Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Der ferne Klang(1901-1910) [144:23]
Grete: Sally Du Randt (soprano)
Fritz: Mathias Schulz (tenor)
Dr. Vigelius: Stephen Owen (bass-baritone)
Augsburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Choir of the Augsburg Theatre/Dirk Kaftan
rec. live, 3 March, 6-7 April, 5 May 2010, Augsburg Opera House, Germany
ARS PRODUKTION ARS 38 080 SACD [70:05 + 74:17]  

A victim of the Nazi purge on “degenerate art”, Franz Schreker can be categorised as a late-romantic composer whose expressionism put him beyond acceptability in later life. In fact his operas are hardly radical and Der Ferne Klang need have no fears for anyone who admires Richard Strauss’s works in the genre. This opera was first performed in Frankfurt in 1912, and was the event which catapulted Schreker into the front rank of composers in his time, and he was almost immediately was appointed as a teacher at the Vienna Academy of Music. Summed up all too simply, the plot of Der ferne Klang or, ‘the distant sound’ is one which involves an artist, Fritz, who abandons his fiancé to go in search this phenomenon, which he believes will allow him to produce the perfect work of art. Each of the three acts takes us many years into Fritz’s life of gradually increasing desolation, and he eventually dies, finally hearing “Der ferne Klang” while on his deathbed. 

This recording has been put together from live performances given in the Augsburg Opera House in the spring of 2010, and as far as I can tell is the only recording available in SACD format. I seem to remember reading about some drama about the production itself, with director Nicholas Broadhurst having to withdraw just after the commencement of rehearsals, his place being taken by Renate Ackermann. There are in fact very few complete recordings of Der ferne Klang around but all seem excellent. Mathias Schulz has already appeared in the role of Fritz in a recording with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra as an download which I haven’t heard. The Naxos recording conducted by Michael Halász (see review) has a very strong cast and is very fine indeed. The Capriccio label also had an excellent recording under Gerd Albrecht, 60 024-2, but this now appears to be out of print, though is worth tracking down for its dramatic production, glossy orchestra and intriguingly managed off-stage effects in the first act. Neither of these is last two is ‘live’, but while this Ars recording is subject to one or two stage bumps and the characters moving about on stage, this is actually an aspect of the production which is quite appealing, especially in surround-sound. The 5.1 recording really gives the feeling of being in amongst the action, almost like being a prompt at the front of the stage but in a good spot to hear the orchestra properly at the same time. There are a few moments where the solo voices drift ‘off’ a little, but this is a small price to pay for such vivacity. The photos give a fair impression of the sets and action, but any proper judgement on that kind of thing has to be reserved for any DVD release which may be in the pipeline. The booklet provides the entire libretto but only in German, and has very full commentary on Schreker and his opera, including some subjective but well researched ‘sketches’ by Ulrike Kienzle.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this opera, and can imagine myself coming back to it in the same way I frequently dip into the operas of Janáček. The story goes against much of what makes romantic opera tick: there is no wicked enemy or much in the way of passionate rivalries, but the shimmering, at times almost luminous aural picture carries everything into a world of atmosphere and personal strife. Schreker’s romantic idiom is easy to appreciate and, while he doesn’t go in for impressive set pieces or big tunes you can take out with you onto the street, his colorful orchestration and frequent moment of luxurious harmony means there is never a dull moment, and the pacing and content of the story is believable, the characters and their foibles almost credible. Mathias Schulz is very strong as the central Fritz, as is Sally du Randt as his love interest Grete. The off-stage choral effects are well presented; the orchestra very full sounding even in the relatively confined opera house environment, and there are some lovely touches, such as the prominent cimbalom part for the ‘Zigeuner’ music early on. The effect of the final climax is pretty overwhelming, the subsequent apotheosis very moving indeed.
Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang may not be performed all that often, but it makes an impression when it is: my mate Graham of Leeds still raves about an Opera North production from about 20 years ago. All in all this can be counted as a very welcome, indeed significant addition to the operatic record catalogue. Yes, Gerd Albrecht’s Capriccio recording with the distinctive voice of Thomas Moser with Gabriele Schnaut is more emphatically acted and ultimately perhaps makes a more dramatic impact, but since this is unavailable it can’t be counted as competition. The refinement of Michael Halász’s Naxos recording, originally on the Marco Polo label, is very good, but the central character played by Thomas Harper has less oomph than Mathias Schulz, though Elena Grigorescu makes for a fine if rather high-maintenance Grete. This recording from Dirk Kaftan can be purchased fearlessly, and enjoyed with the confidence that it’s one of the best available, and the best and only on SACD.  

Dominy Clements 

One of the best available.