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Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Carmen (1875) - complete opera sung in German
Carmen (mezzo-sop) - Georgine von Milinković; Micaëla (sop) - Elisabeth Grümmer; Don José (tenor) - Rudolf Schock; Escamillo (baritone) - James Pease
Choir and Symphony Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio, Munich/Eugen Jochum
Recorded Munich, October 1954
RELIEF CR 1908 [67:53 + 71:17]

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One of the most popular of operas, Carmen has a recording history of nearly a century. This 1954 performance comes, chronologically, about half way. Why would you want to buy a recording of this French opera made half a century ago, sung and spoken in German and without an established "historical performance" reputation? The notes in the booklet by Christoph Zimmermann suggest a number of reasons, the two chief ones being the singing of Rudolf Schock as Don José, and the conducting of Eugen Jochum.

Rudolf Schock was a versatile tenor whose lyric tone suited him for Mozart. In addition his strong upper register enabled him to succeed in heroic roles such as Lohengrin. In Puccini he was a notable Cavaradossi and he had sung Rodolfo to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s Mimi at Covent Garden. After this Bavarian Radio recording of Carmen he increased his popularity by building a career in light opera, something that has perhaps coloured his reputation and led to a "misguided perception of Schock as a breezy operetta tenor". In Don José’s famous flower song in Act Two the beauty of his lyric side is a joy to hear but as the music climaxes we can also hear the heroic potential. Not many tenors are gifted with this particular vocal blend; it is usually more of one and less of the other. For example, take Jon Vickers in the same song. In spite of beautiful phrasing he tends to sound heroic all the way through.

Georgine von Milinković in the role of Carmen had already partnered Schock on the stage in Vienna two years before. The Croatian mezzo had a reputation as a Wagner/Strauss singer and it is a voice-type that is not often heard in the role but its richness gives weight to the performance.

Elizabeth Grümmer had a considerable following, much admired for beauty of voice, clarity of diction and dramatic power in operatic roles. As Micaëla she completes an experienced trio of stars who at the time were all around forty years of age and at the height of their powers. All three, coincidentally, died in 1986.

The combination of voices on display here, and the German language in which they sing (and speak) did, disconcertingly, make me feel I was in a musical world somewhere between Viennese operetta and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. As far as we know, Bizet had no misgivings about this famous French opera being sung in German for in the weeks after the premier in 1875, and shortly before his death, he was setting out to prepare sung recitatives for a German performance in a translation by the composer Julius Hopp. The spoken German on this recording is closer to the spirit of Bizet’s opéra comique origins and the studio recording lends an intimacy to the dialogue that is not often possible on stage.

For me, the greatest strength of the show is Eugen Jochum’s conducting of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Here is a conductor who had a reputation as a solid, measured interpreter of the hefty scores of Bruckner and Wagner. Those who perhaps think of him that way will be confounded by this Carmen. It sizzles. Listen to the opening prelude and you will hear an energetic spring that eludes many another conductor, even though they are likely to be going faster. I thought that his judgement of pace throughout was absolutely sure and in keeping with the development of the narrative. The orchestra responds magnificently. It is crisply rhythmic in the dance-related music but in slower passages there is beauty in the playing that matches the voices well. The studio-recorded mono sound offers good balance between singers and orchestra, both sounding quite close. Any hiss has been largely removed without apparent loss of bite.

This Carmen is never going to sound idiomatic, but once you get used to the German there is much to enjoy. Having become available on CD for the first time, I suspect many Carmen connoisseurs may wish to own it, not just for historical or curiosity value but for the fine performance. It can also be purchased very cheaply. This is not, though, for the first time Carmen buyer, especially since no libretto is provided. Even those who know it well in French may find that a problem.

John Leeman

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