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Peter CORNELIUS (1824–1874)
Der Barbier von Bagdad (The Barber of Baghdad) (1858)
Oskar Czerwenka (bass) – Abul Hassan, the Barber; Gerhard Unger (tenor) – Baba Mustapha, the Cadi; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Margiana, his daughter; Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano) – Bostana, his maid-servant; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Nureddin, in love with Margiana; Eberhard Wächter (baritone) – 1st Muezzin; August Jaresch (tenor) – 2nd Muezzin; Rudolf Christ (tenor) – 3rd Muezzin; Hermann Prey (baritone) – The Caliph of Baghdad; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. 11-12, 14-15 May 1956, Town Hall, Watford, EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786–1826)
Abu Hassan (1811)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Fatime; Erich Witt (tenor) – Abu Hassan; Michael Bohnen (bass) – Omar
Berlin Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Leopold Ludwig
rec. 19 December 1944, Berlin
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111337-38 [78:26 + 57:18]

 

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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.

Göran Forsling 

 

 

 

 


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