaley: Second Noble, Henker Jakob Hessels; David Sitka: Angel; Matthias Winter: St Joseph; Oliver Zwarg: Smee; Martin Gäbler: First Noble, Duke of Alba; Thomas Mäthger: Third Noble; Kouta Räsänen: St Peter. Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Chemnitz Opera/Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Frank Beermann (conductor). CPO 777 647-2, 2 CDs, 127:55. Recorded at the Chemnitz Opera House, 28-30 January and 1-2 February 2010.  
CPO heralds the first complete recording of Schreker’s 1929-32 three-act opera, Der Schmied von Gent. Smee, a Ghentish smith, falls upon hard times on account of his resistance to Spanish occupation, makes a pact with the Devil and is restored to prosperity. When his seven years are up, he manages the fruits of good works to evade his fate and is thereby, despite St Peter’s initial adamant refusal, admitted to Heaven.

The imposing opening bars, an audible curtain raiser poised somewhere between Neue Sachlichkeit and Hollywood, mark a call to attention. Closed, sometimes neo-Baroque, forms tend to be the rule: more Hindemith than Strauss. Many of the thirty-four scenes have their own generating formal principle, for example a haunting downward scale at the opening of the third act. Alto saxophone weaves its obbligato way on a number of occasions, suggestive of its time, if less strikingly so than, say, in Berg. One may, if one will, play guess the influence. There are, unsurprisingly, Meistersinger-ish echoes in counterpoint and folksiness. Hindemith’s Cardillac seems an obvious precursor. Busoni comes to mind – the sale of Smee’s soul inevitably suggesting Doktor Faust – but he often does in music of this period; much may be correspondence rather than influence.

The subtitle ‘grosse Zauberoper’ courts comparison with The Magic Flute and Die Frau ohne Schatten, kinship most obvious in scenes such as that when Smee meets the Holy Family. There is no gainsaying the compositional craft, whether in terms of orchestration, counterpart, or convincing harmonic progression.  That said, Schreker’s score expresses general situation better than character, for whatever the gentle melancholy of his second-act soliloquy, ‘Schöne Bäum’ draußen am Kai,’ Smee is no Hans Sachs. Yet if not necessarily operatic gold, nor is this corn.

Vocal performances tend to competence rather than inspiration, Oliver Zwarg’s Smee an intelligent, finely-sung cut above the generality. Frank Beermann conducts with formal clarity, though one could imagine a more propulsive account.

Janine Ortiz contributes a thorough, informative booklet note, though the translation is often Google-like. ‘If one considers the note reserves, then it is striking that they involve an eleven-note theme,’ means nothing unless one is in a position to read the original. The libretto would have benefited from better proof-reading: some words appear to be missing completely, for example during the second and twelfth scenes, whereas what I assume to be performance cuts go unacknowledged in the written text.

My appetite was certainly whetted to see the opera in the theatre. Herewith a glimmer of an artist-opera Konzept: portray Smee’s intial destitution in the light of the Great Depression, the Spanish occupying forces in SA uniforms, the diabolical pact as collaboration, and Heaven as a form of inner emigration.


Wagner, Lohengrin

Elsa: Annette Dasch; Four Pages: Christine Bischoff, Isabelle Voßkühler, Judith Löser, Bettina Pieck; Ortrud: Susanne Resmark; Lohengrin: Klaus Florian Vogt; Four Brabantian Nobles: Robert Franke, Holger Marks, Sascha Glintenkamp, Thomas Pfützner; Friedrich von Telramund: Gerd Grochowski; Herald: Markus Brück; King Henry the Fowler: Günther Groissböck. Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marek Janowski (conductor). Pentatone, 3 SACD, PTC 5186 403, 200:34. Live recording of a concert performance from the Berlin Philharmonie, 12 November 2011.

Lohengrin, the fourth instalment in Marek Janowski’s Wagner series, arrives in a finely detailed recording. A principal glory of this performance is the precision of its chorus: one really hears Wagner’s contrapuntal ingenuity here and in the orchestra, which sounds less monolithic than is often the case. Janowski highlights shifting instrumental timbres as well as harmony to signal presentiments, for instance during the second act’s first scene, of Alberich’s world and plight. Rhythmic exactitude, such as during the build up to first-act combat, also proves a victor. Details of high-lying violin figuration emerge more clearly than I can recall, fascinating from an analytical standpoint, though such hyper-clarity arguably militates against Wagner’s intention, as in those performances of Strauss’s Don Juan in which technical virtuosity tarnishes the wash of sound. The general sonority of the Berlin RSO veers oddly, without obvious reason, between old-German depth, if not quite to the extent one hears from Barenboim’s Staatskapelle, and a lighter, Mendelssohnian approach.

This set’s other principal attraction is the unearthly Lohengrin of Klaus Florian Vogt; the role might have been written for him, possessed of a Heldentenor’s tonal weight but the lyrical beauty of a Tamino. Vogt’s admirers – there are a few nay-sayers – will require this recording for that reason alone. Alas, much other singing pales by comparison, both with Vogt and with artists of the past. Annette Dasch’s Elsa and Gerd Grochowski’s Telramund are at best distinguished by Lieder-like attention to detail, but both can tend to dryness and fail to soar. Susanne Resmark’s Ortrud is often squally and imprecise of intonation and diction.

Oddly, however, the ‘live recording’ evinces little sense of the concert hall, let alone the theatre, drawing attention to the ideological intent of the series, born of Janowski’s dissatisfaction with contemporary Regietheater. A reactionary imperative to rescue Wagner from his and our troublesome politics is betrayed by remarks from the orchestra’s dramaturge, Steffen Georgi: ‘from today’s perspective, Wagner the theatre-reformist pales into near-insignificance ... a very minor revolutionary.’ I can only suggest that he, Janowski, and the speaker of the Bundestag, who offers a printed endorsement, take another look not only at Wagner’s writings, but at the dramas themselves. Whereas the printed libretto has Lohengrin herald Gottfried as ‘Führer’, Janowski opts for the evasive ‘Schützer’. There remains a dialectical irony, however, in that the case of a Wagner recording as CD rather than DVD helps one focus not only upon Wagner’s music but upon his words. Whatever the intention, my experience was thereby to hear as strong a warning as I had seen in Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth staging against the perils of popular attraction to charismatic leadership. Vogt, not coincidentally, starred in Bayreuth too. Politics will out.