Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Manfred - Dramatic poem in three parts by Lord Byron Op 115 [89:00]
Manfred - Johann von Bülow; Chamois Hunter and Spirit - Stefan Wilkening; Witch of the Alps and Astarte - Tina Amon Armonson; Nemesis - Vera Bauer; Abbot - Dieter Prochow; Mechthild Bach (soprano); Elisabeth Popien (mezzo); Hans-Jörg Mammel (tenor); Hermann - Marcus Flaig (bass); Manfred Bittner, Ekkehard Abele and Tobias Berndt (basses)
Chor des Städtischen Musikvereins zu Düsseldorf;
Düsseldorf Symphoniker/Andrey Boreyko
Johannes Deutsch (direction and visualization)
rec. live, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, 2010
DVD region code 0; picture 16:9; PCM stereo
subtitles in German, English and French; NTSC
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101575 DVD [89:00]
Byron wrote Manfred in 1817, calling it a dramatic poem rather than a play. Although there have been occasional stagings dramatic presentations of it now are extremely rare. Schumann completed his incidental music in 1848 and it was used for a stage performance of the whole work in 1852. Unlike, say, Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt or Mendelssohn’s for A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is little which can be played separately apart from an Entr’acte before the Second Act and, the Overture, one of the composer’s best and most frequently played works. It is nonetheless of high quality, and if Byron’s poem is not one of his best it is one of his most characteristic and certainly worth getting to know, especially with Schumann’s music.
For an English-speaking audience there will be a natural wish to hear a poem by one of the greatest poets in that language in its original form. Schumann wrote his music for a German translation but the few vocal numbers can easily be translated into English without noticeable ill effect. Like many others I first got to know the work through the recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, once available on a reissue by Sony but probably no longer available. That used a splendid team of actors more than capable of delivering Byron’s verse in a very convincing way. Maybe it will seem old-fashioned by the standards of modern verse speaking but it does suit the style and rhythm of the poetry admirably and is clearly audible and understandable. Beecham added his own orchestrations of other pieces by Schumann to cover sections where he felt a need for more music. They were well-chosen and did no harm to the structure.
The present recording is performed in German (with subtitles which generally approximate to Byron’s original), presumably using the same translation that Schumann set. Actors are heard but never seen clearly. The face of Johann von Bülow who plays Manfred can be seen for much of the time in a distorted form on one of the large screens behind the orchestra but the other actors can only be seen in distant view at the side of the orchestra. Much of the poem consists of a series of dialogues between Manfred and individual characters such as the chamois hunter, the Witch of the Alps and the Abbot. It is difficult to know who is speaking when they cannot be seen and lack distinctive voices. I found it helpful, indeed essential, to follow it with Byron’s original written text. This also helps to make clear how much of the poem is deleted - as it was also in the Beecham version. The main characteristics of this performance are the ever-changing and very colourful projections on the screen, apparently chosen by Johannes Deutsch to offer “a visual glimpse into Manfred’s inner world, with constantly changing images of the action and the settings. Above them - as it were his own mental images - hovers Manfred encapsulated in a globe”. However although this may sound an appropriate way of performing a work that lies midway between poem and play, in practice as seen on this DVD it is merely confusing, adding nothing to the text. The actors appear to have been amplified in the concert hall. The result for much of the time is a booming and unatmospheric delivery which sounds more like an address to a large public meeting than interior monologue or private dialogue.
In concentrating on the poem and the production it would be easy to forget the musical side of things which is on a far higher level. The Overture in particular is given a wholly convincing performance which sets up high expectations in the listener which are soon dashed by the dramatic performance and irrelevant visual treatment. The musical performance as a whole is more dramatic than poetic but does reasonable justice to the fragmentary score.
As recordings of the play and music are so rare I would love to be able to be more enthusiastic about this disc. I suspect that the concept may have worked much better when seen and heard live than it does here. Anyone fascinated by the work of composer or poet will want to add a version of Manfred to their collection, but I regret that this disc does not give an adequate impression of its beauties and complexities..
John Sheppard
This disc does not give an adequate impression of Manfred’s beauties and complexities.