Recordings of Der Barbier von Bagdad haven’t been visible
for ages, it seems. Then, some months ago there appeared an early
1970s production, dug out from German radio archives and issued
by Hänssler. Hardly had I posted the review
when a preview on the Naxos website announced a forthcoming release
of this rather famous old Columbia recording. I mentioned it in
my review of the Hänssler set, but I didn’t have a copy available
then, not even an old LP pressing, so I couldn’t make any comparisons.
Now that it is back in circulation, restored by Mark Obert-Thorn,
I have to confess that the Hänssler, for all its merits, comes
out second best.
On sonic grounds
Hänssler scores. Not that the recording is particularly spectacular
but German radio recordings of the 1970s maintained high standards.
Even though I have heard recordings of the period with fuller
sound and more pinpoint clarity it is still more than just acceptable.
The Columbia set, unfortunately recorded in mono since there
was no stereo equipment available in mid-May 1956, isn’t actually
bad. The bass is full and resonant and dynamics are quite impressive
but the strings are rather thin and lack the warmth of the Hänssler.
There is no lack of clarity, however, and we are able to enjoy
the skilful orchestration. Good though Ferdinand Leitner is
on the Hänssler, Erich Leinsdorf is that much more alert, more
forward-moving and more rhythmically acute. He also has the
Philharmonia in superb mid-fifties form and the Philharmonia
Chorus was also a force to reckon with even in those days.
I need not go into
the plot, since I gave an outline of it in the previous review.
The story is taken from the Arabian Nights but there
is little attempt at orientalism in the music, apart
from the atmospheric entr’acte opening act two, thematically
built on the muezzin’s proclamation of prayer.
A look at the cast-list
above shows that the producer Walter Legge spared no pains when
he gathered this ensemble in the studio, even for the minor
roles. The young Eberhard Wächter is the 1st Muezzin
in company with two internationally acclaimed tenors and Hermann
Prey, born the same year as Wächter (1929), is a characteristically
expressive Caliph. As the Cadi we hear the legendary character-tenor
Gerhard Unger, who never had a very attractive voice but creates
a vivid personality from his role. Grace Hoffman, another relative
youngster and later to become a mainstay at Bayreuth, out-sings
the still very good Marga Schiml on the Hänssler set. Her duet
with Nureddin in the first act is a truly high-spirited tour-de-force.
Nureddin was obviously a role that inspired Nicolai Gedda. There
is not a bland portrait in his vast gallery of operatic roles
on records but here he is in his element: as smooth in the lyrical
moments as Laubenthal on the Hänssler but a much more visible
character. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is delicate and alluring as
Margiana and her creamy tone is a delight. Helen Donath on the
Hänssler set was uncharacteristically acidulous and tremulous.
The real winner
I have left for the final paragraph. Linz-born Oskar Czerwenka
had an important career in Europe for almost forty years and
also sang at the Met, but his recorded legacy is, to my knowledge,
fairly thin. He sang standard German bass roles as well as appearing
in a couple of world premieres, but his true forte was the buffo
roles: Ochs, Kecal, Osmin and van Bett (in Lortzing’s Zar
und Zimmermann). Abul Hassan belongs in that category and
his reading here gives a hint of what he would have sounded
like in these aforementioned roles. His voice is lighter, less
monumental and less sonorous than Hans Sotin’s on the Hänssler
set, but he sings all the deep notes with assurance, which Sotin
doesn’t. Where they most obviously differ is in the singing
style. Czerwenka sometimes shuns legato and resorts to speech-song.
He sometimes slides between notes, for comical reasons, which
has the effect, on this listener at least, of being slightly
off pitch. His technical accomplishment is never in doubt and
his patter singing is immaculate. Everything considered he is
the more theatrical and sings with much more face, where Sotin
is rather straight. The long scenes with Gedda’s Nureddin in
the first act are possibly the highlights of the whole recording
(CD 1 tr. 7-13).
As a bonus we get
the overture in D major that Cornelius wrote in 1873 on Liszt’s
advice. It is a charming enough piece in the traditional potpourri
format. It is good to have it, even though most listeners would
no doubt prefer the more artful original overture in ¾ time.
Cornelius never orchestrated that new overture, which Liszt
did after Cornelius’s death.
The rest of this
2 CD set is occupied by the little one act opera Abu Hassan,
written in 1811 by the then 24-year-old Carl Maria von Weber.
The librettist Franz Karl Hiemer drew on the Arabian Nights,
as did Cornelius for his work, so the two have a common denominator.
It is an inspired piece with a lot of attractive music and there
are few such scintillating overtures in the whole opera literature
as this one. It is skilfully orchestrated and needs a fine modern
recording to make its mark, which it doesn’t get here. Recorded
by German radio on a Magnetophon tape recorder during the war
the sound is rather primitive with overload and distortion.
Anyone who knows this overture will feel frustration when hearing
it. The vocal numbers also suffer from the sound quality, not
least the chorus, but it is still interesting and valuable to
have this recording as a document of the young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Both she and the today largely forgotten tenor Erich Witte are
lyrical and youthful. Schwarzkopf is already a fully fledged
artist who phrases sensitively. The third character, Omar, is
again a part for an experienced buffo bass and with veteran
Michael Bohnen, born in 1887, the role is in safe hands. He
sounds his age, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and he
is a good actor and sings impressive low notes. The whole performance
is vivid but the sound is a liability. Moreover this is a truncated
version of the opera. All the music is there but since this
is a Singspiel there is also substantial spoken dialogue
and this is missing.
As a filler to the
wholly admirable Barbier von Bagdad it is worth having
but readers who want the whole thing are advised to search out
a 35-year-old recording on EMI, made in Munich under Wolfgang
Sawallisch and with Edda Moser, Nicolai Gedda and the magnificent
Kurt Moll. Gedda isn’t as youthful as he was almost twenty years
earlier but it is still a wonderful reading and the dialogue
adds considerably to the experience.
Those who have already
bought the Hänssler set of Der Barbier von Bagdad need
not feel short-changed – it is a valid reading of a highly accomplished
work – but there is an extra frisson to the Leinsdorf set and
it now has to be my prime recommendation.