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Johann STRAUSS II (1825–1899)
Die Fledermaus (1874)
Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Gabriel von Eisenstein; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Rosalinde; Helmut Krebs (tenor) – Alfred; Rita Streich (soprano) – Adele; Karl Dönch (baritone) – Frank; Erich Kunz (baritone) – Falke; Rudolf Christ (tenor) – Prince Orlofsky; Erich Majkut (tenor) – Dr. Blind; Franz Böheim (speaking part) – Frosch; Luise Martini (speaking part) – Ida;
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Herbert von Karajan;
rec. 26–30 April 1955, Kingsway Hall, London
Appendix: Historical Recordings of Die Fledermaus:
Overture (arr. Korngold) [8:20]
The Palace Theatre Orchestra/Richard Tauber
rec. July 1945, London;
Mein Herr, was dächten Sie von mir [2:55]
Lotte Lehmann (soprano); Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Frieder Weissmann
rec. 26 May 1931, Berlin;
Mein Herr Marquis [3:21]
Elisabeth Schumann (soprano); Orchestra/Karl Alwin
rec. 11 November 1927, Queen’s Small Hall, London;
Spiel’ ich die Unschuld vom Lande [3:27]
Elisabeth Schumann (soprano); Vienne State Opera Orchestra/Karl Alwin
rec. 6 September 1929, Mittlerer Saal, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna;
Klänge der Heimat [4:15]
Maria Ivogün (soprano); Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Leo Blech
rec. October 1932, Berlin;
Herr Chevalier, ich grüsse Sie! … Brüderlein, Brüderlein und Schwesterlein [4:08];
Genug, damit, genug! [3:48]
Richard Tauber (tenor); Lotte Lehmann (soprano); Karin Branzell (mezzosoprano); Waldemar Staegemann (baritone); Grete Merrem-Nikisch (mezzo); Berlin State Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Frieder Weissmann
rec. 17 December, 1928, Berlin
NAXOS 8.111036-37 [79:07 + 60:37]



What is Die Fledermaus about and who is/are the main characters? “The Revenge of the Bat” could be a subtitle, alluding of course to the fact that long ago Eisenstein had made Falke a laughing-stock when he had to walk home in full daylight after a wetter-than-normal masquerade, dressed as a bat. Now the time has come for him to strike back and ridicule Eisenstein through the intrigues staged at Prince Orlofsky’s party. This, however, is only the external frame; the core of the operetta is the social life of the upper classes in the capital of the Habsburg Empire during its heyday. The main characters are neither Eisenstein and Rosalinde nor Falke or the rest of the cast – they are Vienna and champagne. Champagne permeates the operetta. When everything is settled in the third act, all the misunderstandings and infidelity sorted out, first Eisenstein, then Rosalinde and finally the whole company sing … nur der Champagner war an allem schuld! (… it was all the fault of the champagne!). They round off, singing, in the English translation by H. Raumann: “His Majesty’s Role is acknowledged / throughout all the land; / amid cheers he is acclaimed / as King Champagne the First!”
 
Johann Strauss II has provided for this ditty music that literally sparkles and scintillates, lavish melodies of the utmost beauty – many of which are introduced in the masterful overture. The Viennese waltz and polka rhythms make the whole score dance and in a good performance one should feel the champers, sense the floor swaying and the delirium of joy.
 
Karajan, although born in Salzburg, had a long connection with Vienna, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1934. Assuredly he knew the spirit of Vienna and he could certainly get an orchestra, especially such a responsive body as the original Philharmonia, to sparkle. Here he coaxes them to give a fizzing, virtuoso performance. The strings in particular have to work hard for their fees. Tempos are generally fast and many are the places, in the overture and elsewhere, where one listens flabbergasted by the sheer precision and rhythmic flair. Add to this a marvellous cast of singers who know how to turn a phrase and inject life in their characters, undoubtedly inspired by both the conductor and producer Walter Legge. This is as high-spirited a production one can imagine of this intoxicating masterpiece. That said, in the last resort I still miss something – I wonder what. It is probably that indefinable thing: charm. I am at pains to put my finger on it, but going to two other longstanding favourite recordings of Die Fledermaus – both from the early 1970s: Willi Boskovsky on EMI and Karl Böhm on Decca – I find a certain restraint, a certain warmth, that is partly missing from Karajan’s reading. Neither of them is quite as fast and although the playing is just as professional as on Karajan’s set there seems to be some relaxation too amidst the orchestral fireworks. They also lead Viennese orchestras; Boskovsky has the Vienna Symphony and Böhm the Vienna Phil. Make no mistake though: Karajan has you sitting on the edge of the chair in a whirlwind performance. In the end it all depends on how you like your champagne: Karajan serves it brut, Boskovsky and Böhm prefer it demi sec.
 
Whether the champagne in the singers’ imagined glasses is crackling dry or sickly-sweet doesn’t seem to matter. The joy is palpable, bar Prince Orlofsky, who should of course be mega blasé … and so he is with knobs on. He is supposed to be sung by a mezzo and Boskovsky has the inimitable Brigitte Fassbaender on superb form. Both Böhm and Karajan have employed tenors. Surprisingly Böhm uses old Wagnerian hero Wolfgang Windgassen who sings well and characterises without exaggeration. Whether you like Karajan’s Rudolf Christ is a matter of taste, or rather preference. Orlofsky can be regarded as a rich and conceited fool. Christ makes him almost unbearably lax, sliding up to notes and adopting a terrible pseudo-Russian accent. It is all skilfully done – some will say over the top.
 
Alfred is sung by Helmut Krebs, a light lyrical tenor known perhaps best for his Bach singing. He was the Evangelist in Fritz Lehmann’s and Günther Arndt’s joint Weihnachts-Oratorium and also sang the title role in August Wenzinger’s epoch-making recording of Monteverdi’s Favola d’Orfeo. His easy delivery and litheness of tone were ideal there. His Alfred is gentler than most, beautifully and elegantly sung but somewhat lacking in Italianate ring. Remarkably enough Krebs, who was born in 1913, sang in public as recently as May 2002 in some songs of his own! Karl Dönch’s fruity Viennese baritone makes him an excellent Frank; not as boisterous a character as one can sometimes encounter and none the worse for that. Erich Majkut, colleague of Christ and Dönch from the Vienna State Opera ensemble, stutters his way through Dr. Blind’s role and the distinguished actor Franz Böheim excels as the inebriated Frosch, a dream role for a comedy actor.
 
Then we have the four stars. Few singers have radiated such warmth and charm as Erich Kunz. Just as his Danilo – also with Gedda and Schwarzkopf, which I reviewed a couple of years ago – he may be too genial and gentle for Falke. After all he is an avenger. But he sings so naturally and no one to my mind, not even Fischer-Dieskau with Boskovsky, has quite managed the noble sweetness in Brüderlein, Brüderlein und Schwesterlein! (CD1 tr. 32). Nicolai Gedda, who repeated Eisenstein for Boskovsky seventeen years later, is bubblingly exuberant and relishes every phrase, making a virtuoso number of the scene where he disguises himself as Dr. Blind and out-stutters the stutterer. Humour based on people’s disabilities isn’t quite comme il faut today but once it was part and parcel of comedy.
 
The two ladies, who actually had the same singing teacher, are superb. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Hanna Glawari, a role she recorded twice, is legendary, but she is just as marvellous as Rosalinde. Few singing actors have been so expressive, so expert at weighting their words and nuances. Who has ever sung So muss allein ich bleiben (CD1 tr. 13) or Mein Herr, was dächten Sie von mir (CD1 tr. 16) so sensually? I know only one, and she can be heard in the appendix. Rita Streich, crystal clear, glittering, charming, expressive, is an ideal Adele and her act 3 aria Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande (CD2 tr. 5) shows her in the best possible light.
 
Apart from some misgivings concerning a couple of the minor parts this is among the best casts assembled for a Fledermaus recording and they more than compensate for what lack of warmth there may be in Karajan’s virtuoso conducting. What cannot be denied is that the recording quality lets the whole project down. The sound is quite good and the dynamic range is not bad. Mark Obert-Thorn has done an excellent job – as usual – transferring it from the LPs. Still it is mono only and though recorded at Kingsway Hall it delivers a boxy sound. Malcolm Walker in his notes regrets that producer Walter Legge wasn’t far-seeing enough to realize the possibilities of stereo, which had already been introduced by other companies. Even Legge had produced a stereo record in February 1955 with Schwarzkopf and Gieseking. Regrets don’t help much, though, and we have to be content with what we have. Musically at least this recording will always be among the best in its genre.
 
Karajan recorded Fledermaus again, only four years later, for Decca, this time in superb stereo sound. This was with the Vienna Phil, Güden, Köth, Kmentt and Walter Berry and with that added Gala Performance, where a line-up of world stars under Decca contract sang light music in the second act, among them Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, Teresa Berganza, Jussi Björling, Mario Del Monaco and Ettore Bastianini. It may not be quite on the same level as the present one but for the Gala it is well worth investing in. Boskovsky, with Anneliese Rothenberger and Renate Holm joining Gedda, F-D and Fassbaender has been my favourite for many years. At repeated listening some of the spoken dialogue may lose its charm; there is arguably too much “business”. If so Böhm’s Decca recording makes us sober up, since it, like the 1950 Decca recording with Clemens Krauss, abolishes all the dialogue. Böhm’s approach is rather symphonic. He trusts Strauss’s score so much that he treats it much as he would the other Strauss: Richard. His soloists are splendid: Gundula Janowitz a radiant Rosalinde, Renate Holm repeating her Adele from Boskovsky’s set, Waldemar Kmentt, Eberhard Wächter as Eisenstein, the little recorded Heinz Holicek a warm Falke and Erich Kunz appears here too, as Frank. Later recordings include Carlos Kleiber on DG, let down by bass Ivan Rebroff singing Orlofsky falsetto, but otherwise it has much to recommend it. There have been a number of later recordings, also worth considering.
 
What adds to the value of this issue is the appendix with half an hour of excerpts from Die Fledermaus in historical recordings. Doubly interesting is the inclusion of the overture in an arrangement by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for a production in London in 1945 under the title Gay Rosalinda. It is a lush orchestration in Korngold’s usual, extravagant manner and I am not sure I would like to hear it very often. Strauss’s original thoughts seem more in tune with the music, elegant and sophisticated but not over-perfumed. As an historical document it is still valuable and having Richard Tauber in the pit is an extra bonus.
 
The only soprano that could challenge Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the one and only Lotte Lehmann, is then heard in Mein Herr, was dächten Sie von mir. Her recording, technically worn, shows where Schwarzkopf learnt how to caress a phrase. The two singers were roughly the same age when their respective recordings were made and both were at the absolute zenith of expressiveness and still undiminished vocal production. By the same token Elisabeth Schumann is as lovely and sparkling an Adele as Rita Streich. She isn’t plumb in the middle of all the notes but her charm makes it easy to forgive such minor deficiencies. It is also good to have an aria with Streich’s and Schwarzkopf’s one-time teacher, Hungarian born Maria Ivogün, one of the purest of lyric sopranos of her era. This is amply demonstrated in Rosalinde’s czardas.
 
The two ensembles from act 2 are quite dimly recorded but Mark Obert-Thorn has nevertheless managed to extract much more detail from the originals than was present on an old LP, which I have returned to since the early 1970s. The chorus is excellent, almost challenging the Philharmonia Chorus on the complete recording and few have sung Brüderlein with such Schmalz as Tauber does here. It is also good to get a glimpse of Swedish mezzo-soprano Karin Branzell, who was an important singer on the continent in the 1920s and 1930s. The act 2 finale is done with the same gusto as on Karajan’s recording – only even more joyous!
 
Lovers of this fascinating score – and I hope we are still many – will not be easily satisfied with only one recording. The present one might have been that desert-island set, had the recording been more modern, but as the situation is I would not easily abandon my allegiance to the Boskovsky version: lively, jolly, theatrical – or Böhm’s: more serious, without dialogue but musically superb. Kleiber belongs on the same level of excellence and for a highly entertaining DVD version the Domingo-conducted Covent Garden production with Kiri Te Kanawa, Prey and Luxon with Dennis O’Neill as a hilarious Alfred is hard to beat. Whichever you own, Karajan’s is definitely one to add and at Naxos price you can still afford a bottle of champagne to go with your Wienerschnitzel.
 
Göran Forsling
 




 


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