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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Genoveva, Op.81 [136.03]
Edda Moser (soprano) - Genoveva; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) - Siegfried; Peter Schreier (tenor) - Golo; Giesla Schröter (mezzo) - Margaretha; Siegfried Vogel (bass) - Drago; Siegfried Lorenz (baritone) - Hidulfus; Karl-Heinz Stryczek (bass) - Balthasar; Wolfgang Hellmich (baritone) - Caspar; Berlin Radio Choir
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Studio Paul-Gerhard-Kirche, Leipzig, 1976
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95117 [69.17 + 56.46]

The critics generally gave a warm welcome to Nicholas Harnoncourt’s recording of Schumann’s Genoveva when it was released in 1998, deriving from live concert performances two years earlier. The opera belongs in the company of works by major composers which have been effectively torpedoed by the dreadful quality of their texts, such as Weber’s Euryanthe and Schubert’s Fierrabras in the field of earlier German operas. These texts, based on mediaeval romances, often had fine poetic qualities but very little else to recommend them. It is often overlooked that one of Wagner’s main services to musical drama was his ability to concentrate on the psychological import of the words at the expense of the often picturesque but essentially decorative detail that surrounded them. Schumann would probably have known Wagner’s Tannhäuser, premièred when he was already working on Genoveva, but he seems to have been satisfied with the melodramatic mishmash which he had been given, taking a hand himself in the construction of the libretto. As such the failure of Genoveva to establish more than a very marginal stake in the repertory, despite the reputation of the composer, can fairly be laid at his door. Not that Genoveva was totally torpedoed; the overture has always maintained a place in the concert hall, and the dramatic touches that Schumann brought to his choral works such as Faust and Paradise and the Peri are also to be found here.

What the enthusiastic critics generally seem to have overlooked in their reception of the Harnoncourt set was the existence of this earlier 1976 recording from East Germany. It does not appear ever to have obtained general international release (although a three-disc LP set had been available as an import) until well after the Harnoncourt had established its reputation; but it has previously been available on CD, and I own a copy of a 2003 release (at full price) on Berlin Classics. One of the immediate attractions of this older set is the sheer quality of the singing. Harnoncourt had a far from inconsiderable cast at his disposal, but Masur twenty years earlier seemed to have managed to obtain the very best of the German singers active at the time – and not just from East Germany. Whereas Harnoncourt is concerned to bring out the musical riches of the score, Masur seems even to believe in the dramatic credibility of the piece. The Gramophone Opera Guide noted that those who wished to be convinced of this would be best served by the Masur recording, while noting regretfully that it had never been “widely available in England”.

It is therefore a cause for rejoicing that Brilliant Classics have licensed this recording and made it available at bargain price, even if this means jettisoning from the booklet the German text that was provided with the Berlin Classics issue (with no translation, alas); and Brilliant have made the text available on their website. The dramatic sections of the score, beginning with the duet for the two villains which brings the First Act to an excoriating conclusion, fizz with life with the normally suave-voiced Peter Schreier assuming the role of the evil schemer as to the manner born. Like the similar duet in Weber’s Euryanthe, this is music that looks forward to Act Two of Wagner’s Lohengrin, and Gisela Schröter has all the attributes of an Ortrud without displaying any of the unsteadiness that one so frequently encounters in other exponents of that role. By comparison Schumann’s characterisation of the faithful couple is much less interesting, but Edda Moser seizes every opportunity for dramatic engagement that she is afforded and her voice certainly has sufficient body and weight to rise to her scenes of outrage as her honour is impugned. Fischer-Dieskau is Fischer-Dieskau, by which I mean that along with depth of understanding and characterisation we have also to accept a certain degree of roughness in delivery in the more blustery passages; but he does succeed in making us believe in the role of the count who is all too willing to believe in his wife’s infidelity on the basis of a shabby conjuring trick. George Bernard Shaw described the ‘black magic’ scene [CD2, track 3] as “pure bosh” and in purely dramatic terms he was right; but again this is music that demonstrates Schumann’s ability to clothe the plot in writing that almost succeeds in convincing us, let alone the credulous count. At least it does in this fizzing performance, with Masur evoking a positive hell’s kitchen from the orchestra in the closing section; by comparison Harnoncourt sounds almost polite, accurate and polished but hardly villainous.

The smaller roles are all convincingly taken by soloists of the standard of Siegfried Lorenz and Siegfried Vogel — this recording is positively infested by Siegfrieds — and as Joan Chissell commented in International Record Review when discussing the Berlin Classics release “the protagonists are creatures of flesh and blood” – which means a lot in this context. Siegfried Vogel indeed sounds very like Fischer-Dieskau in both manner and delivery, which is a compliment indeed. The chorus, with their stand-and-deliver numbers, are full-bodied and secure in their declamations of horror and assurance, although Schumann’s writing for them is conventional rather than engaged — except in the aforementioned scene with the magic mirror where they are nicely distanced.

Prospective purchasers who already own the Harnoncourt set may well rest content with a performance that certainly does justice to the musical elements of the opera; those who wish to encounter Genoveva for the first time, and are willing to be persuaded that the work almost has dramatic viability, should gravitate to this reissue. The recording is excellent, warm and well balanced, and sounds excellent in this transfer.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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