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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Wilhelm KIENZL (1857-1941)
Don Quixote: A Musical Tragicomedy in 3 Acts (1897)
Thomas Mohr, Baritone - Alonzo Quixano
Michelle Breedt, Mezzo-Soprano - Mercedes
James Wagner, Tenor - Sancho Panza
Celina Lindsley, Soprano - The Duchess
Hans Aschenbach, Tenor - The Duke
Thomas Hay, Bass - Don Clavijo
Matthias Henneberg, Baritone - Carrasco
Andreas Kohn, Bass - Tirante
Kirsten Blanck, Soprano - Maritorness
Gabriele Schreckenbach, Alto - Aldonza
Anett Taube, Soprano -Frasquita
Nora von Billerbeck, Soprano - Rosita
Tatjana Sotin, Alto - Marieta
Marion Nickel, Alto - Juanita
Georg Taube, Thomas Kober, Tenor - Tavern Guests
Jörg Schneider, Michael Timm, Bass - Tavern Guests
Berlin Radio Chorus
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gustav Kühn
Konzerthaus Berlin, March 19-22 1998 DDD Stereo
CPO 999 873-2 [3CDs: 201.33]


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I am indebted to where a useful online biography of Kienzl by Bruce Eder filled in much background. I also found much useful history in Henry Louise de la Grangeís massive study of Mahler, currently in three volumes, soon to be five, wherein Kienzl plays many a bit-part.

Wilhelm Kienzl was a major figure in Austrian music and culture from the 1890s until the 1930s. He began studying piano and violin very early, and was composing by 12. At Graz University, he studied composition, philosophy, and physics, and also wrote music reviews. He attended the first performance of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876 and became a Wagner devotee, a fact that shows in his music despite his later declared aim to shake off the influence. In Don Quixote Kienzl sounds like a sort of post-Rienzi Wagnerite rather than post-Ring. He also studied with Liszt and his admiration for Schumann shows quite strongly. He began writing opera in the 1884 but it was 10 years before he completed what proved to be his most enduring work, Der Evangelimann. He was left financially independent by its success. In later life he was isolated musically because of his inability to accept the ideas of the second Viennese school whilst still wanting to be seen to be modern. He wrote operas into the 1920s, after which he gave up large-scale composition.

Achieving fame must be at least partly a matter of luck. Why do we hear performances of symphonies by Vaughan Williams but rarely by Rubbra? Why are there dozens of performances of worthy Mozart operas like Il Seraglio and almost never a performance of J.C.F. Hæffnerís Elektra? So it is with Kienzlís Don Quixote. That this was an early failure and never established itself in the repertoire may be at least partly down to its rejection by the then all-powerful director of the Vienna State Opera, Gustav Mahler. Kienzl knew Mahler quite well and was clearly fascinated by Mahlerís extravagant and radical music. He attended an early performance of the Resurrection symphony and stayed when others withdrew in horror! The honour was not returned, it seems! Of Kienzlís many operas only one, Der Evangelimann has ever achieved any success (EMI CD 5663702 (2 discs), Lothar Zagrosek, Siegfried Jerusalem, Helen Donath, Ortun Wenkel, Kurt Moll etc). It seems to me that Don Quixote is fully deserving of a place in the repertoire. It does have problems. It needs a large orchestra. It needs some very able soloists (particularly a bass who can sing prolonged passages in falsetto). It is also nearly three and a half hours long. But none of these problems are insurmountable. We manage to perform Die Frau öhne Schatten despite its vast orchestra and many a modern opera requires soloists to utilise a "false voice". If challenged to suggest some operas which could be dropped from the repertoire to make place for Kienzlís splendid Don Quixote I might suggest dropping Humperdinckís dull Hansel and Gretel for starters.

Kienzl describes Don Quixote as a tragi-comedy. The comedy is somewhat Germanic. The tragedy is as affecting as the wonderfully melancholy closing bars of Straussís Don Quixote. The opera contains several descriptive interludes which are themselves good mini symphonic poems. This was noted in Kienzlís day, for suites of these interludes were given at least once or twice in concert performance. Kienzlís libretto is complex but dramatically quite successful. He reduces Cervantesí gigantic novel to a series of scenes which he links by a sub plot of his own devising. As noted in Pachlís thorough and fascinating booklet essays he "tells Cervantesí story more completely than other dramatisations. The dramatic conflict and the catastrophe of the main figure brought about by a plot devised by his niece Mercedes and her lover is Kienzlís own idea". This device apparently heavily influenced the modern musical Man of La Mancha.

It is not easy to select particular passages for comment when so much is so good. I would nonetheless pick out the dramatic conclusion of Act 1 where several minor and several major characters combine with the chorus to achieve a vital and energetic finale with Don Quixote galloping away on his horse and Sancho Panza tossed in a blanket for non-payment of his drinks bill. Act 2 contains a tremendous dance sequence during which the plot does not pause but carries on in parallel. This is the part of the opera that requires Don Clavijo, sung by Thomas Hay, to sing his long falsetto solo. I did feel this joke was rather prolonged. Act 3 starts with a long duet between Mercedes and her lover Carrasco in which they contemplate how they are to wrench Mercedesí father, the Don, out of his all-encompassing fantasy world and return him to reality. This beautiful and heartfelt music shows the seriousness with which Kienzl treated the tragic aspects of his comedy. Act 3 contains several such passages. The Don himself reflects tenderly on his quest to honour his imaginary lady Dulcinea in another beautiful passage. Mercedes, Sancho Panza and the Don join in a passionate trio where the daughter and servant protest at the actions they are forced to take in response to the Donís addled wishes whilst the Don continues to bemoan his failure to attain Dulcineaís approbation. The end of the opera is genuinely moving. Don Quixote dies of a broken heart, having realised what a fool he has made of himself, and Sancho Panza crouches over the Donís motionless body unable to accept that he is dead.

The performance by the main soloists is consistently of a high standard. The playing of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is so convincing that one could almost believe they played it regularly which they undoubtedly have not. This recording is the first opportunity we have to enjoy and assess the complete opera. When this live performance was broadcast in 1998 it had to be truncated because no one expected it to last quite as long. We are indebted to CPO for this complete issue and still more for the magnificent documentation they have provided including a full libretto in German and English. The recording quality is typical of that which we have grown to expect from German radio stations: it is clean, very clear and notably spacious. I applied a little surround processing during parts of my audition and it was very successful in creating the feeling of "being there".

Wilhelm Kienzl was right inside Don Quixote: "I myself was a Don Quixote, a crazy fellow", he wrote. Kienzl unnoticed and unsung in 1941 in Vienna. This recording allows us to reconsider a figure who was clearly much more important than we have hitherto realised.

Dave Billinge

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