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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Abu Hassan - Singspiel in One Act (1810-11) *
Symphony No. 1 in C major (1806-1810)
Narrator/Caliph – Wolfgang Völz *
Abu Hassan - Jörg Dürmüller, tenor *
Fatime – Johanna Stojkovic, soprano *
Omar – Franz-Josef Selig, bass *
Chor Werk Ruhr *
Cappella Coloniensis/Bruno Weil
Recorded in Köln, Funkhaus Wallrafplatz Studio 1, May 2002
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 05472 77979 [78’25]


Carl Maria von Weber’s Singspiel "Abu Hassan" is in need of a modern recording, and the well-known conductor Bruno Weil has come to the rescue. Past recordings have been infrequent and generally of thick textures that do not place the work in its best light. Now we have an esteemed conductor of baroque and classical era music offering a period instrument account with fine vocal singers and chorus, all under the umbrella of an historically informed approach.

It must be said that the plot of "Abu Hassan" is a silly one involving money-lenders, immature adults who spend their way into huge debt, and schemes of a most unethical nature. Of course, it is all in the name of fun and entertainment, so the lack of ethical behavior actually becomes a vehicle to enhance the comic properties of the libretto. "Abu Hassan" is very much in the opéra-comique tradition, and Weber noted its primary traits: "light-heartedness and playful wit, pleasantly created by a handful of pretty little situations".

Although the libretto is not realistic, it does correspond to financial troubles that Weber was having at the time. He was working for the Duke Ludwig Friedrich Alexander von Württemberg with major responsibilities including the handling of the Duke’s finances in addition to teaching music to the Duke’s children. As it happens, the Duke was having financial woes of his own, and his solution was to initiate an illegal system where exemptions from military service could be bought. Weber attached himself to this scheme and started siphoning money away from the Duke’s purse in order to pay off his debts. Eventually, the illegal activities were brought to light, and Weber even spent some time in jail. His ultimate penalty was banishment from Württemberg. Therefore, the "Abu Hassan" story likely had some personal meaning to Weber.

The plot revolves around Abu Hassan and his slave-wife Fatime who are spending money at an alarming rate and building up colossal debt. The couple, always under the protection of the Caliph, works up a scheme to get the debt reduced and even eliminated. Since Omar, the Caliph’s money-lender, has strong sexual desires for Fatime, she and Abu Hassan plot to use this desire to their advantage in a plan that even has both of them pretending death to achieve their goal. When all is said and done, the Caliph forgives the couple and admonishes Omar for his greed.

Although Weber’s music to the Singspiel does not possess the creativity of his best works such as the opera "Der Freischütz", his score is entirely charming and full of enthusiasm and the carefree life. I should point out that one of the arias, "Heir liegt", was added to the work by Weber about ten years after the premiere; this aria has a relatively serious tone compared to the others and is not a good fit with the general mood of the work.

Earlier in the review, I indicated my enthusiasm of a new recording of "Abu Hassan" performed by a period instrument orchestra. My reasoning is not based on a desire for every work of Weber’s time period to be performed on period instruments, but a realization that Weber’s light music is not best served by a modern orchestra where the textures could well be heavy and detract from the score’s inherent vitality and transparency.

Bruno Weil ensures that the performance matches the emotional content of Weber’s music. The Cappella Coloniensis is an exceptional period instrument band with crisp attack and ensemble playing. Weil consistently whips up the exhilaration and keeps the musical arguments fresh and logical. The vocal soloists do not include any famous names unlike the 1970s Sawallisch version on CPO featuring Nicolai Gedda, Edda Moser, and Kurt Moll. However, Weil’s soloists are excellent in their own right and significantly enhance the music’s appeal. Particularly fetching is Johanna Stojkovic who gives Fatime the youthful immaturity that is the dominant aspect of her personality. Essentially, Fatime doesn’t have a clue what real life is about, and the Stojkovic portrayal clearly conveys this naive ignorance.

The disc has a very substantial coupling in the form of Weber’s Symphony No. 1; a four-movement work lasting almost thirty minutes. The music doesn’t have the Turkish flavor of "Abu Hassan", but is similar; being upbeat and vivacious. The sole exception is the 2nd Movement Andante, which is poignant without delving deeply into the human spirit. For years I have been smitten with the 3rd Movement Scherzo’s exhilaration, and the Symphony as a whole is loaded with high energy. As in "Abu Hassan", Weil and his forces present a sharply-etched reading full of vitality and youthful demonstration. The woodwinds are exceptional in tone and projection, and Weil displays an obvious affection for the music.

Any complaints? Yes, but just one. There is a decided lack of bass response that is most evident in the purely instrumental music of Symphony No. 1. I have another period instrument recording of the Symphony conducted by Roger Norrington on EMI Classics. The EMI has a strongly projected bass line giving the music an extra dimension not found on the Weil performance. Weil’s reading is still a rewarding one, but the weak bass keeps it from being the best recording of the Symphony on record.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend the new Weil disc to all readers except those who tend to be allergic to the sound of period instruments. Listeners will not find the two programmed works to be deep in emotional content or wide in breadth, but each is a delightful representation of Weber’s artistry and compositional skills. Bruno Weil’s performances are fully idiomatic of Weber’s soundworld, and his vocal and instrumental forces support his approach convincingly. The informative and insightful liner notes are offered in English, German and French; the libretto is in English and German. Those readers interested in the disc should acquire it quickly, because previous recordings of "Abu Hassan" have not stayed in print very long.

Don Satz

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