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Jaromír WEINBERGER (1896-1967)
Švanda dudák (Schwanda the Bagpiper), Opera in Two Acts (1927) [134:07]
Matjaz Robavs (Švanda, baritone), Tatiana Monogarova (Dorota, soprano), Ivan Choupenitch (Babinský, tenor), Larisa Kostyuk (the Queen, mezzo-soprano), Alexander Meliga (the Magician, the Devil, bass), Nicholas Sharratt (the Judge, tenor), Pavel Kozel (the Executioner, Hell’s Captain, baritone), Sean Ruane (the Devil’s Servant, tenor), Vicenç Esteve (First Mercenary Soldier, tenor), Richard Weigold (Second Mercenary Soldier, bass)
Wexford Festival Opera Chorus
National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus/Julian Reynolds
Recorded 24th, 27th and 30th October 2003 at the Theatre Royal, Wexford, Ireland.
NAXOS 8.660146-7 [65:36 + 68:31]

 

David Shengold’s note begins by wondering if "Weinberger has serious rivals as opera’s textbook "one hit wonder"? Well, Humperdinck and Rutland Boughton spring to mind, and Italians have been quite prolific in "one hit wonders"; Ponchielli, Catalani, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea, Montemezzi … And, going back a little further, there are Balfe, Wallace and Benedict. However, the case of Weinberger is a rather special one in that the success of that one work has not so far inspired further exploration of his output. With Humperdinck and nearly all the Italians mentioned (excluding Montemezzi), the plethora of recordings of that work were obviously an open invitation to look for something else, and in any case "Königskinder" and several works by the Italians were not wholly unhonoured in their native land. But even the sole recording of Boughton’s "The Immortal Hour" has been followed by "Bethlehem", the 3rd Symphony and a few other things. While with Weinberger, not even the "Overture on Czech Christmas Carols" or the Variations on "Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree", once popular, have had modern recordings.

Indeed, that work, "Schwanda the Bagpiper", is now making its first appearance in its original language since the previous recording, issued by Sony in 1981 on LP and 1989 on CD (now deleted) has a mouth-watering cast (Hermann Prey, Lucia Popp, Siegfried Jerusalem, Siegmund Nimsgern, conducted by Heinz Wallberg) but was sung in German. This might not be so serious as it would be with late Dvořák, let alone Janáček, but sung Czech has a flavour of its own, due to the particular characteristic of the language that all words, even long ones, are accented on the first syllable.

After the work’s initial success it acquired as many detractors as admirers, the principal charge being that it combined naïve, folk-like melodies with erudite German contrapuntal methods which the composer learnt from Max Reger. Certainly, it contains a goodly store of homely, Smetana-like tunes in a similar vein to those well-known from the Polka and Fugue, and can be touching in its more tender moments. As for the counterpoint, it wears its erudition so lightly and joyously as to suggest that early commentators must have listened to very heavy-handed performances. Maybe the scene in Hell is a little long without stage action but otherwise we have a well-constructed, varied and at times touching opera. Perhaps what really irked those early commentators was an awareness that far more profound works by Janáček were still unknown outside then-Czechoslovakia, but now that particular battle has been won there is surely a place for Weinberger’s simpler charms.

I have not heard the Sony version but the present performance is a lively affair. The strings of the Belarus orchestra seem not very numerous but they play well and Julian Reynolds shows panache and affection though I thought the famous Polka a mite too fast (and I seem to remember an old recording under Scherchen which was just a shade slower, to good effect). Ivan Choupenitch is somewhat over-parted as Babinský and is inclined to lapse into hectoring to get his voice over, but Schwanda himself is very well taken by Matjaz Robavs, the Dorota is good, the Queen acceptable (a typically thick, Slavonic mezzo) and Alexander Teliga sounds a real Russian bass; in fact he is actually Polish. Though I should dearly like to hear the singers on the Sony recording I feel that preference should go to the version in the original language if possible and only one singer is an actual stumbling-block from this point of view.

A warm recommendation, then, to an invigorating and touching work which deserves a place in the catalogue and maybe in the theatre too. The Wexford audience seem to have enjoyed it very much. If you are particularly irritated by live recordings then you should bear this in mind. The recording is vivid but transferred at an unusually low level. I had to set my volume at about five to eleven instead of my usual quarter to nine. If you want to listen on a Walkman or any other small machine this might be a problem. The booklet essay is good and there is a detailed synopsis but no libretto, let alone translation.

To go back to my original point; would there be any point in investigating Weinberger any further? Well, the only other work I know is the Bible Poems for organ (1939). They show the same use of simple, direct yet effective, communicative and touching means. So it would seem that Schwanda was not just a fluke. How about trying "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

It’s sad to think that the creator of such exuberant, optimistic and light-hearted music became so depressed in later years at the increasing neglect of his music that he took his own life at his home in Florida, where he had been living since 1939. I hope his manuscripts have been preserved somewhere and will be sympathetically examined one day.

Christopher Howell



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