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Aribert REIMANN (b. 1936)
Die Gespenstersonate (1984) [88.00]
Hans Günter Nöcker (baritone) - Hummel; David Knutson (tenor) - Arkenholz; Horst Hiestermann (tenor) - Colonel; Martha Mödl (mezzo) - His wife; Gudrun Sieber (soprano) - His daughter; Donald Grobe (tenor) - Johansson; William Dooley (baritone) - Bengtsson; Barbara Scherler (mezzo) - Dark lady; Kaja Borris (contralto) - Cook
Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Ensemble Modern/Friedemann Layer
rec. Hebbel Theatre, Berlin, 25 September 1984
Format: Classical, Colour, DVD-Video, NTSC
Language: German
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 4:3 - 1.33:1
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101657 [88.00]

This DVD enshrines a record of the first performance of Aribert Reimann’s Die Gespenstersonate given at the Berlin Festival on 25 September 1984. Max Loppert, reviewing the original production for Opera, predicted that it would be an opera that would have a “brief vogue” but would “then disappear into obscurity.” In fact it went on to receive further productions in Stuttgart, Vienna and Hamburg before this television broadcast on 28 April 1985. It does not appear to have travelled further afield, and this DVD is almost certainly the only opportunity we are ever likely to receive to actually see the work.
Reimann is principally famous outside Germany as an accompanist for many famous singers. You may also know the name as the composer of Lear, the opera based on Shakespeare’s play which he wrote for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau when the singer’s original request to Benjamin Britten for an opera on the subject was foiled by that composer’s death. Unlike Lear, which did receive later performances outside Germany as well as a DG sound recording, Die Gespenstersonate is scored for a small chamber orchestra with no chorus. It is based on The Ghost Sonata, a symbolist play by August Strindberg which revolves around the skeletons which exist in the closet of every wealthy family. Strindberg’s plot is cut back to the bare minimum (three scenes linked by interludes), and this has its disadvantages - many of the characters in Reimann’s opera fail to engage our sympathies or attention, simply because we have never had the chance to really get to know them. The music during the first two scenes is too often reduced to an accompaniment to the text, which similarly fails to establish the characters. It is not until the interlude which leads into the final scene, and the final scene itself - revolving around the two young people who are inheritors of the sins of their ancestors - that the music truly becomes emotionally charged. The final quarter of an hour of the opera is really very beautiful in an abstract sort of way, but it all comes a bit too late.
As might be expected from a celebrated accompanist, Reimann really understands the human voice, its capabilities and its limitations. The veteran singers take the parts of the older generation haunted by their memories and their sins. They are sometimes asked to sustain forte for too long, but they get their words across and never sound unduly strained by what they are asked to do even if it is a bit one-dimensional. Martha Mödl doesn’t have to sing much - most of her part is either spoken or delivered in Sprechstimme - but apart from some extremely wild top notes most of the role is confined to the lower register of the voice, where she can still produce plenty of tone. She is a really creepy stage presence. Donald Grobe and Horst Hiestermann both have lots of volume and to spare. It is a pity that so much of their parts seem to be bellowed in the top register. Hans Günter Nöcker, the principal protagonist in the earlier scenes before he hangs himself, delivers plenty of nicely rounded tone and his diction appears to be excellent. Kaja Borris and William Dooley also acquit themselves well in relatively minor roles.
This brings us to the two young lovers. Gudrun Sieber is given nothing at all to sing until the final scene, although what she gets there she delivers with generally sweet voice even if her quiet top notes could be even more delicately pianissimo to advantage. David Knutson is an absolute marvel. Reimann had already written the part of Edgar in Lear for him, and his basically tenor voice with its seemingly infinite upward extensions in the counter-tenor range produces an extraordinary effect. Far from seeming disjointed between the various registers, he seems to shift from one tessitura to another with seemingly no effort whatsoever. He is on stage from beginning to end, and shows no sign of tiring.
The orchestral playing under Friedemann Layer is rather recessed - it actually seems to move a couple of steps backward after the opening bars - and could perhaps have used a bit more body. The basic sound is fine, and properly tender and expressive in the final scene.
On the other hand, the stage production by Heinz Lukas-Kindermann is a bit of a liability. I wish that producers would recognise that in the case of a new opera it is essential that the audience should be able immediately to comprehend what is actually happening on the stage. The unit set which is present throughout gives no impression of an exterior in the opening scene, or of an interior in the second, and one has to rely on the booklet for essential information concerning the plot itself.
The booklet states that the recording was made at the actual first performance, but there is no sign of any audience and no final applause; perhaps it was staged specifically for television at the same time. Be that as it may, this is a valuable document in its own right, enshrining as it does a performance of an opera which is unlikely to receive a further recording for a long time. One also suspects that this recording may not remain in the catalogue for long, either.
Now what we really need is a proper archive edition of modern twentieth century operas in stage performance from around the world. There must be hundreds of operas which are never likely to travel beyond their native shores, but which have been recorded for television at the time of their original performances. These should be made available by their originating companies, either on line or through subscription, for the benefit of those who have a real interest in the development of modern opera. You never know, such recordings might even awake an interest in the relevant opera itself - although in the case of Reimann’s Ghost Sonata (even if a new David Knutson could be found) I suspect this is unlikely. Suggestions? Well, so far as the UK is concerned, Turnage’s Silver Tassie, Birtwistle’s Gawain, MacMillan’s Ines de Castro and Tippett’s New Year were all recorded for television at the time of their premières and all have subsequently vanished without trace. That’s just for starters.
Paul Corfield Godfrey