Described by Cybele as “Symphonic Opera for the Concert Hall”, both of the works on this disc have operatic origins. Appassionatamente plus by Hans Werner Henze started out as ‘Das verratene Meer’ (The Sea Betrayed), written between 1986 and 1989 and based on a novel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Instrumental interludes had already been taken from the original version of the opera, which became the 1994 orchestral piece Appassionatamente. The opera score was revised in 2003, and at the same time Henze extended the orchestral derivation, which became Appassionatamente plus.
Strong elements of the opera remain in the orchestral work thus spawned, and the dramatic elements are clearly audible in the piece. The original opera is filled with violence both natural and human, culminating in the destruction of the central character Ryuji after his ‘betrayal of the sea’, some of the more tender moments covering his love for Fusako. A wide range of percussion provides extra layers to moments both fierce and gentle, gongs particularly lending a feel of exoticism. Extremes of colour and emotional charge all combine to create a piece of remarkable intensity and impact, and although the initial impression might be one of cataclysmic tumult, there is a great deal of detail and refinement in the music which lends itself to further rewards on repeated and detailed listening. The live recording is very good indeed, and the Essen audience very well behaved.
Alban Berg had already created a set of orchestral fragments from his previous opera ‘Wozzeck’, and the Five Symphonic Pieces from the Opera “Lulu” gathers together a significant quantity of material from his unfinished second opera. Arranged for orchestra with solo voice, the six movements essentially focus around the third movement, Lied der Lulu. The effect of Lulu’s predatory sexual nature and the fantasies projected by the satellite characters echo with significant permutations of the tone row used for Lulu herself. Resonances both conscious and unconscious hold us and those characters with a kind of unhealthy fascination, and even if all the symmetries and symbolism are sometimes hard to fathom on superficial listening there can be little doubt about the heated eroticism and fateful, doom-laden restlessness which infuses the music. The orchestral colour is lent depth and music-hall timbre with the addition of a saxophone, piano and vibraphone, but these are sonorities and events which resist light-heartedness and wit. If this is something new to you, imagine the spectre of Mahler lingering on into the inter-war years, distorted and increasing in complexity, but maintaining a feel of romanticism within compositional techniques generated to allow such chromatic passions to survive and blossom well into the 20th century. This is most clearly audible in the final Adagio, where the darkness of Lulu’s fate seems almost to grow out of elements from another unfinished Viennese masterpiece, Mahler’s Symphony No.10.
This is a very fine performance and recording, though perhaps just missing out on a place on the front rank of available versions. Julia Bauer sings with beautiful vocal purity and a strong sense of confiding sensuality, but her range doesn’t reach far in terms of sheer drama - which in this context is not necessarily a bad thing. The Essen Philharmonic is a fine band of musicians, but the performance is a little on the generalised side. There should be a kind of white-hot intensity which exudes from this score, and the ‘grip’ with this recording isn’t quite absolute. The string sound is a bit on the glassy side, though while the balance is more that of a concert hall perspective rather than with orchestral soloists individually spot-lit and balanced in post-production there is plenty of detail and impact at crucial moments. If anything, the Henze piece has more life and immediacy as a recording. I don’t want to be overly critical, and there are plenty of beautiful and powerful moments prepared and performed with sensitivity and clear commitment. There are of course numerous other recordings of the Five Symphonic Pieces from the Opera “Lulu”, and my own formative experience with the piece on record is that from 1971 with Claudio Abbado and Margaret Price on DG. The standard of this is pretty hard to beat, and on returning to it I find it filled with those absolute and crucial qualities of atmosphere and overheated drama which are somewhat cooler with Stefan Soltesz. Not even Abbado’s own 1990s remake with Juliana Banse was able to dilute the status of his earlier original. There is some SACD competition on the Chandos label, but for me in the end all paths lead back to Abbado and Price, although I am prepared to admit a degree of ‘heritage bias’ in this.
As usual, the Cybele presentation is very good, with a substantial booklet full of photos and information. This is one of those difficult discs, full of integrity and inherently high qualities of performance and recording, but falling somewhere just below the standards set by well established competition in its main work. If the coupling inspires then I can recommend this disc wholeheartedly. If your view of the vocal part in the Lulu Suite is one where less overtly operatic wobbly vibrato would be prized, then this is another clear selling point, with Julia Bauer’s singing most certainly one of the highlights. I have very much enjoyed listening to the programme as a whole, having done so many times on several different systems as I’ve carried it with me on my summer travels. Stefan Soltesz is undoubtedly a fine conductor, though there are a few foot stamps here and there, and passages including 4:23 into Appassionamente Plus where his vocalisations enter into the orchestration with rather too much gusto. This is all part of the live experience of course and of no consequence, this is one of those pieces which you will want to hear more, and after a time will want to rediscover all over again.