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Bedřich SMETANA (1824–1884)
The Bartered Bride (sung in German) (1866)
Gottlob Frick (bass) – Kezal; Pilar Lorengar (soprano) – Marie; Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) – Hans; Karl-Ernst Mercker (tenor) – Wenzel; Ivan Sardi (bass) – Micha; Marcel Cordes (baritone) – Kruschina; Nada Puttar (mezzo) – Kathinka; Sieglinde Wagner (contralto) – Agnes; Ernst Krukowski (tenor) – Springer; Gertrud Freedmann (soprano) – Esmeralda; Walter Stoll (bass) – Muff; RIAS-Kammerchor, Bamberger Symphoniker/Rudolf Kempe
rec. May, June, October 1962, Kulturraum, Bamberg and Grunewaldkirche Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 3818722 [67:43 + 69:37]

Opera in the original language or in the vernacular? For a great many years the answer was self-evident: opera was sung in the language of the audience. In many countries and opera houses this was still the norm long after WW2. Now that most houses have surtitles, the underlying problem is solved.
On record Germans have tended to sing in German but by the time the LP appeared on the scene complete operas were often – but not always – recorded in the original. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride – in German it is known as Die verkaufte Braut – is something of a special case, since it never really became a well-known work until well into the 20th century and then in Max Kalbeck’s German translation for a staging in Vienna. My first LP set of the work was in German, recorded by Concert Hall in Frankfurt, probably in the mid-1950s. It was conducted by Walter Goehr, had a lively and dramatic but maybe too genial Kezal in Heinz Rehfuss and Marie was sung by the fine German soprano Elfriede Trötschel. The rest of the cast was at best middling. When, some years later, I got hold of a highlights record from the set under review, I felt that this was the real thing. That set has held a honoured place on my shelves ever since. It was a pleasure to return to it and it sounded just as good as ever.
Stints by Rudolf Kempe as an opera conductor were not all that frequent; at least not on record. However he set down two legendary Wagner performances, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Lohengrin and this Bartered Bride came somewhere between the Wagner operas. The joyous and alert overture, fresh and life-enhancing, can be set beside the Figaro overture as the greatest vitamin injection in all opera. It strikes the right note from the outset. When the imaginary curtain rises we are met by the people, in the shape of the excellent RIAS-Kammerchor under legendary Günther Arndt, singing their tribute to Spring in Seht am Strauch die Knospen springen. The dances, often played separately as stimulating encores at orchestral concerts, Polka, Furiant and, in the last act, Dance of the Comedians, are performed with verve and virtuosity. The Comedians is really stunning.
Among the smaller roles in the long cast-list we find some names that are still remembered, Sieglinde Wagner, for instance, and also the bass Ivan Sardi. There are others who never recorded much and so tend to be forgotten. Gertrud Freedmann makes a charming Esmeralda with her fresh and clear high soprano. Ernst Krukowski as the Circus Director Springer is a lively and expressive actor in what is mainly a spoken part. Many of the others primarily take part in larger ensembles of which there are several.
Karl-Ernst Mercker makes a pitiable character of the stuttering Wenzel; one doesn’t expect ingratiating tone from a comic character tenor like him. Ingratiating is on the other hand exactly the adjective for Fritz Wunderlich. He has moments of strain but he often caresses Smetana’s beautiful music with that unique glowing tone; nowhere more so than in the short aria Gesegnet, was liebt und auch vertraut just before the finale, and of course in the famous duet with Marie in the first act¸ Mit der Mutter sank zur Grabe. There, as elsewhere, Pilar Lorengar is better than in any other recording I have heard. Her quick vibrato, which later in her career tended to widen and give a feeling of unsteadiness, is here beautifully controlled and she sings warmly and, in the aria in act 3, emotionally charged. Wunderlich also shows his vitality and comic talent in the long act 2 scene with Kezal, that opens CD 2. As an actor he is only second best when set against such a larger-than-life personality as Gottlob Frick. Many probably think of him in the heavy Wagner roles, odious characters like Hunding and Hagen, or noble ones like Sarastro. He was also a superb Osmin and Kezal was a part that fitted him like a glove. His aria, included in this scene, is certainly the high-spot here.
EMI’s recordings from the 1960s were generally speaking excellent, not as spectacular as Decca’s but honest and atmospheric. This 45-year-old production carries its years lightly, and the digital remastering has made it even fresher. It is well balanced and there are some sound effects, especially in the last act when the circus arrives: crowd noises, a barking dog; all give the impression of a live performance. The booklet has historical notes on Smetana and this opera and a fairly detailed synopsis by my reviewing colleague Christopher Fifield.
The safest recommendation for readers contemplating a purchase of The Bartered Bride is probably the 25-year-old Supraphon set, conducted by Zdenĕk Košler and with Gabriela Beňačková as Mařenka (Marie) and Peter Dvorský as Jenik (Hans). It is sung in Czech, has an excellent supporting cast but is let down by a Kezal who certainly knows the role inside out but no longer had the vocal means to carry it through. If one can accept it sung in German, this Kempe version is highly competitive with Pilar Lorengar in what is possibly her best recorded role, Fritz Wunderlich as his characteristic self and Gottlob Frick the fruitiest Kezal ever. The music is so captivating and beautiful that everybody should have at least one version.
Göran Forsling



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