Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 – 1957)
Die tote Stadt (1920)
Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor) – Paul; Tatiana Pavlovskaya (soprano) – Marietta; Michael Nagy (baritone) – Frank; Fritz; Hedwig Fassbender (mezzo) – Brigitta; Anna Ryberg (soprano) – Juliette; Jenny Carlstedt (soprano) – Lucienne; Julian Prégardien (tenor) – Victorin; Gaston; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester; Chor und Kinderchor der Oper Frankfurt/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, Oper Frankfurt, 18, 19, 22 November 2009
German texts enclosed
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 948 [77:28 + 53:42]
Korngold had a rather mixed career. A child-prodigy who was hailed by Mahler, Puccini and Strauss, he composed his first piano sonata when he was nine and wrote his first operas at 19. Die tote Stadt was a world success and so disappeared to the United States and became a pioneer of Hollywood film music. After the war he again took up concert music and wrote a violin concerto and a symphony. By then he felt dated and never got the recognition he would have deserved. Not until the early 1970s was there a Korngold renaissance. RCA recorded some of his film music and within a couple of years also his symphony, string quartets and Die tote Stadt. Today he is established in most camps and it has been a long time since someone called his music ‘more corn than gold’.
I belonged to those who adored those film music LPs. Pretty soon I purchased a recording of his violin concerto, where he recycled several themes from his film scores. I also had the recording of Die tote Stadt, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, with soloists Carol Neblett, René Kollo, Benjamin Luxon and Hermann Prey. In the 1990s the Stockholm Royal Opera produced Die tote Stadt, and I saw it at least twice. I later bought the live recording under Leif Segerstam, with Katarina Dalayman a marvellous Marietta and her husband to be, Thomas Sunnegårdh a fine but occasionally overpowered Paul. Later, also in the 1990s I saw a rather strange but well sung production from Opéra National du Rhin at Chatelet in Paris (it is available on DVD but I haven’t seen it). Just before Christmas 2010 I was lucky to attend the premiere of the opera at the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki in an atmospheric and thought-provoking production. Conducted by Mikko Franck and with Klaus Florian Vogt and Camilla Nylund as Paul and Marietta this was a performance that was on a par with the Stockholm production. Vogt was even better than Sunnegårdh and Kerl and with more easy delivery than René Kollo. In my review I hoped that some adventurous record company could be persuaded to record the Helsinki production and, lo and behold, someone had already done so, in Frankfurt a year earlier. My mouth watered when I read Vogt’s name in the cast-list. I was richly rewarded. This is the best Paul!
Hearing Vogt some years ago as Walther von Stoltzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth festival I was first perplexed by his timbre. Here was a very light, lyrical voice, a Mozart voice in fact. It soon turned out that there was no lack in volume and heft and his top notes gleamed like stainless steel. I thought then that this was a voice that should be ideal for Paul – and so it is. The youthfulness and plaintive timbre depict Paul’s character perfectly. He combines this with a fine sense for the text and sensational stamina. Paul is one of the toughest nuts for a tenor and the long solo he has to execute at the very end of the opera must be a nightmare after a long performance filled with vocal challenges. For Klaus Florian Vogt’s achievement alone this set is worth acquiring, whatever the merits of the rest of the cast.
Those merits are considerable. All the Mariettas I have heard have been fully up to the requirements and if I were forced to pick one it has to be the young Katarina Dalayman on the Stockholm recording. It is however a small margin and Tatiana Pavlovskaya, after a somewhat shaky start, is superb. The famous scene in the first act, Glück das mir verblieb is marvellously sung by both singers.
Some years ago Hedwig Fassbender was a good Isolde on the Naxos recording of Tristan und Isolde at the Stockholm Opera. Here she is a strong, dramatic and expressive Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper. She has a glorious voice – I am also very fond of a Strauss Lieder disc, also on Naxos – and it’s a pity that the role isn’t bigger. Paul’s friend, Frank, is sung by Michael Nagy and he isn’t bad, far from it, but he doesn’t quite get under the skin of Frank who remains a bit anonymous. He also doubles as Fritz, the Pierrot, which means that he has the second well known number: Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen, which he sings powerfully and beautifully. For all his excellence I would have liked him to be more mellifluous. Stephan Genz in the Chatelet production is my ideal – or Thomas Hampson on an EMI disc with German arias. The minor roles are – minor but important and are well executed here.
A major role, on the other hand, is played by the conductor. Sebastian Weigle, Generalmusikdirektor at Oper Frankfurt is today one of the most distinguished conductors in German repertoire in all the important opera houses. That includes Sydney, Vienna, New York, Dresden and Bayreuth. Korngold’s lavish orchestration can be a problem, since there is always a risk that the orchestra will drench the singers. Yet if it is subdued too much the colours tend to pale. On this recording neither of these situations occurs. The playing is fresh and colourful, tempos are well chosen and the balance, often so problematic in live recordings, is everything one could wish. External noises are practically non-existent. All in all this is a recording of Die tote Stadt that should attract a wide audience. Whether it is also the best of the three CD sets is another question. All three have many merits and few weaknesses. True admirers of Korngold should have all three.
All in all this is a recording of Die tote Stadt that should attract a wide audience.