There is a real danger, especially in Handel’s anniversary year,
that he and other major composers such as Bach and Telemann eclipse
their talented contemporaries completely. Yet the Leipzig Council,
for example, cannot have been entirely bone-headed in preferring
Fasch and Graupner to Bach for the post of Kantor at the Thomasschule.
The story that they thought Bach ‘mediocre’ is, however, based
on a misunderstanding.
Reinhard Keiser, born a few years before Telemann
and Handel, once considered the equal of both, now has to rest
content with a few lines in reference works where their entries
run to pages. He normally has to share CD programmes with other
composers, but his two most famous operas have been recorded
– Crœsus on Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1714.16, 3 CDs, and
Nuova Era NE693435, 2 CDs; Masaniello Furioso on CPO999
1102, 2 CDs.
CPO have also recorded his secular cantatas (CPO999
8562 – ‘a lovely disc’: see review)
and his version of the Christmas story is coupled with Graupner’s
Magnificat on ‘a splendid festive offering from Carus
– albeit short value at forty five minutes’: Carus 83.417 –
Keiser was also the first composer to set the Brockes Passion,
a text later employed by Fasch (recorded by Naxos on 8.570326 – see review),
Telemann and Handel; perhaps Naxos
will now record that, too.
There are two recordings of his St Mark Passion:
the older Claves recording of his St Mark Passion is
available from eMusic, albeit on 50 tracks, which will mean
blowing your whole monthly £12 allocation in one go. The single-CD
Christophorus recording on original instruments is, in any case,
the one to go for, (CHR77143 – Parthenia Vocal and Parthenia
Baroque/Christian Brembeck); it’s also available from classicsonline
as a very acceptable 320k download. Bach certainly possessed
a copy of this work and there are points of similarity with
his St Matthew and St John settings, including the
traditional tune of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden – compare
Keiser’s setting of Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (track
5) with Bach’s. I’m sure that I shall be listening to it on
Like those other two operas, Fredegunda
(March, 1715) was composed for the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt,
or Goose-market Opera, where it was extremely popular, four
years after Crœsus. The libretto is by Johann Ulrich
von König (1688-1744) after an Italian libretto by Francesco
Silvani (c.1660-c.1725). It is sung in German and Italian. The
plot concerns the tempestuous relations between the sixth-century
Frankish King Chilperich and his mistress Fredegunda; each of
them has another lover, making for two sets of love triangles
though all, of course, ends happily.
As usual, I set out first to test the claims made
in the blurb on the rear insert, that this is ‘an important
and entertaining ... opera [which] abounds in melodious, often
ravishingly orchestrated, music.’ More crucially, do the performances
do justice to the music?
Certainly the music is very attractive – listen
to track 28 of CD1 Ricordati, ben mio (‘Remember, o my
beloved’) for some of the finest baroque music – though the
opera has its moments of longueur and there is no doubt
that posterity has been correct in preferring Telemann and Handel.
If you have already become familiar with their music, however,
Fredegunda is well worth trying.
The opening Sonata goes with a real swing
in this performance; there’s no stodginess here, but rather
the kind of abandon at the start which I associate with modern
Italian performances of baroque music. On the other hand, there’s
enough contrast between the sections to avoid the problem of
having everything too hurried, which I recently found with Collegium
Musicum den Haag’s performance of Telemann’s Ebb und Fluth
(L’Europe réunie, ORF SACD3008).
Dora Pavlíková as Fredegunda begins her opening
recitative in fiery mood, too: at first she sounds almost too
fiery to hit the notes securely, but soon settles down, especially
in the aria Du verlachtest die Tränen (‘you mocked my
tears’, CD1, track 3). After all, Fredegunda is a fiery character
and she is chiding Chilperich for preferring Galsuinde – she
opens the recitative by referring to him as Grausamer,
‘awful man’, and ends the ensuing aria by referring to his undoing
their relationship mit deiner falschen Hand ‘with your
Tomi Wendt’s Chilperich comes over as penny plain
to Pavlíková’s twopenny coloured Fredegunda – I might have preferred
him to be a little more sonorous and her a little less squally,
but, again, this is not inappropriate to their roles – Chilperich
is something of a wimp at this stage. By the time that we come
to Fredegunda’s arias on tracks 20, (Ihr reizende Blicke,
‘your ravishing looks’) and 22, (Schließet euch, ihr holde
Kerzen, ‘be extinguished, dearest candles’) Pavlíková is
in much more mellifluous voice and Wendt’s Chilperich much firmer-toned.
By track 24 (Zur Rache! ‘Revenge!’) both the character
and Wendt’s voice have come much more to life.
The first notable aria is Galsuinde’s Lasciami
piangere, ‘let me weep’ (CD1, track 7), and Bianca Koch
sings it well. I might have preferred her to bring out its beauty
a little more lovingly; it is, of course, a lament, but laments
don’t have to be entirely squally. Galsuinde has some of the
finest music – and the aria Ricordati, ben mio (CD1,
tr.28), to which I have already referred as some of the finest
baroque music, is sung by Koch in a manner which could hardly
Michael Kranebitter as Sigibert, too, sings attractively,
if a little too forthrightly: in his recitative Ich kann
ja wohl die Zähren nicht verdammen (‘I cannot condemn the
tears’, track8) he almost seems to have two different registers,
one more attractive than the other. His diction is not exactly
ideal: so keen is he to bring out the drama of his words that
he sometimes fails to enunciate them perfectly. His aria Ich
muß schweigend von dir gehen (‘I must be silent and leave
you’, track 16) did not affect me as it should – here, more
than anywhere, I felt that he was the weakest link in the cast,
though not as disastrously so as Elisabeth Scholl, who is really
off-form in Naxos’s recording of Handel’s Semele – don’t
just take my word for it in my review;
see also Robert Hugill’s review.
Katja Stuber as Bazina also has an attractive voice;
in her first scene (track 9), however, she is slightly out-sung
by Tomo Matsubara as Hermenegild. His voice has an attractive
timbre, though his diction, too, is not perfect – he is not
a native German-speaker. His aria Eine stolze Hand zu küssen
(tr.11) illustrates both the attractiveness of his voice and
his comparative failures of enunciation. If Stuber is a little
reticent here, she is certainly in fine and powerful voice by
track 30, giving Fredegunda as good as she gets in Du drohest
and rasest (You threaten and rave). By this point, too,
Kranebitter’s Sigibert has also warmed up somewhat; though I
still found him a little too droopy in Ach betrachte doch
die Wangen (tr.35 ‘Just look upon her cheeks’), his account
of Mich schrecket kein Eifer, ich achte kein Drohen (tr.37,
‘Your overbearing threats do not frighten me’) is just right.
Tobias Haaks as Landerich is perhaps a little too
forthright in the recitatives but he sings Ach, ich will
viel lieber sterben (tr. 44, ‘Ah, I would much rather die’)
in such a way as to make it one of the highlights of the first
CD, almost at its close. If, as I suspect, the Chilperich-Fredegunda
duet Vieni, o cara, o mio Tesoro (tr.48, ‘Come, my dear,
my treasure’) which closes CD1, is meant to outshine Landerich
– the few arias in Italian are some of the highlights of the
music – it doesn’t succeed here: their singing sounds merely
very decent by comparison, though they round off the act and
the disc stylishly enough.
Matters are much the same on CD2, which begins
quietly with the duet of Galsuinde and Bazina, Sanfte Lüfte
(‘Gentle breezes’). There is some intrusive stage noise here
– much than on CD1 – and in the ensuing scene. Bazina’s aria
Ein Sklav’ ist mehr beglückt (tr.3, ‘a slave has greater
fortune’) is a little underpowered. If Kranebitter is the weak
link on CD1, he atones somewhat in Sigibert’s duet with Galsuinde
(tr.5), though he is still a little too lugubrious and Koch’s
Galsuinde still a little shrill.
Pavlíková’s Fredegunda, too, is just a little too
shrill for my taste in Vieni a me (tr.7, ‘Come to me’)
by contrast with the delicate accompaniment. It may be wishful
thinking on my part, but she does seem to tone down the shrillness
for the repeat of this aria (tr.11).
Wendt’s Childerich is in much better voice than
he was on the earlier part of CD1. His aria threatening to react
with slaughter of his foes, Con le stragi (tr.13) goes
with quite a bang, as does Haaks in Landerich’s Da voi fieri
guerrieri (tr.15, ‘Your beauteous eyes, proud warriors’).
Both these Italian arias are among the high points of the opera,
and both receive good performances.
Fredegunda’s invocation of Hecate (tr.17) is another
high spot and here Pavlíková is in almost ideal voice despite
some unusually intrusive stage noise. Yet she is able to achieve
real tenderness a few moments after this outburst in Ach,
nenne mich doch nur noch einmal Königin
‘Oh, let me just once more be called the queen’).
Matsubara really manages to convey Hermenegild’s
indecision (tr.21, Ach nein, ich kann nicht entscheiden,
I cannot decide’) and does so with fewer problems of diction
than before. Paradoxically, Kranebitter’s diction in Su’l
mio crine (tr.23, ‘I shall be crowned with love’) is less
Wendt, in Childerich’s aria bidding fortune do
its worst, Weich immerhin zurück (tr.25) is affective,
though not entirely tonally secure. Koch is equally affective
and in better voice in Felice moriró (tr.30 ‘I shall
die happy’). The whole opera is rounded off by a suitably jubilant
performance of the short fifth act.
This, then, is not a ‘Sunday-best’ cast but it
is a good, often very good, workaday one. It’s certainly good
enough for me to predict that I shall return to it – and I shall
follow with interest the careers of these singers, mostly still
in their twenties.
Christoph Hammer’s direction is secure; his own
solo keyboard performances have clearly prepared him well to
lead the Munich Neue Hofkapelle. Though founded in 1992 to specialise
in historically informed performances, their playing offers
baroque music without any of the excesses which sometimes spoiled
period performances in earlier days and still sometimes intrude
where one least expects it – on Jordi Savall’s rather strident,
but still enjoyable, version of Biber’s Missa Bruxellensis
(AV9808) for example. Some of the accompaniment here is really
sensitive, as in the case of Fredegunda’s aria Vieni a me
(‘Come to me’, CD2, tr.7).
Apart from some very minimal stage noise and applause
at the end of each CD, there is little to indicate that the
recording was made live. That it was so helps in part to explain
why some of the singers are a little slow off the mark at the
beginning – in a studio performance, of course, there could
have been retakes to round off some of the slightly rough edges.
The recording itself is neutral in the best sense of the word.
The libretto, mostly in German but with sections
in Italian, is available online as a pdf document but in portrait
A4 – how do you get that into the CD case? – and there is no English
translation, which is a problem, since even those with a decent
knowledge of German may find the sometimes archaic diction hard
to follow. It would be much better to offer the libretto as a
download in landscape mode at a size capable of being cut, folded
and inserted into the case – Naxos, please learn from Chandos,
Gimell and Linn, who offer texts and notes in this manner with
their downloads. Actually, it is possible to cut and paste the
text into a Word document and print this in the correct format,
but it is a nuisance to have to do so.
I would gladly have forfeited the booklet’s four-and-a-half
pages of illustrations of the parent production, from the Bayerischer
Theaterakademie August Everding, in favour of the libretto. These
illustrations make me grateful to have received this recording
on CD rather than DVD, since they show the production to have
been the kind of up-dated version which I almost inevitably find
annoying – featuring, in this case, a baby carriage and, apparently,
the use of a taser.