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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Beherrscher der Geister, Overture, J.122 (1811) [5:14]
Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn, Overture, J.8/J.54 (1801-2/1807) [8:19]
Abu Hassan, Overture, J.106 (1810-11) [3:35]
Oberon Overture, J.306 (1825-6) [8:49]
Preciosa, Overture J.279 (1820) [7:53]
Der Freischütz, Overture, J.277 (1817-21) [9:04]
Silvana, Overture, J87 (1808-10) [5:44]
Euryanthe, Overture, J.291 (1822-3) [7:58]
Turandot, Overture, J.75 (1809) [3:49]
Jubel-Ouvertüre, J245 (1818) [7:36]
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Howard Griffiths
rec. Koln, Philharmonie, 2-6 December 2013 and 16-17 June 2014
CPO 777 831-2 [69:00]

I knew I was going to enjoy this collection of Weber’s overtures from the first bars of Der Beherrscher der Geister (The Ruler of the Spirits). It derives from an incomplete opera, Rübezahl composed during the years 1804-5, and rewritten as a concert overture with the present title in 1811.

The libretto of Rübezahl concerned the activities of a mountain spirit from an old Silesian folk-tale. This character is transformed into an Oberon-cum-Robin Hood character who helps the poor, but shows no mercy to the rich. Naturally, there was a love interest. The composer Julius Benedict once wrote that ‘no flaw from the fiery beginning to the end of the exciting peroration can be detected; all is harmonious, rhythmical, a work of beauty.’ It displays the composer at his best.

The overtures for Oberon, Der Freischütz and Euryanthe do not need any special pleading. They have a secure place in the opera house, the concert hall and the recorded legacy.

I guess that few opera-lovers will rank Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (Peter Schmoll and his Neighbours) (1801-2) as their favourite Weber opera. As far as I can tell there is only one recording available, and that is minus the dialogue. Written when he was only 15 years old, it is more of a ‘singspiel’ (song-play) with songs and spoken dialogue than a full-blown opera. The present overture is a re-working made by the composer in 1807 and issued as ‘Grande ouverture à plusieurs instruments.’ This is a classically-conceived piece with some fine orchestration: it does not deserve its relative neglect.

Abu Hassan is a wonderful overture. It has been well described as ‘Merry, sparkling, like a bottle of champagne, full of originality and humour.’ The story is based on a tale from the Arabian Nights featuring Fatime and Hassan, who escape from their creditors and the love-struck Omar. It has resulted in a short overture full of vivacity and tunefulness. In spite of its ‘oriental’ background, Weber has eschewed overuse of exotic effects, certainly in this present short overture.

The opera Silvana (1808-10) was derived from the early Waldmächen, Anh.1 (The Dumb Girl of the Forest) dating from 1800. The unusual feature of this interesting overture is that Weber has not created a pot-pourri of tunes lifted from the opera, but has written an effective ‘vorspiel’. He did re-use music from the earlier work.

Turandot (1809) was not an opera, but incidental music to Schiller’s five-act drama. This play was to influence many composers, most famously Puccini. Weber resurrected a lost ‘Overtura Chinesa’ which he had written in 1806. He made use of ‘colourful’ instruments such as the triangle and cymbal to give ‘flavour’ to the score. The overture is developed from just a few bars of a ‘Chinese melody’. It is fun, but certainly not the best piece on this disc.

Another exercise in incidental music was written for Pius Alexander Wolff’s five act play Preciosa (1820) which was based on Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares (1613). This Iberian tale called forth music with more than a hint of sunny Spain and gypsy dancing. It is all good stuff, even if the local colour is a little contrived and clichéd.

The final number on this CD is the Jubel-Ouvertüre (Jubilee Overture) (1818). This piece often surprises listeners with the concluding exposition of the British National Anthem: it is actually the ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz’ which, between 1871 and 1918 was the official anthem of the German Empire. It was not universally popular in that function.

Weber had devised a Jubilee Cantata to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the accession of the King Friedrich August I of Saxony (1750-1827). The old king had died in 1763 and Friedrich’s mother was Regent until 1768. Due to court intrigue the Cantata was not performed, however Weber subsequently wrote the present overture. I understand that the ‘Cantata’ and ‘Overture’ are two distinct works which are musically independent.

I enjoyed every overture on this CD. The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln and their conductor Howard Griffiths have the measure of this fine music. The sound quality is excellent as is expected from a CPO production. The liner-notes are printed in such a small font that I struggled reading them and had to use a magnifying glass to ascertain details. The booklet cover features a painting by the great German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich.

I have used the more familiar ‘W’ numbers for Weber’s music. These are based on the catalogue published by Friedrich Wilhelm Jähns (1809-88) in 1871. CPO have used ‘WeV’ listings which I have not used before. They are quoted in the text of the liner-notes, but not in the track-listing, where dates are also missing.

Finally, my favourite overture on this disc is Oberon, based on Wieland’s eponymous poem which was in turn modelled on Huon de Bordeaux. This opera was first heard at Covent Garden on 12 April 1826. Weber contrives to create pure magic from the sounding of Oberon’s horn and the lovely chattering flutes and clarinets. Soon, the composer changes mood to present the listener with images of ‘a world of chivalric legend and romance’. This work epitomises the quality of playing and presentation on this excellent CD.

John France



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