The ultimate tragedy of this, Schreker’s first opera, is that it can be considered practically autobiographical. I will explain.
The booklet does not have any texts, which is annoying, but it does have a scene-by-scene summary or as they are described here, a picture-by-picture summary. Accompanying these notes is a biographical sketch and it makes melancholy reading.
Schreker’s father Ignaz, once married, gave up his secure job to seek his fortune in the moneyed circles of bankers and the aristocracy. He consequently travelled widely but died whilst away in 1888 when Franz was ten. Franz was brought up by female members of the family. Perhaps his father was only following his “distant sound” - his personal calling in the hope of returning wealthier and even famous.
In the opera, Fritz the composer is in love with Grete. Before settling down and making her the wife of a successful and famous artist he wants to seek his fortune elsewhere and follow “the search for the far-away sound”. Grete pleads for him to stay but he wants to go alone.
Many years later, on his return, Grete is in Venice working as a renowned singer but also as a courtesan. Fritz, at first overjoyed to see her, later rejects her because of her life-style and she falls into despair. Fritz has a play performed in the city but he is also unwell. Fritz’s closest friend Rudolph advises him to rewrite the last act then his masterpiece will be complete but Fritz lacks the strength. Then Grete reappears and the lovers are re-united, all too late however. Fritz dies in her arms and in this performance with a very melodramatic scream.
The opera with a libretto by the composer was started in 1903. Schreker’s teacher the arch conservative Robert Fuchs (who lived on until 1927) described the opening scenes as “chaotic rubbish”. It wasn’t until 1913 that the composer, having recovered his confidence, completed the opera and had it performed. It is then one of those ‘fin-de-siècle’ works that has that feeling of decadence we associate with Austria in the first years of the century. In fact whilst listening to the work I found myself looking at some of the paintings of Gustav Klimt who died in 1918. One feels that the opera is only one step away from Berg’s Wozzeck started in 1914. Not only is there a similar sense of character portrayal but also there are moments in Schreker’s extraordinary, sensuous and at times sickly orchestration when Wozzeck and even Lulu come to mind. It should be remembered that Berg helped to prepare the vocal score of Schreker’s opera.
The best-known section of the opera is the ‘Nachtstücke’. In the opera this was cut down to eight minutes; the concert version is almost double that length. If you know this orchestral gem then the language of the opera will be familiar. I also detect a maturity of harmony and text setting as we go through into Act 3. The opening pages may remind you of Schreker’s Romantic Suite also of 1903 whereas the last scenes call to mind the Chamber Symphony of 1916 with its complex counterpoint and advanced harmonic techniques.
It seems that this is a studio recording made in 1991 and at that time there was almost no performance history of the work - even in Germany. The Nazis had banned the opera and indeed Schreker’s music in general and most of it remained forgotten for a further forty years.
I had the great pleasure of seeing the 1989 performance with Thomas Harper in the principal role in Hagen in West Germany. In many ways, as far as my memory allows, I much prefer the vocal qualities of Thomas Moser as Fritz and the supporting cast especially the men who are quite exceptional in their clarity and characterisation.
I am less keen on Gabriele Schnaut who does not possess the ability to make me sympathise with Grete. She can seem a little over-bearing and lacks, where needed, a sense of the forlorn and fragile which was surely what Schreker imagined. The chorus work is outstanding, coming into their own in the middle of Act 2 at the dance establishment in Venice.
Gerd Albrecht does not hang around although he is perfectly able to extract from the Radio Symphony of Berlin some subtly expressive playing especially in the scene immediately after the ‘Nachstücke’ which incorporates birdsong. He also achieves an excellent balance with the voices which is no mean feat especially in the more passionate moments in say Act 2, Scenes 3 and 4. At times however the scenes which are set in Vienna and in two locations in the stereo spectrum are difficult to balance. The distant female voices do tend to lack sufficient clarity. Similar problems crop up in Act 1, scene 6.
Even so this is a brilliant recording and performance. I would certainly commend it. That said, I have not heard the Naxos version which came out as a result of the aforementioned Hagen performance conducted by Michael Hálasz. I have also been told that there is a fine historic recording from 1948 conducted in Frankfurt by Winfried Zillig who knew Schreker, but I know little else about it. It’s on the Walhall label Walhall WLCD0374. I should add that there is also an SACD recording of a 2010 Augsburg performance on Ars Produktion ARS38080.
In any event, this Capriccio set, at bargain price, would be a good version by which to get to know this opera.