Leo Blech (1871-1958)
Alpenkönig und Menschenfeind (1903)
Two Military Marches, Op 23 (1915)
Ronan Collett (baritone) – Astragalus
Hrólfur Saemundsson (baritone) – Rappelkopf
Sonja Gornik (soprano) – Marthe
Aachen Opera Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Ward
rec. 2021, Aachen Eurogress, Germany
Text and translation included
CAPRICCIO C5478 [2 CDs: 125]
For many years, those of us who are interested in, or even just curious about, the large number of operatic works written in Germany by the compositional generation between the death of Wagner in 1882 and the première of Strauss’s Salome in 1905 have had to subsist on rather slim pickings. The general critical consensus has been that these would-be music dramas are pallid imitations of the Bayreuth master, written optimistically for the most heroic of operatic voices and scored with a degree of bumptious over-enthusiasm which fails to conceal their harmonic and contrapuntal poverty with its emphasis on persistent chromatic modulation at the expense of any firm melodic outline. The occasional appearances of operas by such composers as Humperdinck (apart from the ubiquitous Hänsel und Gretel), Pfitzner, Siegfried Wagner and their contemporaries, were not assisted by such recordings as were made available. These were often made in collaboration with provincial German opera house productions, designed not so much to exhibit the operas themselves as to provide nursery playgrounds for would-be novel directors of the latest eccentricities of Regietheater. These directors, being primarily concerned with dramatic rather than musical qualities of performance, tended to engage singers whose voices were decidedly too small for the weight of the material they had to carry, and emphasise their histrionic abilities to the detriment of their vocal ones. Matters were not helped by the fact that these voices were often boosted by the recording balance, which served only to reveal in greater detail the deficiencies in their basic technique. The orchestral contributions also frequently sounded under-rehearsed in music that demands severe attention to detail. Reference to such scores as are available (for example on ISMLP, that invaluable repository of out-of-print music) tended to reinforce suspicions that what we were hearing was less than half the full story; and such comparisons also revealed a persistent habit of subjecting the scores to a whole raft of cuts both major and minor, which made nonsense of any sense of the original proportions of the whole.
All of which is to express delight, not unmixed with amazement, at recent developments from several companies across the continent who now seem prepared to treat these scores with the respect that they need if any proper judgement is to be reached as to their worth. This means taking issues from concert performances, broadcasts or even studio recordings, and giving the scores in the most complete form available even at the expense of exposing potential longueurs. Casting may not be of the most stellar, but voices are chosen with a view of providing accurate and musical renditions of the parts which are given in a sensibly chosen acoustic without the dry lack of resonance that is associated with all too many live relays from opera houses. The works chosen for this favourable treatment often reveal all too clearly why they have failed to establish themselves in the general repertory, but they also often reveal many passages of outstanding quality and beauty which do not deserve consignment to total oblivion; and nobody can any longer complain that they have not been given a fair chance.
Leo Blech’s awkwardly titled opera Alpenkönig und Menschenfeind was quite a success on its first appearance, clocking up no fewer than thirteen productions in European opera houses during the year 1903-4. It then almost as quickly disappeared altogether; the composer revised and abridged the score for a production at the Royal Opera in Berlin (where he was music director) in 1917, and the score was then consigned to total neglect even before being banned by the Nazis because of Blech’s Jewish ancestry. He never seems to have made any further attempts to achieve performances, even when he returned to Germany from exile after the Second World War. The booklet note tells us that even the score was lost; the vocal parts were discovered in a publisher’s archive, and the manuscript score eventually surfaced from a private collection bequeathed to Prague State Opera. What we are not told is whether this newly discovered material consists of the original full-length score or its later 1917 abridgement; I suspect, because of the manner in which the music sometimes seems to move very abruptly from one scene to the next, that what we hear here may well be the later version.
Not that the plot, based on a play by Richard Batka, is anything worthy of generating outrage at its abridgement. The principal character is described in the English title as a misanthrope, but the German "Menschenfeind" (literally “enemy of mankind”) would seem more appropriate; he is hardly the type of a grumpy old man who natural curmudgeonliness might be regarded with sympathetic affection, rather a near-psychotic paranoiac who suspects his wife of trying to kill him on the flimsiest of pretexts, takes a violent dislike to his daughter’s betrothed for no apparent reason, and clearly has no intention of giving up his habit of beating his servant who lives in perpetual fear of his outbursts of temper. He is eventually persuaded to mend his ways by the persuasion of the supernatural Alpine spirit (who apart from one brief intervention does not appear until nearly half-way through the action), providing a sort of alter ego who enables him to see himself as others perceive him. The real problem is that the music he has been given before his conversion (a sort of cross between Alberich and Fafner, with a hint of Strauss’s Baron Ochs from Der Rosenkavalier thrown in) is of such violence and intemperateness that his repentance – which only comes in the final minutes of the score – seems quite unreasonably abrupt. Strauss might have made something of the material – he came close to an attempt to do so in his Die schweigsame Frau – but Blech’s music really fails to clinch the essential emotional consummation that the plot demands.
Elsewhere the music is more satisfactory as a reflection of the action, although the Wagnerian overtones continue to be strong – more so than, for example, in Humperdinck’s Königskinder or even Pfitzner’s Der Rose von Liebesgarten, let alone any of the operas of Siegfried Wagner. When the two young lovers first meet in Act One, they do so with all the fervour of Tristan and Isolde for their Liebesnacht, and the fact that their ecstatic meeting comes to a conclusion after less than ten minutes seems unnecessarily truncated. There are elements, too, of the Forest Murmurs from Siegfried and of Wotan in the appearances of the Alpine spirit; and the problems with these near-imitations lie in the fact that they fail to rise to anywhere near the emotional or dramatic level of their admittedly elevated Wagnerian models. This does not appear to be the fault of the performers themselves; the conductor Christopher Ward has made something of a crusade out of his espousal of Blech’s music, and he certainly give a performance of commitment and sympathy.
By comparison with the rest of the opera, however, Act Two is definitely something of a find. It begins rather unpromisingly with a domestic scene where a feckless carpenter and his family (not encountered elsewhere in the action) are bribed by the misanthrope Rappelkopf into abandoning their Alpine cottage so that he can enjoy the solitude of nature. In her booklet note Jutta Lambrecht compares the music here with Die Meistersinger, but I thought that the parallels with Humperdinck’s Hansel were far more noticeable, coming close to direct imitation in places. But once the carefree peasantry are evicted, the music sudden acquires a much greater depth as Rappelkopf, in the longest solo passage in the opera [CD 2, track 4], apostrophises the beauty of the landscape in a horn-drenched riot of orchestral colour; and the arrival of the Alpine King brings a dialogue of real dramatic force to bear on the situation, culminating in an oath sworn between the two which not only rivals but actually surpasses the obvious Wagnerian model in Götterdämmerung and produces a riveting orchestral peroration [CD 2, track 5]. After that the music subsides into dusk and night, with the Alpine King singing a gentle meditation over a distant chorus – the only point in the whole score where the chorus actually participates. This is music of great sublimity, and really shows what Blech could do with the right dramatic situation, far surpassing comparisons with Wagnerian imitation and looking forward to the atmosphere of Strauss in Daphne and Die Frau ohne Schatten.
The opera, with some of the same singers, has been revived by Christopher Ward at Aachen to celebrate the composer’s 150th birthday in October 2022; but one is grateful that this studio recording had already been made, guaranteeing accuracy and freedom from the hazards of live performance (although the Aachen stage production was apparently fairly basic and therefore presumably free from unwanted stage noise). Most of the singers are young and fresh-voiced, and although they are sometimes veiled by the more lumbering passages of orchestration, that is preferable to having raw and unsteady voices thrust into unwanted prominence by microphone placement. Both Ronan Collett and Hrólfur Saemundsson have the right Wotan-like delivery for their roles, although the distinctiveness of their voices perhaps militates against the possibility that Rappelkopf’s downtrodden family could fail for any length of time to distinguish between them when they swap identities in the final Act. The two young male lovers, portrayed by Tilmann Unger and Hyunhan Hwang, use their different timbres to good effect; and their would-be fiancées are winsomely and charmingly assumed by Sonja Gornik and Anne-Aurore Cochet. The carpenter’s family are well taken by the characterful Pawel Lawrenszuk, Fanny Lustaud and Anna Graf who make the most of their light-hearted skipping couplets and bouncing operetta-like rhythms. Irina Popova is suitably downtrodden as the long-suffering wife, and the chorus make the most of their brief contribution including some nicely balanced and integrated solo singing from Kim Savelsbergh and Aisha Tümmler.
It seems at first sight odd to conclude the second disc with two military marches written by Blech at the height of the First World War; but in fact, following on from the rather over-speedy resolution of the action at the end of the opera, their light-music facility and enjoyment provides a pleasant if unexpected sort of encore. These are not quite the bombastic marches that one might expect, tending more to the jollity of Coates or even Elgar in his less inflated Pomp and Circumstance mode; and there are some original touches, such as the delicate contrapuntal employment of the main march theme in the second march as an accompaniment in its trio section.
In the past I have had cause to complain about the niggardly policy of Capriccio, especially in their reissues of rare historical material, in failing to provide adequate documentation – especially texts and translations – that are so essential if these neglected works are to receive a fair hearing from a new generation of listeners. Not so here. We are given a brief but adequate summary of the opera’s history, full artist biographies, track listing and complete German text along with English translations. The latter are slightly fallible – I was delighted to be informed that “dush descends gently on the mountains and vales” – but accurately reflect the sometimes fractured original with its occasionally painful period diction. All of this is contained in a hundred-page booklet, contained with a gatefold sleeve in a slimline box – everything that we need, in fact.
We might find a staged production of Alpenkönig und Menschenfeind, with its somewhat tolerant attitude towards domestic abuse, hard to tolerate nowadays; but the music, most especially in Act Two, goes a long way to make up for the less palatable elements of the plot and some tactful rewording of the text might make the whole salvageable for modern audiences. At all events we should be very grateful to everyone concerned with this issue for making the work once more available.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Irina Popova (mezzo-soprano) – Sabine
Tilmann Unger (tenor) – Hans
Anne-Aurore Cochet (soprano) – Lieschen
Hyunhan Hwang (tenor) – Habbakuk
Pawel Lawrenszuk (bass) – Veit
Fanny Lustaud (mezzo-soprano) – Katharina
Anna Graf (soprano) - Susel
Published: November 29, 2022