Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826) Der Freischütz - opera in three acts (1821)
Max - Hans Hopf (tenor)
Kaspar - Kurt Böhme (bass)
Agathe - Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano)
Ännchen - Rita Streich (soprano)
Samiel - Claus Clausen (speaker)
Ottokar - Alfred Poell (baritone)
Kuno - Oskar Czerwenka (bass)
Hermit - Otto Edelmann (bass)
Kilian - Karl Dönch (baritone)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 26 July 1954 PRISTINE PACO122 [75:55 + 75:03]
"As a musician, I can only say that this score ... was written with an insight into the particular needs of the theatre that marks it as one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature." So wrote Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of this set, and every note of this live performance testifies to his belief in Weber's opera. It could be said that his regard for the piece led to tempi which are reverentially slow — undoubtedly they are among the slowest you will find in any recording — but for much of the opera they work very convincingly. The Wolf's Glen has a tremendously eerie, chilling atmosphere and the folk dances in Acts 1 and 3 have a heavy rusticity which is surely absolutely authentic. Most memorable of all, however, are the more reflective pieces, especially the two arias of Agathe. The Act 3 prayer "Und ob sie Wolke" has an extraordinary intensity and never loses momentum despite its slowness. The first section of Act 2's "Leise, leise" is equally breathtaking, though it must be admitted that the concluding section "All' meine Pulse schlagen" is certainly not the Vivace con fuoco indicated in the score and does feel a little tame - Grümmer seems to want to go faster here, and I think she was right. The Vienna Philharmonic's playing is inspired and they respond to their conductor's vision with complete conviction.
With one major exception, the cast could hardly be bettered. It would be difficult to think of anyone who would be an improvement on either of the sopranos. Grümmer has the ideal purity of tone for Agathe and is able to float the line perfectly in both the arias; the A flats in "Und ob sie Wolke" are simply exquisite and her breath control is such that she is fully capable of sustaining the phrases at Furtwängler's taxing speeds. Streich's Ännchen is similarly ideal. She has the brightness of personality to provide just the right foil for Agathe, though she is perhaps a little more hampered by the slow tempi than Grümmer; Furtwängler's speed for "Kommt ein schlanker Bursch" lacks lightness and sparkle and so to some extent blunts the contrast between the two characters.
Böhme's Kaspar is very impressive vocally, with an imposing "Schweig, schweig", despite some slightly vague pitching, and Edelmann makes the most of the short role of the Hermit. Poell, Dönsch and Czerwenka are all excellent in the smaller parts. I was not very impressed by Clausen's Samiel; he is just a shouty, bad-tempered thug who conveys no sense of true, supernatural evil. The fly in the ointment is Hopf's Max. I do think the criticism of him has been exaggerated by some critics, but no-one could claim he is more than adequate. The tone is a rather typically tight German tenor of the period, but I do not find his dark timbre unattractive. He is never seriously unmusical, but he is stolid and unimaginative and without an ounce of real poetry or elegance; there is no sense of Max's delight in the beauty of the woods in the first section of "Durch die Wälder".
Unfortunately I have not had access to the EMI edition of this performance, which is supposedly from the original radio tapes. My understanding is that the radio master tapes do not survive for any of Furtwängler's Salzburg opera broadcasts, only copy tapes which were distributed to other radio stations. My only source of comparison is the Hunt CD issue from 1988, and Pristine's edition is certainly markedly better than that. The pitch instability shown on that edition is entirely eliminated and the orchestral sound is significantly brighter with much greater presence. I was delighted with the unexpectedly clear and full sound whose quality never interfered with my enjoyment of the performance. One small complaint that I would make concerns the paucity of tracks, leaving, for example, the opera's finale as one 22 minute track. Indeed, the whole opera has only 17 tracks in total compared to the 32 of the EMI Classics Keilberth set. Quite a lot of the dialogue is not separately tracked, which I would have welcomed - it is not something I would wish to sit through more than once, well though it is delivered.
Although there are some tempi with which one could cavil, the performance as a whole is undoubtedly truly great. Furtwängler had the spirit of German romanticism in his very blood and bones, and his conducting goes to the heart of the piece. When you add to this a cast of singers who are, with one exception, close to the ideal and an edition whose sound quality is as good as today's technology can make it, this issue is self-recommending.