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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Notre Dame - A Romantic Opera in Two Acts (1906) [125.51]
Kurt Moll (bass) - Quasimodo; Dame Gwyneth Jones (soprano) - Esmerelda; Hartmut Welker (baritone) - Frollo; Horst Laubenthal (tenor) - Gringoire; James King (tenor) - Phoebus; Kaja Borris (mezzo) - Mme Falourdel; Hans Helm (bass) - Officer
Choir of St Hedwig’s Cathedral; RIAS Chamber Choir; Andreas Juffinger (organ)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christof Perick
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, August 1988
CAPRICCIO C 5181 [70.29 + 55.22]

One is absolutely delighted to see the re-emergence from the deletions box of the series of opera recordings made by Capriccio during the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these enshrine the only recorded performances available on disc of rare German romantic repertory from the earlier part of the twentieth century. Among these the re-release of Schmidt’s Notre Dame must be the most welcome of all, since it is otherwise represented in the current catalogue only by a transferred live performance dating from 1949 where the sound cannot begin to do justice to Schmidt’s glorious orchestral textures.
 
That said, the original issue also contained complete texts and translation, and although the informative booklet notes by Georg Titscher, Carmen Ottner and Gerhard Schmiedpeter - from which the final paragraph has here been truncated abruptly in the English translation - have been retained, in such unfamiliar works the texts and translations are vital for the listener’s comprehension. It is of no assistance that the synopsis which is provided is so inadequate. One can understand the reluctance of the company to reprint the substantial booklets required in such esoteric repertoire, but could they at the very least consider making the missing items available online? In reviewing this set I have made use of the booklet that came with the original 1989 issue, but purchasers of this new release will obviously not have that advantage; and the German vocal score, which is available online from ISMLP, contains no translation.
 
Criticisms of the score at the time of the original release centred upon the supposedly ‘symphonic’ nature of the music, which was held to take precedence over dramatic content. It is true that there is a great deal of purely orchestral writing in the score, not just the relatively well-known Intermezzo. Then again, Schmidt is best known as a symphonic composer, and his orchestral music always repays attention. It is extremely well played here by the Berlin Radio players under Christof Perick. The voices are placed somewhat forwardly, but this means that the words are clear; and the balance is not totally unrealistic. The orchestra remains well in the picture, and the strings play with all the passion that one could wish in the music which introduces Esmeralda - familiar from the Intermezzo. It is no surprise that a dramatist such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, although he regarded the text (drawn from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as “silly”, recognised the force of the music, which Strauss’s librettist observed reminded him of Strauss’s own; indeed there are audible similarities of style.
 
At the time of the original release adverse comment was also made of the casting of Gwyneth Jones and James King in the leading romantic roles. Suggestions were made that both were too old to be convincing. In the opening scene King convinces us of his passion, and it is marvellous to hear the music so expertly taken. The top B flat which comes in the very first pages doesn’t faze him at all, and he even adds another unwritten one during the love duet. The richness of his tone hardly shows any real signs of wear. It is probably no surprise that Jones, who cruelly first enters on a high A flat, shows a decided lack of steadiness from the first. Schmidt seems to expect a solidly heroic tone from his singer, but Jones sounds too matronly in her lower register to be convincing as the young gipsy girl even when she is singing quietly and with expressiveness. As compensation. her attention, as always, to the text pays dividends. She rides the climaxes with all the force that one could wish. Both of these veterans combine to good effect in their extended love duet at the end of Act One. Jones seems to be in steadier voice, and one positively regrets that King’s character is stabbed at the final curtain.
 
Hartmut Welker - taking over the main male role in Act Two - who on occasions in the past has been a rather inflexible singer, shows a commendably willingness to sing quietly when required and makes the lascivious archdeacon into a character with whom the listener can feel a degree of empathy. The other principal role is that of the eponymous hunchback of Victor Hugo’s original novel. Here Kurt Moll is a tower of strength as one would expect, but with reserves of tenderness which provide the right sense of emotional sympathy. Horst Laubenthal’s tenor contrasts nicely with King, more lyrical in tone, but he nevertheless makes a convincingly tormented villain. Even the smaller roles are taken by singers of the calibre of Hans Helm and Kaja Borris.
 
The rather backwardly placed chorus sing with plenty of body, although it is a pity that Schmidt’s frequent instructions for the use of solo voices or small bodies of them are ignored. There are clearly a great many more than twelve male singers in the passages where fewer are shown in the score. However one is very grateful indeed that the performance as a whole is so convincing. Perick demonstrates his sympathy for the score by refusing to permit any wholesale cutting - an endemic problem with stagings and recordings of German operas of this period - although he does omit a passage of 48 rather anticlimactic bars at the end of the Intermezzo. This may have been a cut made by the composer himself, since a number of other minor changes of wording are made from the text as given in the vocal score. Perick also takes a small snip of 15 bars in the prelude to Act Two, and two further ones each of 8 orchestral bars in the following aria for Frollo where some alterations in the note values of the vocal lines would seem again to imply that a different version of the score is being followed. Similarly three orchestral bars are cut in the following duet, as well as ten bars of the vocal line at the end. By the way, the orchestral interlude which follows, with its prominent part for organ, is a superb piece of writing on a par with the better-known Intermezzo from Act One. In the following scene Quasimodo’s later cries of “Asyl!” after he has rescued Esmeralda are missing, and a further snip of ten bars is made in the final scene. All of which, along with a further couple of clearly deliberate alterations in the vocal line, leads one to suspect that the score being employed includes some amendments from the 1913 vocal edition, the publication of which preceded the première and may have been subjected to revision during rehearsal.
 
One’s sole criticism of the whole enterprise must reside in the fact that the offstage effects which proliferate throughout the length of the score - from Esmeralda’s distant voice in the square which forms a background to the lengthy duet between Gringoire and the archdeacon - are insufficiently remote to provide the right sense of mysterious depth to the sound. At the very end however the effect of the massive offstage orchestra - an extravagance which one imagines would be avoided in live performances - is much better realised.
 
Although, as I have said, this is the sole modern recording of Notre Dame in the current catalogues, there was a radio broadcast from the Vienna Volksoper in 1975 which has at various times appeared in pirated transfers. It has to be said that in that broadcast the younger Julia Migenes and Hans Hopferweiser were more appropriately cast in their roles than Jones and King are here; but the orchestral playing under Wolfgang Schneiderhahn was pretty scrawny as I recall, and the gorgeous Intermezzo was a particular let-down. No, if you want a recording of Notre Dame in modern sound, this is the only real option; and despite its failings it is a good one even if one might anticipate a new recording at some stage. The music well repays investigation, and those who only know the score from the Intermezzo - which in the version twice recorded by Karajan begins halfway through the extensive interlude to cover the scene change between the second and third scenes in Act One - will find much else of interest here.
 
By the way these new Capriccio reissues come with rather striking cover illustrations; the originals were very plainly presented indeed. As the sole modern recording of Notre Dame this set comes with high praise. If the company were prepared once again to make the text and translation available online, it might conceivably outclass any later rival for a considerable time to come.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Experience Classicsonline