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CD: Crotchet

Johann STRAUSS II (1825 - 1899)
Die Fledermaus (1874)
Werner Hollweg (tenor) - Gabriel von Eisenstein; Edita Gruberova (soprano) - Rosalinde; Christian Boesch (baritone) - Frank; Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo) - Prince Orlofsky; Josef Protschka (tenor) - Alfred; Anton Scharinger (baritone) - Dr. Falke; Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) - Dr. Blind; Barbara Bonney (soprano) - Adele; Elisabeth von Magnus (soprano) - Ida; André Heller (speaking part) - Frosch; Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, June 1987
The libretto can be found at the Karadar website.
WARNER TELDEC 2564 69125-6 [56:39 + 49:20]
Experience Classicsonline

We saw Nikolaus Harnoncourt some years ago on TV conducting the traditional New Year’s Concert from Musikverein in Vienna. He did it with obvious relish.

Not having heard this particular recording of Die Fledermaus I was looking forward to a scintillating but perhaps ‘different’ performance of this the most bubbling of operettas. I was proved right: it is different. However, bubbling it definitely doesn’t become until the final pages of act II, which is the right place to feel bubbly after so much champagne. In a good performance one should feel the party atmosphere in the overture - that brilliantly concocted brew of all the score’s finest ingredients. The Concertgebouw - recent voted the best orchestra in the world in a leading music magazine - play superbly, but the magic is missing. This is music that should float at least a couple of inches above the floor; here it is pedestrian. Harnoncourt’s penchant for slow tempos is the prime reason. He misses the Viennese lilt. Go to Fricsay or Krauss for the real thing - though their recordings are around sixty years old - or, if you can find it, Josef Krips’ old LP on Concert Hall. This latter is a programme of orchestral pieces by Strauss.

Quirky tempos are occasionally a problem in the performance proper, where Alfred’s opening off-stage serenade is heavy and pompous. Rosalinde’s czardas Klänge der Heimat is viscous and long-winded but it is also different for another reason, since it includes some extra bars. Harnoncourt has striven to make this the most musically complete version and inserts some solo contributions in the servants’ chorus at the beginning of act II where, after the Brüderlein and Duidu episodes the complete ballet music (11b in the score) is played. It is infectious music with Hungarian flavour and no-one can complain of the vigour and commitment in Harnoncourt’s conducting. This is all to the good. Less so is the decision to omit the spoken dialogue. Clemens Krauss did so back in 1950 and Karl Böhm again in the early 1970s. Both recordings were on Decca and both have claims to be among the best sung and - especially in the case of Krauss - conducted. But the story, which is rather muddled anyway, becomes more or less incomprehensible. Teldec have tried to solve this by engaging Frosch, the gaoler who normally appears in act III in various stages of insobriety, depending on the director’s wishes. Here he pops in - and perfectly sober too! - the first time after Adele has read the letter from her sister at the beginning of act I. André Heller has written Frosch’s texts himself. He is a splendid actor but I would still prefer the original dialogue. For those who are not fluent in German this solution is impractical and the libretto, to which there is a link in the header, is of no help since it is not directly related to this recording. It is a standard libretto with one version of the spoken dialogue included. There are many such versions and every recording I have has its own variant. Moreover the libretto is in German only. There are no translations.

The generous acoustics of the Concertgebouw give the recording a larger-than-life feeling. When Harnoncourt has the orchestra playing at full throttle the sound becomes almost overwhelming. But there is mostly good balance between pit and stage as it is between the admirable chorus and the singers.

The cast is a mix of Central European singers of various ages. The veteran is Waldemar Kmentt, who has recently turned 80 and consequently was in his late 50s when the recording was made. He has recorded - not least operetta - since the 1950s. His Fledermaus credentials are impressive. In 1960 he was Eisenstein for Karajan - the famous Decca recording with the star-studded Gala Performance. Twelve years later he was Alfred for Böhm and then another fifteen years later he was Blind, the stuttering lawyer. His incisive tenor is as characteristic here as on the previous recordings. Werner Hollweg, who here is Eisenstein, was also past fifty at the time. His lyric tenor has darkened and hardened a bit, so the two sound very much alike in their first act duet, where Hollweg is relentlessly singing at forte. He is much more flexible further on and is almost in the Gedda class. The third tenor, Josef Protschka, is a basically mellifluous Alfred, not quite in a Dermota (Krauss) or Dallapozza (Boskovsky) but fine anyway. The little recorded Christian Boesch is a good, slightly anonymous, Frank, while Anton Scharinger, early in his career, can be both honeyed and boisterous as Falke. Fischer-Dieskau (Boskovsky) is unsurpassed in the role but Scharinger is not too far behind.

I am afraid Edita Gruberova, normally a great favourite of mine, is slightly below her best as Rosalinde. She does many good things but she is sometimes strained and I have a feeling that she isn’t quite comfortable with the role. Güden, Schwarzkopf, even Rothenberger are far preferable. Barbara Bonney, on the other hand, who actually is American but has spent much of her career in Europe, is an Adele to challenge Rita Streich: fresh and sparkling as good champagne should always be. She is probably the best reason for getting this recording, though Marjana Lipovšek’s Orlofsky is also a superb interpretation - almost on a par with Brigitte Fassbaender (Boskovsky).

As a whole this version is not one of my real favourites, due to the drawbacks I have described above, but it has still several good things on offer. Fricsay, Krauss, Karajan I and Boskovsky are my preferred versions, but the first three are in mono. Those who must have more modern sound should try Carlos Kleiber or Karajan II or even give Harnoncourt a chance.

Göran Forsling


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