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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 - 1826)
Der Freischütz (1819-20) [122:43]
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] 

The passing of Sir Colin Davis has left a big hole in British musical life. One of his most important and long-lasting musical relationships was with the LSO and, more recently, LSO Live, which has brought us some of the finest recordings of his career. Here they bring us his final opera recording, and it’s definitely worth exploring, even though most of the time it is very clearly a concert recording.
It’s appropriate that the star of the recording is Davis himself and, in partnership, the London Symphony Orchestra. They are at their absolute finest in the splendid account of the overture that opens the set. It’s wonderfully atmospheric. Listen, for example, to those opening string phrases, redolent with meaning - is it menace or promise? Then there’s that magical horn quartet that sounds like the mist rising, here beautifully played and recorded, as fine as I've ever heard it. Next along comes the C minor theme associated with Samiel's evil magic, here sounding urgent, thrusting and angular, even frightening in places. Yes, Agathe's C major theme wins in the end, but here it sounds like more of a struggle than I've ever heard before, thanks primarily to the fantastically exciting sound of the LSO brass. Davis too, a showman to his fingertips, is unafraid to throw in a diminuendo or a ritardando to heighten the dramatic tension and wrong-foot the listener: the pauses between the pizzicato chords that introduce the coda, for example, seem to go on for ever but then give way to a blazing climax that sets the seal on the overture and heightens the listener's sense of excitement for the opera that is about to unfold.
The orchestra consistently revel in the opportunity to let their hair down and relish Weber's extraordinary colour. Listen, for example, to the abandon with which they throw themselves into the hunters' waltz in Act 1 or the rollicking of the horns in the entr'acte that opens Act 3, not to mention the Hunters’ Chorus itself. The piccolos that punctuate Caspar's drinking-song sound positively devilish and the string tremolos that accompany the references to Samiel are chilling. The low brass that accompany the Hermit's utterances are appropriately awe-inspiring, and the solo flute and cello that play so important a role in the scene of Max's pardon add a lovely touch of colour.  The players are also very good at conjuring up entirely different sound-worlds for, say, the outdoor exuberance of the hunters' scenes and the domestic interior world of Agathe and Ännchen.
The singers are also very good, if rather earthbound in places, and it is here that you most get the sense that this is a recording of a concert rather than a lived-in dramatic experience. That’s particularly true for the women. Christine Brewer is a treat for the ears. Her rich refulgent voice gives the role a luxurious quality that you seldom hear, even from the likes of Gundula Janowitz. It's something to revel in, even if it's not particularly well acted. She sounds more like a Wagnerian princess than a humble hunter's daughter, but for many that will be a price worth paying for such a resplendent account of Leise, leise, though perhaps it doesn't work quite so well for Und ob die Wolke.  Sally Matthews sounds great, but her Ännchen isn't as skittish and light-hearted as you might have hoped. I can imagine her making a very successful Agathe one day, but it’s a problem that the two female roles aren’t particularly well contrasted.
As for the men, Simon O'Neill is an ardent, heroic Max. Perhaps he doesn't have the excitement of Rudolf Schock or, on Davis’ earlier recording, the honeyed smoothness of Francisco Araiza, but he is fully inside the drama of the part. He doesn't quite relax into Durch die Wälder in the lyrical manner of Peter Schreier but he rises to an exciting climax at the end of the aria when he questions the very existence of God. Lars Woldt as Caspar has a touch of gravel in his voice that points up the sinister elements of his character and sets him apart from the more dignified bass voice of, say, Martin Snell's Cuno. While Woldt may not be as blackly malevolent as Matti Salminen in Harnoncourt’s recording he is fantastically devilish in his aria at the end of Act 1 where he exults in Max's pending destruction. Stephan Loges is a vigorous and interesting Ottakar, though Gidon Saks is an underwhelming Hermit, the low tessitura evading him somewhat.
The LSO Chorus do sound primarily like a symphonic chorus, and some of the excitement of the text eludes them somewhat, but they still make a fantastic sound, especially when they throw themselves into the opening chorus celebrating Kilian’s victory, and they help to raise the roof in the final bars.
The one place where the limitations of a concert setting are put aside comes, as well it should, with the Wolf's Glen scene, which the engineers have captured with cunning use of off-stage effects, creative placing of microphones and even some sound-effects like a gathering thunderstorm. It's very effective and is one of the moments where the pulse really quickens.
No-one should dismiss this Freischütz out of hand - it is definitely worth hearing, especially for the contribution of Davis and the orchestra, and it is a very good recording to have as Davis’ final opera - but I don’t think it really holds the field against the competition. Nor is it as compelling as some of Davis’s other LSO Live opera sets, most notably his Berlioz cycle which reflected this conductor’s magnificent Indian Summer when it came to that composer with whom he had spent his entire artistic life.
As for a first choice Freischütz, for me Kleiber’s recording still beats off all comers and, even though I was a little rude about it at the time, I like Keilberth’s 1958 recording more and more the more I hear it. This LSO Live edition comes at a bargain price, but the recording omits the dialogue, which some will like but which I most certainly did not. The booklet contains the German sung texts with the English translation but the synopsis is irritatingly incomplete, leaving out key details such as the mistaken wreath or even the shooting of Agathe, so you'd be well advised to have some extra help at hand when you sit down to listen.  

Simon Thompson

See also review by Göran Forsling