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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 - 1826)
Der Freischütz (1819-20)
Christine Brewer (soprano) - Agathe; Sally Matthews (soprano) - Ännchen; Simon O’Neill (tenor) - Max; Lars Woldt (bass-baritone) - Kaspar; Stephan Loges (bass-baritone) - Samiel; Ottokar; Martin Snell (bass) - Kuno; Gidon Saks (bass) - Ein Eremit; Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) - Kilian; Lucy Hall (soprano) - Four bridesmaids
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live 19 and 21 April 2012, The Barbican, London
Libretto with English translation enclosed
LSO LIVE LSO0726 [64:20 + 58:23]

Der Freischütz was the most famous German romantic opera before Wagner and was also the initial inspiration for Wagner to become an opera composer. It was widely played all over Europe and in Stockholm it was first seen in April 1823, within two years of the world premiere in Berlin. There were several new productions in Stockholm during the 19th century and also during the first half of the 20th century, but after the 1946 production in a new translation by Leo Blech it disappeared and didn’t return until 2008, this time at Folkoperan. I have a feeling that outside Germany the trend has been similar and a search on Operabase for the period 1 January 2011 - 31 December 2015 revealed 33 productions in 28 cities - surprisingly many - but all except a few were in Germany or German-speaking countries, Toronto and Nice being the exceptions. A third exception involved the two concert performances at the Barbican in April 2012, where this recording was made. I was present at the first of those and hearing the music again - I don’t know how much of what I heard found its way onto the finished CDs - very much confirmed my impressions then.
This was one of Sir Colin’s last appearances in London - and possibly anywhere - and it was a frail old man who entered the conductor’s desk. I believe this also can be heard even by those who don’t have the visual memory of the occasion. It is a slow, though by no means super-slow reading. The lyrical moments rather than the dramatic ones are highlighted and there is nothing wrong in that: Weber based his opera to a large extent on German folksongs and they are not basically dramatic. What is the innovative and the dramatic centre-point of this drama is the Wolf’s Glen scene - even today frightening in its eerie unreality. The other innovation is the symphonically conceived overture. Both are well knit with excellent playing from the LSO. When it comes to the long lines in the unfolding drama there is every so often a slackening of forward movement. I am influenced by Carlos Kleiber’s intense reading in his 1975 DG recording, and putting that version aside, this is a valid reading in its own terms, but it is a bit too laid-back for my taste. I don’t know Sir Colin’s 20+ years-old-recording for Philips but the Kubelik recording for Decca is more or less in the same mould. However, Sir Colin knows his Weber and readers who feel that Carlos Kleiber is too incisive may well find this version more to their taste. The recording, the contribution of the LSO Chorus - a riveting Jägerchor not to be forgotten - and the excellent SACD sound (I listened to it in traditional two-channel stereo) still makes this a tempting alternative.
There is a serious hang-up, however. There is no spoken dialogue which makes this more or less a highlights disc where the scenes and arias follow each other without a dramatic connection. At the Barbican concert there was a spoken narration between the numbers. For domestic listening neither that nor the original dialogue would suit repeated hearing, but some kind of bond between the numbers wouldn’t have come amiss. Luckily there is also a quite extensive synopsis to clear things up.
The most essential factor for a new recording of this seminal masterwork is, after all, the singing of the central characters, and there we are largely fortunate. Christine Brewer is an Agathe of exceptional beauty and poise. Sally Matthews’ lovely Ännchen is so riveting that she could just as well have been singing Agathe. Simon O’Neill’s Max is neither too Wagnerian nor too Mozartean - he has the heft needed but also the lyricism, though his tone isn’t particularly ingratiating. Wolfgang Windgassen is still my ideal, but that is to be heard only on a highlights LP long ago forgotten. Lars Woldt, who was a late replacement for an ailing Falk Struckmann, is an expressive, rough and rather evil-sounding Kaspar. Of the minor characters Gidon Saks is a strong and purposeful Hermit and both Stephan Loges and Martin Snell are fully satisfactory. Lucy Hall should be apostrophized for her nice bridesmaids - there are four of them but in this recording she sings all of them.
This wouldn’t be my first choice of recording of Der Freischütz. Carlos Kleiber on DG is still top of the list, in spite of a too lyrical Peter Schreier and a gritty Theo Adam, but this last opera recording by Sir Colin Davis is worth acquiring for all admirers of this uniquely enticing conductor. A worthy memorial.
Göran Forsling