Justin Heinrich Knecht - I have to admit that the name meant nothing
to me when I received these discs for review. When I read the
deeply informed essay in the booklet, I learnt that he was born
and spent most of his life in Biberach, a small town in Baden-Württemberg
in southern Germany. From Wikipedia I got the information that
the town 'for many centuries was an Imperial
Free City (German: Freie Reichsstadt) in the Holy
Roman Empire' - a status that ended in 1803. Today it
has around 32,000 inhabitants and is an important industrial location
in the southwest of Germany.
In the 18th century the city had a rich cultural life and young Justin Heinrich was tutored in various musical disciplins, including organ, violin and singing. In due time he became music director, was appointed organist in St. Martin's Church and taught various subjects at the Gymnasium. He also organised concerts and composed music for sundry occasions, including several stage works. In 1806 he went to Stuttgart and was appointed director of the orchestra at the court. It turned out however that he wasn't professional enough in this capacity and was sacked towards the end of 1808, whereupon he returned to Biberach.
It was during his time in Stuttgart that he composed Die Aeolsharfe. He had hoped to have it performed there but this never happened. Thus the opera lay unplayed for exactly two centuries until it was eventually heard in Biberach on 18 April 2008 and on the following two days in Stuttgart, where this recording was made.
It is a long work. According to the composer's notes the total duration was 3 hours 45 minutes. The playing time on this recording is just under 2½ hours, which means that about 75 minutes of music has been excised. The booklet prints the complete libretto with the deleted passages in grey text.
The subtitle Der Triumph der Musik und Liebe (The Triumph of Music and Love) hints at the setting of the opera and also a happy end. Led by King Hierokles the Aeolians are a people dedicated to the arts. Phrynis has invented the Aeolian harp and the king declares the instrument sacred. Phrynis' daughter Melilla is selected to 'guarantee the wellbeing of the harp with her life'.
Selim, heir to the throne of a barbarian empire and a pirate, hears the sounds of the harp and sends his men to find out what it is, since he for the first time feels an unknown longing. They find it and steal it from Melilla, who is also dreaming of love. Melilla and Selim meet for a short while and fall in love.
When Melilla appears before the court and through infiltration from a disguised member of Selim's crew she is sentenced to death, but at that moment Selim and his men appear and kidnap Melilla.
Selim wants to go back to his homeland with Melilla but before they have time to leave the Aeolians surprise them and take the whole crew prisoner. The king wants to issue a pardon, so that Selim and Melilla can get married but Phrynis, Melilla's father, refuses. Selim is his old enemy. 'It is only the invocation of music, the language which unites everything, imparted by the sound of the Aeolian harp, which brings reconciliation.' And so they live happily ever after, we hope.
'Is this really stuff for an opera of Tristan und Isolde length?' some readers may ask. Well, this is only a general overview. In reality there are enough complications to fill the four acts, though it has to be admitted that the dramatic pulse isn't revving fast all the time. In all there are 101 musical numbers, including some recitatives, in the complete score. Thirty of these are omitted altogether on the recording and another few are only fragmentary. Elementary mathematics indicates that the average length of a number is approximately 2½ minute, and no doubt this can give an impression of messiness. On the other hand the opera doesn't become long-winded, since there is so much music variety in the score.
Born four years before Mozart, Knecht's musical idiom firmly belongs to the Vienna classicism tradition, and written more than fifteen years after Mozart's death there is more than one passage that directly refers back to the Salzburg master - whether intentionally or not. Die Zauberflöte is present not least in the numerous choruses - listen for example to the chorus that opens act IV (CD 3 tr. 1). Quite frequently they seem more appropriate in an oratorio than in an opera - but there is no denying the eminently skilful writing - note the contrapuntal work at the end of act I (CD 1 tr. 13-14). More in line with the setting are the references to Janissary music - a central feature also in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. This can be heard in the overture and even more prominently in the chorus that opens act II (CD 1 tr. 15). Less obvious are the parallels with Beethoven, though the fight scene in act IV (CD 3 tr. 6) may owe something to him. It is an interesting fact that the first version of Fidelio was premiered in 1805 but it is hardly likely that Knecht had heard it. Beethoven in his turn may, on the other hand, have heard Knecht's Le portrait musical de la nature, ou Grande sinfonie (Pastoralsymphonie) (1784-1785), which had a programme similar to his Pastoral Symphony. Knecht's keen ear for orchestral colours is everywhere evident in Die Aeolsharfe, and it is quite possible that Beethoven learnt a thing or two from Knecht. Anyway it would be interesting to hear Knecht's Pastoral Symphony which, according to some old sources, was much admired in its day.
Apart from quite a number of arias, Knecht excels in ensembles: several duettos, a couple of terzettos, two quartettos and a Canon a 4 voci, a quintetto, an ottetto and a nonetto, and in the finales soloists and chorus combine in various constellations.
Several of the arias are technically rather taxing - especially those for Melilla and Selim - and since Knecht was hoping to have the opera performed in Stuttgart, there must have been a very accomplished soprano and tenor available there. Not all of them are melodically very memorable - which isn't to say that they are in any way dull or undistinguished - but Mellilla's dramatic Sternenrein und sonnenhell (CD 1 tr. 8) is inspired, and Der Aeolsharfe leises Tönen (CD 1 tr. 25), followed by the delicious little arietta Auf Himmelstöne (tr. 27) are wholly delightful and the orchestration - as elsewhere is exquisite. But the real highlights are, by and large, the choruses and the finales, particularly those to act III and IV.
The Hofkapelle Stuttgart, founded in 2006 by Frieder Bernius, has specialized in playing 19th century repertoire on authentic instruments. The crisp playing exposes Knecht's personal and colourful orchestration and they are a perfect foil to the eminent Kammerchor Stuttgart, who certainly have no superiors and very few equals anywhere in the world. Their singing here is of a quality that maybe makes the music sound better than it is: the homogenity of sound, the precision and the phrasing. The only possible weakness is that they may lack something of the raw uninhibited power of a first class opera chorus. In this work, however, with its closeness to oratorio style, this is much more an advantage than a drawback. For the choral singing alone this set is worth acquiring.
But Frieder Bernius has also assembled a fine cast of soloists, many of them rather young. The obvious star is Christina Landshamer in the pivotal role of Melilla. She has a bright and beautiful voice, she negotiates the technical difficulties with aplomb and she sings with dramatic conviction and dazzles with her easy top notes.
Mark Adler has no easy task to bring off Selim's strenuous part. His arias are taxing with a lot of coloratura and the tessitura is high. He manages all this admirably but not without strain, and occasionally his tone becomes pinched in the highest reaches.
Thomas E. Bauer is the best known singer here with a number of highly successful Lieder recordings to his credit. He is powerful and dramatically expressive but arguably the part is too low for him. Andrea Lauren Brown is a lively Bulline and Patrick Pobeschin a convincing Bull. Adolph Seidel has a dark impressive bass voice while Andreas Macco's Phrynis is rather shaky, but he characterises well and his enunciation is beyond reproach.
The recording venue at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart is spacious and the sound is impressive: dynamic but lean. The presence of an audience is hardly noticeable; no coughers (!) and no applause. For non-German speakers it is a drawback that there are no translations of the libretto but there is a good synopsis.
Frieder Bernius and Carus should be applauded for bringing this work up in the light after 200 years of oblivion, and anyone interested in early 19th century opera should grab the opportunity to hear Die Aeolsharfe. There are many pleasant surprises in store and Christina Landshamer in the leading female role seems set out for a lustrous career.