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Johann STRAUSS II (18251899)
Der Zigeunerbaron: Operetta in Three Acts (1886 version)
Nikolai Schukoff (tenor) – Sándor Barinkay; Claudia Barainsky (soprano) – Saffi; Jochen Schmeckenbecher (baritone) – Kálmán Zsupán; Khatuna Mikaberidze (mezzo-soprano) – Czipra; Heinz Zednik (tenor) – Conte Carnero; Markus Brück (baritone) –Graf Homonay; Jasmina Sakr (soprano) – Arsena; Renate Pitscheider (soprano) – Mirabella; Paul Kaufmann (tenor) – Ottokar/Pali; Lawrence Foster (speaker) – Herald
NDR Chor, NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover/Lawrence Foster
rec. live, Großer Sendesaal, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Hannover, May 2015
PENTATONE PTC5186482 [64:05 + 54:06]

Perhaps the most interesting of the many black-and-white photographs included in the 158-booklet that accompanies Pentatone’s new Zigeunerbaron is one depicting a young Lawrence Foster sitting alongside Karl Böhm, his wife and son (the actor Karl-Heinz) outside Milan Cathedral in 1962. The point implied is, presumably, that this highly experienced American conductor is steeped in the Viennese tradition. And indeed he is, Böhm – and, for that matter, Bruno Walter – having been important formative influences. Not that most of those who listen to this recording will need any visual reminder of Foster’s Viennese credentials. His conducting is masterly: not always high-powered, but intensely musical and idiomatic – with regard to phrasing, rubato and overall atmosphere. He draws a most judicious balance between the pointing of individual details and a command of the overall structure (evident not least, for example, in the very long finale of Act I); and he is helped in this both by the excellent playing of the NDR Radiophilharmonie and by a recording balance which, if anything, favours the orchestra.

Overall I would say that Foster’s contribution is the probably the single most important reason for acquiring these discs. His cast is good, but not consistently outstanding – and certainly no match for such singers as Nicolai Gedda, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Erich Kunz and Hermann Prey, who grace the benchmark 1954 mono recording conducted by Otto Ackermann (see review). It was a good idea to have the main pair of lovers, Barinkay and Saffi, sung by a tenor and soprano who are far more ‘heroic’ in scale than Ottokar and Arsena; but I’m not sure that it quite works in practice. The light-voiced Jasmina Sakr and Paul Kaufmann are fine, the latter in particular a very pleasing and promising-sounding singer. I also enjoyed the baritonal timbre and wholehearted characterization of Nikolai Schukoff as Barinkay, though the strain sometimes shows at the top of his register; but I’m afraid that, for all her evident commitment, I never really got used to the wobbly and rather matronly tone of Claudia Barainsky’s Saffi. Neither baritone is ideally steady either, though Jochen Schmeckenbecher is that rare thing, a characterful yet unexaggerated Zsupán, and Markus Brück a manly, authoritative Homonay. Khatuna Mikaberidze is a splendidly fruity Czipra and Renate Pitschneider a more than adequate soprano Mirabella; but the stalwart character tenor Heinz Zednik was 75 at the time of the recording and, sadly, sounds it – making up for his lack of voice with comic ‘business’, especially in his dialogue, which I fear I soon tired of. Altogether rather a mixed picture, then, with Foster, his orchestra and the first-rate NDR Chor the shining lights of consistent excellence.

As to the version recorded here, it is based on a critical edition published in 2004 by Professor Michael Rot of the so-called ‘Letztfassung’, or ‘final version’ of 1886. Absolute authenticity is impossible, given that there is no way of reconstructing exactly what was performed at the piece’s first night in October 1885; but suffice it to say that listeners familiar with the operetta will find pretty much what they expect to hear – and it is good to have Mirabella’s Act I couplet ‘Just sind es vierundzwanzig Jahre’, which seems often to get cut. It must be stressed, however, that there is considerably less music here than on Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1994 attempt at recording an entirely ‘full’ version (review). Not that this is necessarily a criticism: Harnoncourt’s text (to say nothing of his love-it-or-hate-it conducting style) is something of a one-off, and Foster’s solution of offering a pretty much standard performing version including a modest amount of linking dialogue seems, to me at least, perfectly acceptable.

So, is this set worth buying? It is brand new, very well recorded and packaged, and includes a full libretto in both German and English. Moreover Foster’s way with the score is, to my ear, much more congenial that that of Harnoncourt, or indeed of Franz Allers on his 1970 Munich recording – I’m afraid I can’t quite share the enthusiasm for this performance expressed by Göran Forsling in his excellent review of the Harnoncourt, mainly because of Allers’s hard-driven direction and the terrible hamming – if you will pardon the pun – of Kurt Böhme’s pig breeder. No, the best cast has to be Ackermann’s; and his conducting is also every bit as idiomatic and affectionate as Foster’s, if perhaps without the latter’s ability to illuminate telling detail. On the other hand, the Ackermann is now 62 years old, and in mono; so if you want good modern sound, high production values and unimpeachable playing, conducting and choral singing, and can put up with a flawed if characterful cast, there is a lot to be said for the Foster. Ideally alongside Ackermann, rather than instead of him.
Nigel Harris



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