Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) Der Freischütz(1817) [134:19]
Endrik Wottrich (tenor) - Max
Luba Orgonasova (soprano) - Agathe
Christine Schäfer (soprano) - Ännchen
Matti Salminen (baritone) - Caspar
Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) - Ottokar
Gilles Cachemaille (bass) - Cuno
Kurt Moll (bass) - Hermit
Berlin Philharmonic/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. live, concert performances, September 1995, Philharmonie, Berlin
2564 69125-2 [70:11 + 64:08]
There has never been an 'authentic' recording of Freischütz, but Harnoncourt's 1995 reading comes closer than any other. He conducts a pared down Berlin Philharmonic who do a magnificent job of sounding very unlike themselves. Fom the opening bars of the overture the brass and timpani have a distinctive period rasp and thwack that make the work sound really quite new, especially to anyone who got to know it through the smooth-as-honey recordings of Kleiber or Davis. In some ways it is very effective, and Harnoncourt is certainly good at blowing off the cobwebs, but not everyone will enjoy his approach, and his vocal ensemble doesn't stand up next to the very best.
What problems there are tend to flow from the fact that this was recorded at a series of concert performances. That means you have the excitement and tension of an audience, but you also have a lot of intrusive side-effects. There is a very distracting amount of audience coughing in the background, and it happens at the most inappropriate moments, such as the quieter moments of the Wolf's Glen scene or in the gentler passages of Agathe's two arias. The Teldec engineers have done a good job at creating an overall pleasant bloom on the sound, but the choruses in Act 1 sound uncomfortably close and it took me a while to tune in to the solo voices which at the start sounded too distant to my ear: it's hard to tell whether I simply tuned in or whether the perspective altered slightly.
Speaking of the soloists, they are mostly good, but with one major disappointment, the Max of Endrik Wottrich, who just sounds anonymous and bland. His voice is sweet enough but few would call him heroic and Durch die Wälder just passed me by. He blends into the ensembles well, but is that damning him with faint praise? The women are far more effective. Importantly there is a very clear contrast between Schäfer's playful Ännchen and Orgonasova's altogether more serious Agathe. Ännchen's Kommt ein schlanker Bursch is girlish and flirtatious, but Orgonasova summons all of her most ravishing lyricism for the heights of Leise, leise, which is one of the highlights of the performance. Later Und ob die Wolke is just as beautiful and unaffected. She is worthy of comparison alongside greats like Elisabeth Grümmer and Gundula Janowitz. Matti Salminen is a very effective Caspar, always dark and suggestive: his drinking song sounds altogether depraved, while Schweig, schweig is insidious and cruel. Cuno and the Prince are fine, but the final scene is stolen by Kurt Moll's marvellous Hermit who oozes vocal authority in every note.
Harnoncourt's reading of the score is uncluttered and often fairly fast, but he knows how to relax and opens out to a surprisingly broad tempo for Agathe's two big arias. The overture is purposeful and driven in his hands and the Wolf's Glen scene sounds very good indeed. The circumstances of the recording allow even the smallest orchestral detail to come out in the excellent sound, though the concert performance makes it feel unshakeably earth-bound.
This is a good set to keep on the shelves for comparison, though it won't replace Keilberth's, Jochum's and, especially, Kleiber's authoritative readings of this deeply significant work. Its price has just come down dramatically, though, and it is available as a budget double in The Teldec Opera Collection, so maybe you could afford to give it a go regardless.
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