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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Feuersnot (1901) [87:59]
Gaspare SPONTINI (1774-1851)

La Vestale (1897): Excerpts [66:30]
Feuersnot: Gundula Janowitz (Diemut; soprano); John Shirley-Quirk (Kunrad; baritone); Helmut Krebs (Schweiker von Gundelfingen); Helmut Berger-Tuna (Ortolf Sentlinger); Barbara Scherier (Elsbeth); Maria-José Brill (Wigelis); Carole Malone (Margaret); Klaus Lang (Jörg Pöschel); Walton Grönroos (Hämerlein); Shoko Miahara (Kofel); Josef Becker (Kunz Gilgenstock); Karl-Ernest Mercker (Ortlieb Tulbeck); Gabriele Schreckenbach (Ursula); Wolf Appel (Ruger Aspeck); Maddalena De Faria (Walpurg)
Tölzer Knabenchor, RIAS Kammerchor
Radio-Symphonie Orchester Berlin/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded live May 5/15, 1978, location not given
La Vestale: Gundula Janowitz (Julia; soprano); Ruza Baldani (La grande Vestale); Gilbert Py (Licinius; tenor); Giampaolo Corradi (Cinna); Agostino Ferrin (Le grand Pontife; bass);
Orchestra e Coro [di Roma?] della RAI/Jesus Lopez Cobos
Recorded live in Rome, 1974
PONTO PO-1034 [78:14 + 76:15]

In 1898 Richard Strauss, irked by his native Munichís rejection of his first opera Guntram, as well as the music of his hero Wagner, teamed up with a local satirist Ernst von Wolzogen to write a work, larded with Wagnerian puns and references, all about a student of magic who got his own back on a town that had humiliated him. In other words, he told the people of Munich where to get off. Spleen is not an emotion likely to inspire a great work of art, and the opera has never really entered the repertoire, though Mahler conducted the Viennese première and in England Sir Thomas Beecham conducted it in 1910. Much later he made a recording of the orchestral love-scene.

The present recording is accompanied by a helpful introduction but has no text, let alone a translation. Indeed, surfing around the Internet in the hope of finding a libretto and translation, I found instead a correspondence lamenting that not even the publishers (Boosey & Hawkes) can provide an English translation and the only one ever made was for a vocal score in English only (for the 1910 production?), long out of print. The brief synopsis here tells a story with two characters, a minor intervention from a third plus a few from the townsfolk (the chorus). As you can see, the opera actually has a rather large cast and it would be nice to know what they are all doing.

Forced to judge the work as a 90-minute symphonic poem with voices, I can only say it comes out of it pretty well. Richard Strauss seems to have forgotten his spleen when he actually got down to creating music, and here we have a continuous stream of alternately lively, fantastic, sumptuous and passionate music, with the love scenes the obvious highlights.

Other recordings, both from Munich, are a live 1958 version with Maud Cunitz and Marcel Cordes under Kempe on Orfeo and a studio version from about 1985 with Varady and Weikl under Heinz Fricke on Arts Music. Both seem to provide a libretto, though no translation. You might say the one has the conductor, the other has the singers.

This one has both. Though live, it appears to have been two concert performances excellently recorded by Berlin Radio, albeit with the voices a mite too far forward as they often were in those days. Gundula Janowitz soars with all the Straussian voluptuousness at her command, Shirley-Quirk is thoroughly in control of the high tessitura and Leinsdorf shows not only the firm architectural grasp we might take for granted, but also a spontaneity, wit and tenderness which he is popularly supposed to have lacked. Some of the smaller parts struggle a bit with the tessitura, but without a libretto itís a bit difficult to say who is the culprit. If the lack of a libretto does not worry you, you can safely go for this set.

The other two versions spread the work over two CDs (interestingly, Kempeís timing is identical to Leinsdorfís, Fricke takes three minutes more); the present issue, evidently aimed at fans of Janowitz, has a selection from Spontiniís La Vestale, again a concert performance for a major European radio station. Though the recording companies thought Janowitz could sing only Mozart, Strauss and Lieder, she did have such things as Aida in her repertoire and is fully in command of an opera which sits somewhere between Mozartís La Clemenza di Tito, late Gluck and Bellini. Her radiant tone and fine line are always in evidence, and are basically the tools with which she makes her characterization Ė a Tebaldi concept rather than a Callas one, you might say. The other parts are at least adequate, as far as I can tell from a selection which includes them only where they have duets or ensembles with the heroine, and somewhat more than that in the case of Ruza Baldaniís Grande Vestale.

Off-the-air or not, Ponto had a good source for Feuersnot. Here, the congested, monophonic and distorted sound is typical of home-taping on moderate equipment, the sort of thing you might describe as "not bad for what it is" if it dated from about 1955. If the original tapes are still held by the RAI (I think thereís a 90% chance that they are and sound fine), then it really would be worthwhile for someone (Warner Fonit?) to remaster them and issue the performance properly (and complete). Since the two commercial recordings, under Kühn and Muti, are inadequately cast, this adequately cast version (and much more than that in the case of Janowitz) under a conductor well versed in this sort of thing would be the first choice.

For what itís worth, more or less bootleg versions of La Vestale have appeared at one time or another with Callas (in a version cut to the bone), the young Renata Scotto conducted by the elderly Vittorio Gui (also with plenty of cuts), Caballé, Kabaivanska and the present performance in its complete form.

Still, if itís Feuersnot you want, since the alternative versions have nothing extra, even if you regard this "bonus" as non-existent it doesnít really enter the equation.

Christopher Howell



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