recording of excerpts from Carmen was made for broadcasting
purposes by RIAS Berlin. The reasons for having it sung in German
were threefold: it was common practice at the time to perform
vocal music in the vernacular; as part of the ‘re-education’
after the Nazi period it was important that culture could be
understood easily and RIAS reached only people in Berlin and
its surrounding area. It was never intended for commercial release.
But also when Fricsay a few years later recorded a similar highlights
disc for Deutsche Grammophon with other singers it was also
sung in German. It was, during that period, the policy of the
company, which was still mainly a Germany-oriented company.
During a period of transition they used to set down two sets
of recordings, one for the domestic market in German and one
for an international market in the original language.
might wonder why they didn’t record the full opera when they
spent so much effort on the production. Hearing the result it
is even more to be deeply regretted, since this is from beginning
to end a truly fascinating and engaging reading, first and foremost
on behalf of the conductor. Hungarian-born Ferenc Fricsay had
a comet-like career directly after the war. In the 1950s he
was certainly one of the foremost conductors in Europe, highly
regarded in a wide repertoire and possibly Deutsche Grammophon’s
premium conductor. Alas he contracted cancer and died in 1963,
aged 48. In the field of opera he recorded several Mozart works:
Die Entführung, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and
Die Zauberflöte. His Fidelio is also a reading
to place among the best, and I believe he could have made a
Carmen to sweep the board with existing versions. The
mono sound on this disc is a bit congested but clear and well-balanced
and the clarity of Fricsay’s conducting is superb. Extremely
well rehearsed, the prelude is both punchy and elegant with
lucid textures and rhythmic élan. It is here, and in the three
entr’actes and the ballet sequence in act four that he shows
what a fine conductor he was. The first entr’acte (tr. 5) is
rather brisk but light and airy and translucent, the second
(tr. 8) – the one with flute and harp in the opening – is also
light with splendid playing from the wind soloists, but maybe
the harp is a little too closely balanced. The third entr’acte
(tr. 11) is shaped to perfection and the ballet music is a tour
de force with a frenetic Farandole (tr. 12) and the Danse
bohémienne a winner with its rousing accelerando.
Carmen is much more than a few orchestral pieces and
it is in the vocal numbers that a conductor reveals his dramatic,
theatrical mettle; this is also where Fricsay triumphs. He chooses
sensible tempos, never drags, keeping in mind that this was
originally an Opéra Comique: a Singspiel with a lighter
touch than through-composed operas. The fine duet with Micaëla
and Don Josë in act one is so lovingly moulded and oh! how the
strings glow! The gypsy song in act two is highly charged and
he brings out the contrasts in the Card Scene in act three between
the light-heartedness of Frasquita and Mercedes and the ominous
darkness when Carmen enters.
singing is a slightly mixed bag but in general it is up to standard.
There is no Escamillo, but he wasn’t in Mérimée’s original story
either. Frasquita and Mercedes are good and Elfriede Trötschel
is a lovely Micaëla, singing with warmth and feeling. Rudolf
Schock was a versatile singer. To many he was the leading operetta
star of his time but he actually sang anything from Donizetti
to Wagner – he was a better-than-average Walther in Rudolf Kempe’s
Meistersinger – and his Don José has many virtues. He
can be rather stiff and unrelenting at times and his actual
tone is on the dry side but he has his lyrical moments where
he caresses the phrases lovingly. In the second act confrontation
with Carmen he is deeply involved and delivers a lyrical and
restrained Flower Song with powerful climaxes –and he ends it
softly! It’s a pity that it wasn’t cued separately; as it is
it is in the middle of a track that lasts for 12 minutes. He
is also moving in the final scene.
what about Carmen? At the time of the recording Margarete Klose
was close to fifty and had a long and distinguished career behind
her, best known as a Wagner singer. In the Habanera there are
signs of a certain hollowness of tone. This is typical of singers
who have had a too one-sided diet of heavy Wagnerian meals,
but she is nuanced and the Seguidilla is splendidly alluring.
Elsewhere she has a tendency to chop up the musical line with
a kind of Wagnerian declamation but it has to be admitted that
in the Card Scene she is winning with her Walhalla intensity.
perhaps a disc for the general opera-lover who wants all the
plums in good readings and modern sound but for admirers of
Ferenc Fricsay it is a must. I believe many other collectors
will find a lot to admire.