MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around

 58,771 reviews
   and more ... and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here
Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Some items
to consider

new MWI
Current reviews

old MWI
pre-2023 reviews

paid for

Acte Prealable Polish recordings

Forgotten Recordings
Forgotten Recordings
All Forgotten Records Reviews

Troubadisc Weinberg- TROCD01450

All Troubadisc reviews

FOGHORN Classics

Brahms String Quartets

All Foghorn Reviews

All HDTT reviews

Songs to Harp from
the Old and New World

all Nimbus reviews

all tudor reviews

Follow us on Twitter

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
Contributing Editor
Ralph Moore
   David Barker
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger

Support us financially by purchasing this from

Support us financially by purchasing this from

Gottfried von EINEM (1918-96)
Der Besuch der alten Dame (1971) [135.35]
Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera/Horst Stein
rec. Vienna State Opera, 1971
ORFEO C930182I [74.17 + 61.18]

Philadelphia Symphony, Op.28 [16.23]
Geistliche Sonate, Op.38 [15.50]
Stundenlied, Op.26 [35.59]
Ildikó Raimondi (soprano)
Gábor Boldocki (trumpet)
Iveta Apkaina (organ)
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. Great Hall, Musikverein Wien, 2009-16
ORFEO C929181A [68.12]

Insofar as his reputation in Britain was concerned, the highpoint of the career of Gottfried von Einem was the presentation of his opera The visit of the old lady (in English translation) at Glyndebourne in 1973, two years after its triumphant première at the Vienna State Opera. I recall a broadcast relay from those performances, and the clear delight with which the audience welcomed a score which had moments of both comedy and pathos which communicated itself readily to listeners. Not that there was much that was whole-heartedly comic in the plot of the opera. An old and rich woman returns to the village of her birth, from which she was driven many years before when she was found to be an unmarried mother. She seeks revenge on the man who caused her shame, and in order to achieve this she has purchased and deliberately ruined all the businesses which are the source of the town’s prosperity. She now offers a billion dollars as an ‘endowment’ to the villagers if they will murder her ex-lover, and a television crew arrive to film the resulting debate (carefully neutered as to content). The villagers, who had previously recoiled in unctuous horror from her proposal, now unanimously agree to it and the opera concludes with their macabre dance of triumph and rejoicing, as they cover up their part in the murder by the mayor’s declaration that the victim “died of joy”. The relevance of the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is obvious to any generation who lived through the hypocritical denial of German and Austrian citizens during the Nazi era, and their deliberate closing of their eyes to the evil that was swirling around them. This makes it all the more surprising that the playwright allowed the filmed version of his play to emasculate the ending, with the old woman triumphantly passing off the whole escapade as a practical joke. Maybe the dramatist was not responsible for this; at all events he temporised when von Einem approached him with a view to the operatic treatment of his play, and when he agreed (and indeed enthusiastically participated in the conversion of his dialogue into an operatic libretto) the original ending was reinstated in all its gory splendour.

I did have a recording of sections of the BBC broadcast of the opera from Glyndebourne, which I played more than once with pleasure but the tapes were later damp-damaged, and at the time of writing this review I had not heard the score for many years. I do recall that the Glyndebourne cast was serviceable rather than stellar, although their diction was very clear in the relayed sound but the recording on these CDs, taken from the Viennese world première, boasts a roster of soloists of the very first rank, such as few operatic composers nowadays would ever hope to achieve. It is true than von Einem had already established a formidable reputation in German-speaking territories with his earlier opera Dantons Tod, but the casting here was something truly exceptional and the opera achieved a run of 39 performances before it vanished from the repertory. I seem to recall at the time that the critics were less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic; however one bon mot accused the composer of near-plagiarism with the phrase “Nicht von Einem, doch vom anderen” (Not from his own pen [the awful pun is pretty well untranslatable] but rather from others). I would hazard a guess that much of this malice arose from sheer jealousy, envy that a new work written almost as a deliberate snub to the increasingly fashionable work of the avant-garde had not only been given such an auspicious send-off but had also established itself as a work on the verge of popularity. And after the mid-1970s the opera seems to have vanished from the stage for many years until a belated revival in 2010. It deserved better, much better, even if it might have proved difficult to mount a new production with a cast to rival that of the original. A recent revival was mounted in Vienna in March 2018, with Katerina Karneus in the title role but the names of the remainder of the participants don’t have the cachet of those on display here.

This recording originally appeared on DG and has resurfaced a couple of times over the years; it now appears on the Orfeo label as part of an edition of the works of von Einem issued to commemorate the composer’s birth. I cannot discover whether the original LP set from DG contained texts or translations, but certainly all the later issues have been restricted to a synopsis of the action. This cannot help the listener who does not speak German to follow the details of the plot, let along appreciate the touches of black humour. To take one example: after the public meeting at which the villagers debate the old lady’s proposition, when the condemned man realises that they mean to kill him he comes out with a heartfelt cry of “My God!” This is then reduced to utter bathos when the director of the television crew who have been filming the meeting asks them to repeat the final section of the debate because they have been experiencing “lighting problems”. The mayor is initially reluctant – “What, all of it?” – but finally acquiesces whereupon the director laments the fact that “it is a pity that his final cry of joy ‘My God!’ was lost – it would have made a marvellous shot” (I paraphrase what I recall of the Norman Tucker translation used at Glyndebourne). The synopsis here entirely sidesteps the irony: “The ceremony has to be repeated because of a camera-breakdown.” Those who do speak German will be gratified by the clear diction of the cast – and indeed it seems that this may well be a deliberate feature of von Einem’s treatment of the text (Christa Ludwig comments on this in an autobiographical booklet note). Nonetheless the recorded sound, getting on for fifty years old now, is close-miked and boxy, relegating the sometimes brutal orchestration to the background, and I don’t recall that the BBC relay from the dry old theatre at Glyndebourne was much better although the instrumental detail was crisper.

To comment on the singing would be fatuous at best (we are never going to hear the like of this cast again) and presumptuous at worst. Suffice it to say that a line-up of soloists headed by Christa Ludwig and Eberhard Waechter is bravely supplemented by the likes of Heinz Zednik, Emmy Loose, Hans Beirer, Manfred Jungwirth, Hans Hotter, Alois Pernestorfer, Karl Terkal, Kurt Equiluz and Hans Braun to pick only on the more stellar names. Horst Stein, the chorus and the orchestra give the score plenty of bite and indeed panache despite some scrawny string-playing. Given the fact that this recording derives from a single live performance, it is of course not devoid of errors of pitch, rhythm and balance which a studio recording would have rectified but the atmosphere of an occasion when, the booklet tells us, the audience applauded solidly for twenty minutes, comes through in spades. The booklet gives notes and synopsis in both German and English, as well as the aforementioned reminiscence by Christa Ludwig, and is well illustrated with photographs from the original production.

Another disc in this von Einem retrospective from Orfeo furnishes us with three much more recent recordings including one studio broadcast. This is of the Philadelphia Symphony, once available on a Decca LP bizarrely coupled with Schubert’s Unfinished, but here given a new reading conducted by Franz Wesler-Möst. This symphony had a rather unfortunate beginning a commission by Eugene Ormandy for a short piece commemorating his orchestra produced an unexpectedly substantial neo-classical score which the conductor was initially reluctant to accept. In the event the symphony was not performed in Philadelphia until a year after its première in Vienna with Georg Solti conducting. Some of the critics were less than enthusiastic – one complained that “an audience that regards Shostakovich as a great composer will not deny Einem some recognition” – and the Penguin Guide were decidedly offhand about the Decca recording under Zubin Mehta, describing the work as “remarkably unmemorable”. Well, comparisons with Shostakovich are certainly wide of the mark, and von Einem’s symphony is more genially enjoyable than any of the Russian master’s essays in the genre closer parallels should be drawn perhaps not with Haydn (a favourite model of the neo-classicists) but with Beethoven. The bouncy rhythmic material that forms the central section of the slow movement comes very close indeed to the scherzo from the Choral Symphony, and the driving impetus of the finale also echoes Beethovenian models. Perhaps the Penguin Guide were closer to the mark when they described the score as “effective” and “well-wrought” although one might possibly be inclined to ascribe the authors’ lack of enthusiasm to Mehta’s performance (which I have not heard). Another alternative recording, made in 1978 by the Austrian Broadcast Symphony Orchestra, also appears to have sunk without trace; the Decca LP did make a short-lived appearance on CD back in 2006 as part of a massive six-disc Mehta retrospective, and was reviewed for this site by Ateş Orga. The new recording is a mere six seconds shorter than the old one.

At the other extreme comes the Geistliche Sonata for soprano, trumpet and organ. If the forces involved might suggest something on the lines of Burgon’s famous Nunc dimittis, forget it. The ‘sacred sonata’ is a severe and heavily contrapuntal exercise, beginning with a movement for trumpet and organ alone and then proceeding to three settings of Biblical texts. The writing for the voice is often quite strenuous – Ildikó Raimondi is clearly stretched to her limits – and although the final movement, moving from a solemn hymn to a dramatic peroration, has a sense of forward movement and presence, the rest of the music lacks any of the sense of the immediate attractiveness to be found in the symphony. The Biblical texts are provided in German only, but those with a smattering of the language and a knowledge of the scriptures will find their way round the words easily enough.

Which is more than can be said for the Berthold Brecht’s lyrics for Das Stundenlied, a series of meditations on the nine hours of the Crucifixion set for chorus and orchestra. It is clear that Brecht’s text has some serious political points to make about the events he describes, but his often colloquial German is not readily comprehensible to those without a good knowledge of the language, even with the printed German text that is provided. The otherwise comprehensive booklet note by Otto Biba clearly seems to have expected an English translation to be supplied, since his description of the music completely shuns any explanation of the meaning of the words except to note (without explanation) the “central importance of…death-inducing love” – whatever that may mean. This is all the more aggravating since the work is one of von Einem’s most impressive utterances. He strongly espoused the cause of Brecht, even at one stage proposing an operatic setting of The Caucasian chalk circle, and he was apparently dismissed from the board of the Salzburg Festival because of his perceived over-attachment to the promotion of the maverick writer (although this is not mentioned in the booklet notes). Both choir and orchestra enter enthusiastically into the sphere of the music, and indeed this CD is a valuable addition to the promotion of von Einem’s music which is evidenced by Orfeo’s series of issues over the years, comprising both reissues of vintage performances as well as new recordings.

Acknowledgement is given to the “Gottfried von Einem Musik privat Stiffung” who presumably have supplied some of the original tapes; it only remains to lament the fact that the presentation of the issues has fallen short of the extra mile needed to enthuse non-German-speaking audiences. Those who can overcome those obstacles will find much to enjoy here. They may also care to note that the Orfeo recording under Lothar Zagrosek of von Einem’s ‘other’ opera Dantons Tod does come with a complete libretto and translations into both English and French, which goes to show it can be done.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Cast list for Der Besuch der alten Dame

Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano) – Claire Zachanassian
Eberhard Waechter (baritone) – Alfred Ill
Hans Beirer (tenor) – Mayor
Manfred Jungwirth (bass) – Preacher
Hans Hotter (bass) – Teacher
Siegfried Rudolf Frese (baritone) – Doctor
Alois Pernestorfer (bass) – Policeman
Heinz Zednik (tenor) – Butler
Erich Trachtenberg and Klaus Peters (spoken roles) – Toby, Roby
Fritz Sperlbauer and Karl Terkal (tenors) – Loby, Koby
Wolfgang Peschel (spoken role) – Husband No 7
Elmar Breneis (tenor) – Husband No 9
Emmy Loose (soprano) – Ill’s wife
Ana Higueras-Aragon (mezzo-soprano) – Ill’s daughter
Ewald Alchberger (tenor) – Ill’s son
Hans Christian (bass) – Station-master
Hans Braun (baritone) – Train-driver, Cameraman
Franz Machala (tenor) – Conductor
Wilhelm Lenninger (spoken role) – Reporter
Laurence Dutoit (soprano) – 1st woman
Margareta Sjöstedt (mezzo-soprano) – 2nd woman
Kurt Equiluz (tenor) – Hofbauer
Harald Pröglhöf (bass) – Helmesberger


Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical
All Naxos reviews

Chandos recordings
All Chandos reviews

Hyperion recordings
All Hyperion reviews

Foghorn recordings
All Foghorn reviews

Troubadisc recordings
All Troubadisc reviews

all cpo reviews

Divine Art recordings
Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10
All Divine Art reviews

All APR reviews

Lyrita recordings
All Lyrita Reviews


Wyastone New Releases
Obtain 10% discount