Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 - 1826)
Agathe - Christine Brewer (soprano)
Ännchen, a young cousin of Agathe - Sally Matthews (soprano)
Max, a gamekeeper - Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Kaspar, a gamekeeper - Lars Woldt (bass-baritone)
Samiel, the dark hunter/Ottokar, Duke of Bohemia - Stephan Loges (bass-baritone)
Kuno, the Head Gamekeeper - Martin Snell (bass)
Ein Eremit - Gidon Saks (bass)
Kilian, a rich peasant - Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Four bridesmaids - Lucy Hall (soprano)
Huntsmen and retinue, bridesmaids and countryfolk - London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 19 and 21 April 2012, The Barbican, London
German text and English translation included
LSO LIVE LSO0726
[64:20 + 58:23]
Only recently I reviewed
a magisterial LSO Live recording of the Berlioz Requiem by Sir Colin
Davis. Just a couple of months previously he had conducted the
orchestra and its chorus in a pair of performances of Weber’s great
Romantic opera, from which this new recording derives. Those two
concerts may well have been Sir Colin’s last appearances at the
Barbican. At the time, my colleague, Jim Pritchard, reviewed
the second of these performances for Seen and Heard.
was by no means the first time Davis had conducted concert performances
of opera which were subsequently issued by LSO Live. There was a 2004 Peter Grimes
, which impressed Mark Bridle (review
) and a 2009 Otello
, about which Jim Pritchard was most enthusiastic (review
). There were other operas, not reviewed on MusicWeb International, including Fidelio
in 2007 (LSO0593) and a Falstaff
from 2004 (LSO0055) and we must not forget Sir Colin’s superb Berlioz opera sets.
This recording of Der Freischütz
is, then, the last in the line and, coincidentally, it reunites Davis
with two of the principals from earlier opera sets. Simon O’Neill was
his Otello - his role debut, I believe - and Christine Brewer was his
I confess that I’m not sure what to make of this
set. Trying to banish any sense of sentimentality at hearing one of the
last recordings of a conductor I greatly admired I wanted
to like it but there are definite problems with it. One concerns the flow of the action. Like Die Zauberflöte
, this is a singspiel
with spoken dialogue punctuating the musical numbers as, until a few
years earlier, sung recitative would have done. For these LSO
performances I understand that a spoken narration in English replaced
most of the dialogue - we get a few snippets of German dialogue during
the musical numbers, principally in the Wolf’s Glen scene - but the
narration has not been included. That’s understandable: listeners might
not have welcomed the narration every time they played the discs and
certainly its inclusion would have necessitated a third SACD. Also, I
recall Jim Pritchard was irritated by the tone of the narration, so on
repeated listening it might have proved to be too much of a good thing.
The downside of omitting the dialogue is that
there’s no link, no flow, between the musical numbers. Nowhere is this
more damaging than at the start of the finale to Act III into which
we’re rather plunged in media res
, finding Agathe presumed shot
to death by Max but actually just about to wake from her ‘dream’.
That’s pretty confusing for those who don’t know the opera and though
the booklet contains a synopsis by David Cairns I strongly suspect that
this is reproduced from the concert programme and that Cairns wrote it
assuming that his readers would understand the action because they’d
heard the narration.
I wonder if in the performances themselves the
singers felt a bit disengaged from the action. In the theatre they
would have been participating in the dialogue but here I presume they
sat and listened to stretches of narration and then stood up to sing.
Perhaps this explains why I had the sense that the performance fails to
catch fire for quite some time though matters do improve somewhat
during and after the Wolf’s Glen scene.
The other reservation I have concerns the voices.
How do you visualise Max and Agathe? It seems logical, I think, to
assume that they’re relatively young people; probably no older than
thirty. That’s not how they sound here. Both Simon O’Neill and
Christine Brewer have big voices - both are seasoned Wagnerians, for a
start - but it’s not just the scale and sound of the voices; neither
really suggests to me total immersion in their respective characters.
Davis recorded this opera many years ago for Philips. I haven’t heard
that recording but I believe I’m right in saying that his Max was
Francisco Araiza and Karita Mattila sang Agathe. As I say, I’ve not
heard that recording but I have heard both those singers, Mattila in
particular, many times and in my mind’s ear I can imagine that on that
earlier recording they would have brought more vocal lightness and more
youthful emotions and ardour to their respective roles than what we
hear in this LSO performance.
Other listeners may react very differently, I
appreciate, but I find that O’Neill in particular is unconvincing. He
has a strong ring to his voice but I don’t find that the tone opens
enough; it just doesn’t sound free. So I miss any sense of youthfulness
or of lyrical ease in his aria in Act 1, though he ends it in suitably
dramatic vein. In the Wolf’s Glen scene, at ‘Ha! Furchtbar gähnt’, I
don’t really get any sense that this is a frightened young man and, in
all honesty, I didn’t really enjoy the sound of his voice at any time.
Christine Brewer, by contrast, makes some very
pleasing sounds but though she offers some intense singing in her Act
III cavatina I can’t persuade myself that I’m hearing a young - or even
a young-ish - girl singing the music; the voice is too big. I responded
better to ‘Leise, leise, Fromme Weise’, which she sings with fine
feeling; here the LSO’s accompaniment is atmospheric, as is the case
throughout the opera.
Among the supporting cast Sally Matthews does well
as Ännchen. Lars Woldt is somewhat blustery in the role of Kaspar but
perhaps that’s not inappropriate to the part and in the final scene
Gidon Saks is sufficiently authoritative to get his way even over a
Duke. Stephan Loges doubles that role with the spoken part of Samiel.
Loges is a fine singer but on this occasion, well though he sings as
Ottokar, I was more impressed with his speaking: he’s really menacing
in the Wolf’s Glen scene, so much so that even the malevolent Kaspar is
cowed - though he soon reverts to type once Samiel has left the stage.
For the Wolf’s Glen scene we get some limited
sound effects which, apparently, were dubbed on later. These are not
all that spectacular - but nor are they distracting - and when Kaspar
casts the bullets it’s the whiplash playing of the LSO and the vivid
contributions of the LSO Chorus that really make the impact.
Truth to tell, it’s the orchestra and chorus that
are the real stars of this particular show. The LSO’s playing is
consistently fine while the LSO Chorus makes a strong impact at their
very first appearance in Act 1. They sustain this level of exciting
participation right through to their exultant contribution to the
jubilant concluding ensemble.
I think this may have been one of those rare
occasions when the force wasn’t really with Sir Colin. I don’t think
this was a question of failing powers. Just recently, in a TV programme
about him, I saw some clips from the St. Paul’s Cathedral performance
of the Berlioz Requiem, given two months later. He sat down for most of
the time and, superficially, didn’t seem to ‘do’ much but, as we know
from the audio recording, he still galvanised his forces in a searching
interpretation. I don’t feel this performance is on the same level.
It’s good but, as I indicated earlier, it doesn’t catch fire for a long
time and though the performance is livelier during and after the Wolf’s
Glen scene I’ve heard Davis produce much more dramatic results on other
is an astonishingly original
and inventive score but this particular performance, though it contains
much to admire, doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye for me.
See also reviews by Göran
and Simon Thompson