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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Manfred – Dramatic poem in three parts by Lord Byron, Op. 115
Manfred – Dennis Laubenthal; Chamois Hunter and Abbot – Aurel Bereuter; Astarte and Spirit – Julia Stefanie Möller; Nemesis and Spirit – Regina Andratschke; Witch of the Alps and Spirit – Claudia Hübschmann; Eva Bauchmüller (soprano); Lisa Wedekind (mezzo); Soon Yeong Shim (tenor); Lukas Schmid (bass); Lars Hübel, Kiyotaka Mizuno, Hee-Sung Yoon (additional basses)
Münster Concert Choir, Münster Philharmonic Choir;
Münster Symphony Orchestra/Fabrizio Ventura
rec. live, Theater Münster, 28 April – 3 May 2015
Hybrid SACD; DSD.
Reviewed in standard CD format

There is a certain extravagance about several aspects of this production – not inappropriately so, given that it focuses on Byron’s arch-Romantic Manfred. Schumann’s demands are themselves extravagant: a total of seven vocal soloists, a substantial choir (here two of them), a full mid-nineteenth century symphony orchestra, and a sizeable group of actors – by no means all of whom — the singers especially — have very much to do. This sense of extravagance extends also to the external appearance of this issue. A single disc comes in a substantial double-CD box which includes a 95-page booklet. This itself is a thing of beauty – due mainly to some lovely reproductions from Manfred-themed paintings of the 1830s by John Martin, but also colour photos of all the major performers, and a 58-page German–English libretto which comes, for once, in a font that is both pleasing and easily legible. Jens Ponath’s (well translated) note on the genesis of Byron’s and Schumann’s Manfred is contrastingly short, but also very useful in tracing, for example, the background to Byron’s fascination with the implicitly incestuous relationship between Manfred and Astarte. It also explores the extent to which Schumann came to know of the whole story through his bookseller/translator father August.

As to the music: well, probably like most listeners, I came to this recording with a good knowledge of the overture, still more or less a staple in concert halls and on disc – and given an appropriately swift and impassioned performance here. Having been born a little too late to experience the classic mono recordings of Sir Thomas Beecham and Carl Schuricht, the remainder of the score was almost entirely new to me. In all there are sixteen numbers, the majority of which are melodramas in the nineteenth-century sense of featuring spoken dialogue accompanied or commentated on by music; the only purely orchestral piece, apart from the overture, is an entr’acte between Parts I and II. There are two numbers featuring soloists and two which employ the choir – a rather rousing ‘Hymn of the Spirits of Arimanes’ during which I tried hard not to think of Ruddigore, and a beautiful off-stage setting of parts of the Requiem.

It is very difficult to make sensible comparisons between something one knows well and something one knows hardly at all, but I did end up concluding that not very much of Schumann’s Manfred was as powerful or memorable as its famous overture. It is all very fine, interesting, enjoyable – particularly perhaps the very Mendelssohnian invocation of the Alpine Witch (or Fairy in the German), a lovely ranz des vaches for cor anglais solo, and a sequence of particularly apt and sensitive orchestral contributions to Manfred’s dialogue with Astarte. That said, I never quite convinced myself that it was absolutely top-notch Schumann.

The main issue to consider if you are contemplating buying the CD is how much time you want to spend listening to actors speaking German. Jens Ponath tells us that Schumann reduced Byron’s 1,336 lines to 975, and that for this recording the text was further reduced by about a third; not that it comes across as disjointed. That still leaves, though, a lot of German, and German during which nothing much actually happens. Manfred bares his soul, reflects that ‘sorrow is knowledge’, invokes spirits, meets a hunter and an abbot, communes with the dead Astarte, eventually dies himself – all in the most poetic and often arresting fashion; but how often one would choose to listen to all this is a matter of taste. Not that the acting is in any way bad. Sometimes lines are spoken a little too slowly or portentously, but this has the corresponding advantage of making every word crystal-clear, even in a rather reverberant acoustic. All the voices are pleasing enough, and Dennis Laubenthal gives a distinguished performance as Manfred himself, emphasizing the character’s youth and high intelligence as much as his ‘Byronic hero’ qualities.

Musically, we are in safe hands. One really should stop feeling surprised when a relatively obscure ‘provincial’ German orchestra turns out to be very good; but the Sinfonieorchester Münster is. The singing is more than competent too; and Fabrizio Ventura conducts with obvious enthusiasm, and with the sure sense of timing and dramatic ebb-and-flow one would expect of an experienced opera conductor. The recording is fine if not outstanding, and the live audience is quite miraculously silent.

How this recording compares with the modern competition is difficult to say, since finding copies of the other theoretically available versions is easier said than done. In 2011 John Sheppard reviewed on MusicWeb International a seemingly rather bizarre DVD from Düsseldorf. As for CDs, the American magazine Fanfare has in recent years reviewed a Musikszene Schweiz version under Mario Venzago, which it hated, and a Preiser version under Bruno Weil, which it liked. Astonishingly, though, neither of these issues seems to have offered an English translation, so that is an obvious selling point of the new Münster recording. ARS Produktion give us, for the most part, Byron’s original rather than a direct translation of Karl Adolph Suckow’s German; but that is fair enough. Overall one suspects that this issue falls a little short of the ideal, but it has a good deal going for it, and no-one buying it is likely to be disappointed.

Nigel Harris



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