Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Symphonisches Zwischenspiel from Der Schatzgräber [13:25]
Vorspiel from Die Gezeichneten [9:24]
Vorspiel from Das Spielwerk [6:46]
Vorspiel zu einer Grossen Oper [22:02]
Nachtstück from Der ferne Klang [15:19]
Royal Swedish Orchestra/Lawrence Renes
rec. Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden, June 2015
Reviewed in surround
BIS BIS-2212 SACD [66:56]
Paul Bekker, chief critic for the Frankfurter Zeitung from 1911, an advocate of what was described as the New Music, saw Franz Schreker as one of its most prominent representatives. Considering who else was placed in this category—Mahler, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Weill and Krenek to begin with—it is obvious that Schreker has to be taken seriously. His fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg even went so far as to describe him as 'one of the foremost among us'. Given this, it is interesting to ask why, apart from in Germany more recently, he has almost disappeared from our opera houses and concert halls. He was condemned by the Nazis, dismissed from his posts and succumbed to ill health just before his 56th birthday in 1934. However, after the war, when some re-examination might have been expected, his music continued to be rejected. His heated, sensuous, late-romantic style was summed up by the influential theorist Theodor Adorno when he suggested that 'something feral has been feeling for the tone'. Listening to this disc one can hear what he means. This is certainly rich but dark and disturbing music, a continuation of the world of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and Strauss' Elektra. Schreker was not alone in composing this sort of thing: Zemlinsky and Korngold have a not dissimilar sound, and the barely concealed eroticism of Schreker's libretti is no worse than that of Berg's Lulu.
So to the five items on this disc. Though four are named as preludes and interludes of completed operas, that is not quite what they are. When Schreker extracted these pieces, he re-worked the scores more extensively than one expects. Operatic overtures often have concert endings attached by the composer if they do not already have proper codas. Schreker does more. He sometimes ignores the vocal lines, and he sometimes expands the pieces with considerably more musical development. The Nachtstück from Der ferne Klang was performed before the opera itself was premiered, and is considerably longer than in the opera. In the case of the Vorspiel zu einer Grossen Oper, the opera from which it was drawn was little more than sketche,s and even the title was discarded in favour of the generic term 'A Grand Opera.' In this case, it allows one to hear the work as a symphonic poem which might have a loose narrative thread but works happily without it. This has a consequence particular to Schreker, because his opera plots are decidedly opaque. Attempting to match the music to events, as one usually does with orchestral extracts from opera, is hampered by the difficulty in grasping what is actually going on in the librettos. Schreker was a symbolist and none of his operatic plots can be taken at face value.
This type of large-scale orchestral music is dependent on luxuriously sized and highly skilled orchestral forces, provided here by the orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera. The recording by BIS is opulent and has a wide dynamic range. It could have been a little more closely recorded to help disentangle the complex textures that feature throughout all these scores. Listening to parts of this music in the context of the complete opera, Der ferne Klang on Ars Produktion SACD (ARS 38080), showed that more detail does help one follow the densely-woven musical threads more easily.
The best thing to do with this music is simply to play it without concern for plot, and maybe read about it, and about Schreker, afterwards. I am tempted to say this is a warm bath of orchestral sound but there is much more to Schreker's music than this, and besides there are some decidedly nasty things in the bathwater with you.
Three of these operas are available complete on CD: Der ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgräber.