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Boris BLACHER (1903-1975)
Der Grossinquisitor, Op.21 [59.32]
Siegmund Nimsgern (baritone)
Leipzig Radio Choir, Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert Kegel
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, May 1986

Let me begin by conveying heartfelt congratulations to Brilliant Classics on the presentation of this release. In the past the label has often shown admirable enterprise in rescuing and reissuing recordings of rare material, only to spoil the package by a failure to provide essential texts for vocal music. Their recent releases of Borodin songs and Rimsky-Korsakov cantatas, both of which I have reviewed for this site, suffered from this defect, which seriously damaged the value of these reissues of unfamiliar works. Not here. We not only have an informative note on the genesis of the music, but we are given the complete text of Blacher’s oratorio Der Grossinquisitor, extended over seven pages. No translation alas, but the German is not hard to follow when you have the words in front of you. I do not know whether the original issue on Berlin Classics in 1998 similarly lacked translations, but although this remains available in the current catalogue it is at full price, which may be a deterrent to potential listeners who will be totally unfamiliar with the music.
Boris Blacher’s music has fallen on hard times since his death in 1975, with only his Paganini Variations maintaining a very precarious hold. However during his lifetime he had quite a formidable reputation in Germany, and his pupils included such well-known figures as Gottfried von Einem, Kalevi Aho and Aribert Reimann. He was included by the Nazis in their prohibitions of ‘degenerate music’ and only emerged from obscurity after 1945; Der Grossinquisitor was written in the dark days of the Second World War with no immediate hope of performance, and at a time when understandable depression had driven the composer close to suicide. The idiom of the music in the first part is not that far from Hindemith’s Whitman setting When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, bursting out into violence only at the beginning of the third movement Aus der Menge. One can imagine more full-blooded playing during this passage from the strings in their heartfelt lament which underpins the more agitated music; otherwise the performance is strong and gripping.
The baritone soloist does not enter until the ninth movement, and has the lion’s share of the vocal writing thereafter. The music for this section was written some years after the first part. By that date Blacher’s music had moved from the realm of Hindemithian neo-classicism into a more expressionist mode with elements of Berg in the vocal line - although Blacher avoids the use of Sprechstimme even in the most dramatic passages. Siegmund Nimsgern is firm of voice and hits every note dead centre, even managing to inject some melodic impulse into the wide-ranging and not always elegant vocal lines. He is placed rather forward in the balance, which means that his full-throated delivery is not wholly free of the suspicion of hectoring. One finds oneself wishing that he would sing quietly once or twice, even if only to allow some respite from the feeling that he is just too much in the listener’s face and ear. A line like “Man does not live by bread alone” goes for too little in this performance, especially at Kegel’s rather hurried speed during this passage (from track 10, 2.05 onwards). The publishers’ website indicates that the total duration of the oratorio should be 65 minutes, and Kegel knocks over five minutes off that estimate.
There is however no other recording of this work in the catalogue - although as noted the original Berlin Classics issue remains available. Those interested in the progress of German music in the period immediately following the Second World War - before the influence of the Darmstadt school began to make itself felt - should make every effort to hear this work. It’s one of the most impressive of Blacher’s serious pieces which deserves to be at least as well-known as his more popular Paganini Variations. The composer himself assembled the text, using not only Dostoyevsky but also passages from the Bible: the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. He clearly felt every word. In the crucial eleventh movement Drei Mächte sind es allein Nimsgern at last allows himself to sing quietly, and the sinister motion of the woodwind accompaniment is chilling. In the passages that follow the chorus whip up a real storm, and Kegel’s headlong driving of the music begins to pay real dividends. The baritone solo which begins Du rühmst Dich Deiner Auserwählten sounds as beautiful as similar passages in Busoni’s Doktor Faust. One finds oneself wondering wistfully what a singer like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau would have made of this section. The closing movement, on the other hand, is rather unsatisfactory as a conclusion to the work - the final message of hope “Der Gefangene geht” is not a positive affirmation, but rather a wistful thought which tails away into nothingness. Obviously this expresses what Blacher felt at the time, but one is left feeling somewhat frustrated.
Never mind; this is generally a great and stirring work which commands the attention of the listener throughout. Brilliant Classics are to be congratulated in making it available at such a reasonable price - and so well presented, too. One hopes that the reissue will tempt potential audiences to investigate the work, and one might also hope that further performances and recordings will follow in due course. As a response to the despair engendered by the Second World War, Der Grossinquisitor should stand in the repertoire alongside such works as Hindemith’s Requiem and Tippett’s A child of our time.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey