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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Verkündigung (The Annunciation) - A Mystery in Four Acts and a Prologue, Op. 50 (1933-35)
Cast & performance details below review
rec. live, Prinzregententheater, Munich, 17-18 December 2011
Text included but no translation
BR KLASSIK 900311 [66:39 + 67:00]

Between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler, Walter Braunfels was one of the best-known composers in Germany. His steadfast resistance to the Nazis and partial Jewish ancestry meant that he lost all his professional positions in 1933 as well as opportunities for performance. While seen after the War as one of the few “uncompromised” German composers, Braunfels only lived until 1954, and his music (see links below), like that of many “entartete” composers, has only returned to prominence in the last twenty years.

Braunfels first became acquainted with Paul Claudel’s play “L’annonce faite à Marie” (The Tidings Brought to Mary) in 1913. He eventually also became acquainted with Claudel and made great efforts, ultimately successful, to persuade Claudel to let him use the play as the basis for an opera, to be entitled Verkündigiung (The Annunciation). However several other operas intervened and Braunfels did not take up actual composition until 1933 when he began to suffer marginalisation as a composer. While Claudel’s play naturally appealed to Braunfels’ religious sense, writing the opera was also a refuge for the composer from his situation at the time and a statement of belief in the eventual triumph of eternal values. As such, Verkündigiung had to wait until after the War (1948) for its premiere.

The plot of Verkündigung mostly follows that of Claudel’s play, although Braunfels greatly altered the events of the last act. He also switched the setting from France shortly before the advent of Joan of Arc to the environs of Speyer in the twelfth century. Peter von Ulm, the Cathedral architect, arrives at the house of Violaine intending to beg forgiveness for past wrongs. Peter has contracted leprosy, although it is not yet evident, and so continues his work on the Cathedral. Violaine forgives him and they pray together. In parting Violaine kisses Peter in token of his great sorrow - an act observed by her sister Mara. The music in this act is a mixture of the pastoral and the mystic, combined with a potent contrast between Peter’s spiritual agony and Violaine’s calm faith and general serenity. These latter qualities characterize Violiane’s music throughout the opera.

In Act I Violaine’s father Andreas is preparing to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy land and wishes to have Violaine marry Jakobäus, who he has brought up as his own son, before he departs. This is presented with music of foreboding which is cast in contrast to the cheerful events. Braunfels develops the varying thematic material with great skill. Mara also wishes to marry Jakobäus and threatens suicide. Andreas decrees that Violaine and Jakobäus will marry but the foreboding music continues into Act 2 where Violaine must confess to Jakobäus that she has contracted leprosy. Now he rejects Violaine in music of increasing tension leading to a wrenching conclusion.

Act 3 takes place on Christmas Eve outside Speyer as the cathedral workmen discuss the approaching service and the fact that Peter von Ulm no longer suffers from leprosy. Mara appears, holding her dead child, looking for Violaine. The latter, now blind, is living in a hovel and at first denies that she can bring the child back to life. Violaine finally does so, while the service is taking place in the Cathedral, and to the accompaniment of angelic voices. When Violaine returns the living child to Mara, the latter is horrified to find that the child now has Violaine’s blue eyes not Mara’s black ones. This act is the highpoint of Claudel’s play and Braunfels rises to the occasion with music that is stirring and mystical but not the least bit trite or melodramatic.

The four scenes of Act 4 are differentiated scenically, but form a cohesive unit musically. As Mara confesses that she has tried to kill Violaine, Peter von Ulm arrives with the expiring Violaine. He explains to Jakobäus and Mara that he has been cured of his leprosy thanks to Violaine. Jakobäus and Violaine are reconciled and as Violaine expires Peter acclaims death as deliverance.

The music of Verkündigung is through-composed and in pacing and style may remind listeners of Pfitzner’s Palestrina. There are also echoes of Braunfels’ favourite Bruckner. However, its most important feature is Braunfels’ use of incremental thematic development. While the score contains definite themes and motifs, these are not developed individually, but as part of a larger mass in which the musical development takes place over a large time-scale. In his notes to this set Lorenz Lütteken describes this method as “formless” but I disagree; with proper attention paid this music yields a sense of unfolding emotion and scenic development that remains with the listener long after the work is over.

These discs derive from two concert recordings in 2011. As such the performance quality of the soloists is somewhat variable. Juliane Banse is occasionally less forceful vocally than might be desirable, but she portrays Violaine’s faith and inner serenity with total conviction. Janina Baechle as Mara sings powerfully but does little to reveal the character’s spiritual blindness. Mathias Klink as Peter von Ulm does not carry well over the orchestra but conveys the spiritual development of his character well as does Adrian Eröd as Jakobäus. The eminent Robert Holl is completely convincing as the father who finally realizes the consequences of his religious self-absorption.

Ulf Schirmer tells us in the programme notes for this set that he was unfamiliar with Braunfels’ music until he was asked to conduct the composer’s Die Vogel (The Birds) years ago. He has since become a noted Braunfels advocate and his understanding of the composer’s spiritual world and unique sense of musico-dramatic architecture is exemplary, as can be heard on these discs. He never allows us to lose interest in the dramatic events nor to lose sight of the threads of the composer’s musical structure or of the score’s wealth of orchestral detail. In this he is supported by the members of the Munich Radio Orchestra, who play with great finesse, especially in the instrumental solos and ensembles. In addition the Bavarian Radio engineers obtain studio quality sound for this live recording.

There is one major drawback to this set. While the text notes are extremely informative and are translated from German to English, there is no translation of the libretto. This will prove a major drawback to those unfamiliar with German, especially given Claudel’s poetics, even in translation. It would be a shame to think that some listeners would be kept away from this fine score for this reason.

It bodes well for the revival of interest in Braunfels that these discs are being released only a few months after the re-release of a 1994 version of Verkündigung under Dennis Russell Davies. I have not heard the Davies version, but given the up-to-date recording and Ulf Schirmer’s conducting, I think one could hardly go wrong with these new discs in becoming acquainted with this major twentieth century opera.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

Selected Braunfels reviews
Die Vögel (The Birds)
Te Deum
Berlioz Variations/Serenade

Cast & performance details

Andreas Gradherz - Robert Holl (bass)
His wife, the Mother - Hanna Schwarz (mezzo)
Violaine - Juliane Banse (soprano)
Mara - Janina Baechle (soprano)
Jakobaus - Adrian Erod (baritone)
Peter von Ulm - Mathias Klink (tenor)
Peter's servant - Mauro Peter (tenor)
An angel's voice - Vanessa Goikoetxea (high soprano)
First worker - Johannes Stermann (bass)
Schulze von Rothenstein - Wolfgang Klose (spoken role)
First woman - Jutta Bethsold (spoken role)
Second woman - Sonja Philippin (spoken role)
Second worker - Timo Janzen (spoken role)
Third worker - Matthias Ettmayr (spoken role)
Bavarian Radio Chorus
Munich Radio Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer