Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Der Sturm - opera in three acts - Libretto by Schlegel, after Shakespeare (1952-55) [152:42]
Prospero - Robert Holl (bass-baritone)
Miranda - Christine Buffle (soprano)
Alonso - Ethan Herschenfeld (bass)
Sebastian - Josef Wagner (baritone)
Antonio - James Gilchrist (tenor)
Gonzalo, Ein Schiffspatron - Andreas Macco (bass)
Ferdinand - Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Adrian - Marcel Beekman (tenor)
Caliban - Dennis Wilgenhof (bass)
Trinculo - Roman Sadnik (tenor)
Stephano - André Morsch (baritone)
Bootsmann - Thomas Oliemans (baritone)
Ariel and Mariners - Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Thierry Fischer
rec. live, October 2008, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands
HYPERION CDA67821/3 [3 CDs: 54:48 + 53:35 + 44:25]

Trust Hyperion when essaying their first full-on operatic recording to choose something muscular in virtue and vibrant in interest. This recording is a landmark in the company’s career. Not only is Frank Martin’s three-acter Der Sturm their first full-length live opera, it is also a rarely staged twentieth century masterwork.

That things are done in style is a given. Hyperion are often an exemplar to the industry and a delight to music-lovers and collectors - overlapping constituencies but by no means identical.

Martin is one of those composers whose seriousness of purpose, integrity and tonal glossary dictated a place out of the glow of international acclaim. His music - or much of it – is reputed to have a matte protestant quality which turns its back on glamour or the high places of drama.

As for this opera we may well know of it because of the extracts once on a DGG LP. Martin himself conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the overture and Prospero’s two monologues, sung by the artist for whom the role was originally intended, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There it was harnessed to the music of the even more obscure Werner Egk. You can now hear it on Brilliant Classics. Those extracts were also taken on board in luxurious sound by Bamert and Chandos for his 1990s Martin series.

Der Stürm was premiered by the VSO in 1955 with Anton Dermota, Christa Ludwig and Eberhard Wächter. It was typical of the idealistic BBC of the 1950s that they broadcast a concert version conducted by Ansermet. He it was who in 1967 in Geneva revived the piece with Ramon Vinay, Eric Tappy and Jose Van Damm.

The opera’s prelude is a work of dreaminess though with the pallor of slate - very attractive but not glimmering in Ravel- like diaphony. Ariel's conjured storm can be heard in act I scene 1 with brisk flighty woodwind suggestive of the airborne sprite and crashing thunder and flashing lightning in the timps. That said the onomatopoeia of the Tempest Preludes by Sibelius and Nystroem is not resorted to. The human or superhuman intervention element is kept to the fore.

Entrusted to Christine Buffle, Miranda sounds rather matronly though passionate indeed. There's a slight sense of Berg but little that is resolutely dissonant. There is however some subtle threat in this extremely inventive music. A silvery-sounding harpsichord invokes Ariel who is voiced by a distanced offstage choir. The writing for choir recalls the gentler stretches of Schmidt's choral writing in the Book of The Seven Seals. Robert Holl, well known for his Wagner and Schmidt assumptions, is oaken stern and well attuned to the declamatory writing.

The start of act II has a jazzy Weill-like propulsion with barking saxophones and insistent piano rhythms. There’s more of the roughhouse Weimar republic in act 4, scene 2. The sax is again to the fore at the start of act 2 sc 2. The Caliban here is at first lightly characterised but things improve as Dennis Wilgenhof warms to his task. The interaction with the howling Trinculo of Roman Sadnik is a delight with plenty more sleaze and vapid ‘shtick’ in act 2 sc 2. Buffle, in her dealings with Ferdinand, now sounds more callow and girlish. Its still pretty declamatory singing but gentler emotions now float free with greater ease. It's intriguing that a smoothly pulsed sympathy for the plight of Gonzalo arises in Sc. 5 of act 2 even though Ariel is about to put them to fear and panic for the injustices to Prospero perpetrated long ago by Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian.

Act III on CD 3 (it’s one act per disc and one track per scene) starts with a sincere and even-paced ostinato and simple and effective lyric work from the middle strings. It sometimes sounds baroque – like Rameau. This is surely evocative of Prospero's courtly life before the island.

There are some fine gutsy fanfares and cries of ‘Freiheit!’ The music rises to mercurial fantasy with waspish zephyrs flying and careering. By contrast we have a resolute and sternly soliloquising Prospero who yet suggests the tender tendrils of emotion mixed with a sense of being bereft of his long cherished magical powers. We end with words to the audience: “As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free.”

This is a live concert recording with the odd isolated cough here and there. The Concertgebouw and the control desk deliver plenty of detail though without the unnatural if flattering close-up balance of a Decca team.

The booklet includes an excellent essay encompassing a summary of the plot and a biographical and musical study by Martin biographer Alain Perroux. The libretto is in the sung German with side-by-side English translation.

This music is magically imagined by Martin and brought to harvest by Hyperion, Fischer, his players and singers and engineers. Now let Hyperion surprise us with some other seemingly doomed grand operas of the last century: Nystroem’s Herr Arnes Penningar, Atterberg’s Fanal, Ropartz’s Le Mas, Lazzari’s La Lépreuse, Sessions’ Montezuma and Ginastera’s Bomarzo.

Rob Barnett

Magically re-imagined and brought to harvest.