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Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Der Schatzgräber – Symphonisches Zwischenspiel (1915-1918) [13:25]
Die Gezeichneten – Vorspiel (1913-1915) [9:24]
Das Spielwerk – Vorspiel (1908-1915) [6:46]
Vorspiel zu einer großen Oper (1933) [22:02]
Der ferne Klang – Nachtstück (1906-1907) [15:19]
Royal Swedish Orchestra (Kungliga Hovkapellet)/Lawrence Renes
rec. June 2015, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2212 SACD [68:30]

We owe Decca a debt of gratitude for their Entartete Musik series, which brought to light so many fine works once banned by the Nazis. The stand-out recordings include Mischa Spoliansky and Frederick Hollander’s Berlin Cabaret Songs and operas by Viktor Ullmann (Der Kaiser von Atlantis), Ernest Krenek (Jonny spielt auf), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Das Wunder der Heliane) and Franz Schreker (Die Gezeichneten). These are indispensable releases, superbly engineered, that deserve – nay, demand – space on your shelves or hard drive.

Decca’s pioneering spirit – both technical and musical – lives on in the BIS catalogue, which contains valuable repertoire that the so-called majors choose to ignore. Much of it is devoted to Nordic/Scandinavian works, but there’s much more besides. For instance, Christophe Sirodeau’s masterly traversal of Ullmann’s solo piano pieces was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2014 (review). As for this new release it’s a well-chosen programme that allows one to dip into Schreker’s œuvre before plunging into one of the full operas. (Listeners might also be interested in a broadly similar collection from Naxos, recorded in the 1980s.)

The Kungliga Hovkapellet, the orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera, has a long and illustrious history; its many recordings include Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. Under Lawrence Renes – appointed music director and chief conductor of the Opera in 2012 – they also gave the Swedish premiere of George Benjamin’s award-winning Written on Skin. In the control room for this Schreker release are Take5 stalwarts Ingo Petry and Thore Brinkmann, whose most recent successes include Anders Hillborg’s Sirens (‘stellar sound’) and Sally Beamish’s The Singing (‘cracking good sound’).

Schreker, whose father was part Jewish, was something of a musical all-rounder. He studied at the Vienna Conservatory from 1892 to 1900, after which he began to compose in earnest. He then went on to form the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus in 1907 and conducted the world premiere of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder in 1913. His growing reputation helped to secure him the director’s position at Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik and a professorship at the Akademie der Kunste. However, Schreker’s music fell out of favour in the 1920s, and the Nazis soon deprived him of his academic posts. He suffered several strokes in 1933 and died the following year.

This collection opens with the symphonic interlude from Schreker’s opera Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Hunter). A convoluted fairy tale it has at its poles the eternal themes of love and death, with supernatural elements in between. As this symphonisches Zwischenspiel from Act 3 celebrates a night of passion the music blossoms with extraordinary heat and vigour. It also swells and palpitates with a thrilling intensity that, in lesser hands, might spill over into excess. I hear the lofty languor of Wagner and the soft outlines of Debussy; there’s a Korngoldian sweep, too. Remarkably, all these echoes and influences are fused into a distinctive whole, broad and beautifully crafted.

As for the recording, the huge climaxes are fearless: no detail goes unremarked and perspectives are very convincing indeed. Schreker’s more delicate touches are also well caught, and timbres are always true. The playing combines body with boldness, passion with polish, and Renes shapes it all like a seasoned pro. Yes, this large-scale performance – with sonics to match – belongs firmly in the concert hall rather than the theatre, but it’s none the worse for that. And if this snippet convinces, do try Marc Albrecht’s complete recording, as recommended by Dominy Clements.

Next up is the prelude to Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), set in 16th-century Genoa. It centres on a lurid love triangle that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jacobean tragedy. This opulent opener also has the feel of a Hollywood blockbuster of the 1930s or 1940s. That’s not a criticism, for many of those great film scores were penned by Austro-German composers who fled to the US before the War. There’s surprising delicacy in this score – I revelled in the gorgeous harp writing – not to mention a Romantic blush that reminds me of Gurre-Lieder at times. If this piques your interest see Rob Barnett’s review of Gerd Albrecht’s complete recording.

Composed in 1933 Schreker’s Vorspiel zu einer großen Oper (Prelude to a Drama) is an expanded concert version of the prelude to Die Gezeichneten, which the conductor Felix Weingartner had commissioned 20 years earlier. At 22 minutes it’s the longest piece here. It’s also one of the most satisfying, as it combines a powerful sense of drama with a strong, tight musical structure. There are some startling things here, not least the extended passage in which the timpanist plays a quietly insistent two-note figure as part of a magical dialogue with the orchestra. The recording is especially effective at this point, the timps ideally placed in a deep, wide soundstage.

Although Schreker’s two-act opera Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (The Music Box and the Princess) failed miserably in both Frankfurt and Vienna the prelude to this fairy tale is delightful. Textures are wonderfully transparent and those warbling woodwind figures are a telling touch. Rhythms are subtly articulated, tuttis are always proportionate and it all hangs together very well. That said, there’s a rather dated feel to the score, which might explain its poor reception. Still, the playing is alert and refined, the recording warm and clear.

Nachtstück (Nocturne) – the Act 3 interlude from Schreker’s opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) – was actually premiered three years before the work from which it’s taken. The opera tells the story of Fritz, a composer who loves one Grete Graumann but who can’t marry until he’s written a great piece and found the mysterious sound that haunts him so. The nocturne – which begins with a rocking theme underpinned by gentle tam-ram strokes – manages to be both refulgent and restrained, blending Straussian amplitude with an iridescent fan of ravishing colours. (Those keen to hear the complete opera might like to try Dirk Kaftan’s well-reviewed recording for Ars Produktion.)

I suspect most people who listen to operatic ‘chunks’ know little and care less about the narrative that surrounds them. One certainly doesn’t need to know the details of Wagner’s Ring to enjoy the splendid excerpts. That’s also true of these Schreker pieces, which work rather well on their own. Would this collection tempt me to try the full operas? Perhaps, but for all its craft and colour Schreker’s sound world seems at odds with the times – rather like the later novels of Thomas Hardy – his medieval/fairy-tale plots equally so. Music to relish, if not to love. The detailed liner-notes are by Horst A. Scholz.

Little-known repertoire, superbly played and recorded; go on, treat yourself.

Dan Morgan



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