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Opera Overtures, Choruses and Duets
rec. 1959-1993 (locations unspecified)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95414 [3 CDs: 184:59]

On the surface at least, this is one of the more puzzling releases I have encountered. The first disc of the three includes nine overtures (or similar), predominantly, though not exclusively, from the lighter end of the Austro-German repertoire, played by a total of five orchestras and six conductors. The second offers a sequence of operatic choruses, all performed in their original language (seven in German, six in Italian, three in French) by the same choir, orchestra and conductor. That conductor re-appears on the third disc, but now with a different orchestra and just two male singers, and directs a sequence of ten duets delivered – whatever their country of origin – exclusively in German. No texts are provided. There is a really excellent booklet note (by David Moncur) setting all these bleeding chunks in context and generally giving the impression that the compilation is more coherent than it really is; but this is printed only in English. Aside from the assertion that “Die Fledermaus” features a character called Rosina and a reference to Verdi’s “Nabuucco”, Moncur’s contribution has been adequately proof-read; but that could not be said of the near-disastrous mess that is the list of contents for discs 2 and 3 (bizarrely, as disc 1 is unaffected). There we are told, for example, that Verdi was born both in 1812 and in 1813, that Bizet’s “Les pêcheurs de perles” has a baritone character called Zurg, and that an opera entitled “Margarete” was written by a composer known as either Gonoud or Gronoud.

I’m being mean and pernickety, of course, but you get the idea. We are not dealing here with a coherent, purpose-built anthology of operatic highlights, but rather with a collection of discs thrown together from various sources. What they have in common, is that all the performances, with the exception of a solitary post-Reunification item from the Bamberg Symphony under Manfred Honeck, were recorded in what we use to know as the GDR (or East Germany) using artists prominent there especially in the 1970s and 1980s. The choruses originally formed an independent compilation, recorded in 1978-9, as did the album of duets, which dates originally to 1972. Both appeared, entirely separately, first on the state-owned Eterna label and then on Berlin Classics. The selection of overtures, by contrast, seems to have been assembled from a variety of sources, mainly, though not exclusively, from complete recordings of the operas in question.

In this context, I guess the only way to proceed is to consider the individual discs in the order in which they are presented, the overtures first. As I say, most of these come from either side of the narrow dividing line which, in the Austro-German tradition, separates operetta from comic opera; and six of the nine performances date from the 1970s. Curiously, the three which do not are arguably the least successful. Franz Konwitschny’s 1959 recording of the overture to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman is powerfully conceived and very well played by the Staatskapelle Dresden, but suffers – to my ears at least – from ponderous, sometimes sluggish direction on Konwitschny’s part. He takes nearly a minute longer than Klemperer, for example, and that is saying something. The young Manfred Honeck’s 1993 rendition of the Fledermaus overture is, by contrast, disconcertingly hard-driven, sounding at times almost impatient – not really what you expect from an echt-Viennese musician in this repertoire. Another Austrian, Otmar Suitner, conducts three items with varying success. His 1965 Bartered Bride overture is fast and exciting, but – for me – seriously lacking in charm; and his two Suppé items, Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry, both from 1970, are good, if at times a tad prosaic – for example in the former work’s extended, and very beautiful, cello solo. Suitner’s 1971 Hänsel und Gretel Prelude is, however, an excellent account, combining lyrical sensitivity at the beginning with invigorating drama later on. Much the same could be said for Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor under another underrated conductor, Bernhard Klee (1979); and yet a third underrated figure, Herbert Kegel, delivers an appropriately effervescent performance of Reznicek’s Donna Diana overture – marred for me only by a very closely-miked 1970 recording which seems to feature frighteningly gargantuan woodwind instruments. The ninth item on the first disc is rather the odd-one-out, being both Italian and not (strictly speaking) an overture. That said, of course, the Prelude to Act III of La Traviata quotes extensively from, and conveys a similar atmosphere to, the Prelude to Act I; and Giuseppe Patanè’s 1973 performance of it is a winning one, combining idiomatic eloquence with some very fine violin playing.

After this very mixed bag, it comes as something of a relief to encounter a coherently planned disc such as that featuring the choruses. True, the order in which the items appear can sometimes seem a bit arbitrary (the road from Verdi to Bizet to Wagner to Mascagni is, for example, a winding and not altogether obvious one); but we begin and end with Verdi and have some very fine music in between. Moreover, the performances are consistently excellent, perhaps particularly those of the Flotow and Nicolai items, almost never heard outside the German-speaking world, but here delivered with a delightfully idiomatic verve. Perhaps due to the recording, the Berlin State Opera Chorus seems at times to lack something in sheer weight (most noticeable, inevitably, in the Triumphal March from Aïda); but its singing is well focused and expressive, and its diction across three languages generally exemplary. It contains no wobblers or intrusive individual voices, and encompasses a wide range of musical styles without obvious difficulty. The Staatskapelle Berlin perhaps lacks some of the tonal lustre of its Dresden counterpart, but there’s not much in it, and the accompaniments under Suitner (who was the Chief Conductor of these forces for some 26 years) are stylish and lively. The recording is warm and mellow, as I remember it being on a lot of the old Eterna releases – the excellent early 80s Ring cycle from Dresden under Marek Janowski sprang to mind, for example.

The third disc in our package also features very pleasing analogue sound, and spotlights perhaps the only two singers from the GDR era who were able to enjoy genuinely fulfilling international careers. Peter Schreier and Theo Adam will still be known quantities to many collectors, the former as a consummate ‘Lieder’ singer, Mozart tenor and Bach Evangelist, and the latter as a noted Wagnerian. Here they are put through their paces, alongside Suitner and the Staatskapelle Dresden, in ten richly varied items by Mozart, Lortzing, Smetana, Gounod (sic), Bizet and Verdi. It’s a particularly challenging assignment for Adam, who has to be, by turns, a “baryton noble” (Zurga), a Verdi baritone (Carlo in La Forza del Destino – sorry, Die Macht des Schicksals) and a “basso profundo” (Osmin). For once the booklet’s fallibility is serendipitous: he is described at one point as a baritone and at another as a bass; clearly, he is both.

Generally (full disclosure) I am a keen admirer of Schreier, but not of Adam – who, for all his qualities as a vocal actor, has sometimes sounded to me both unpleasantly gritty and worryingly wobbly. Here, though, recorded at the age of 46, he is neither – though there is an incipient beat which you feel, with time, would be bound to get worse (as indeed it did). And he really does adapt his voice and demeanour to the role in question: his Mephistopheles, for example, is both wheedling and threatening, his Kečal suitably pompous, and his Speaker in Die Zauberflöte authoritatively serene. By contrast, the 37-year-old Schreier sounds rather samey, and is clearly over-parted as Alvaro in Forza and Nadir in Les pêcheurs – not helped, in the latter case, by a rare misguided tempo choice on Suitner’s part (suffocatingly slow). He is predictably excellent as Pedrillo and Tamino, however.

In contrast to the other two discs in the set, this third one contains some genuinely rare repertoire. Lortzing’s Undine is not often performed, even in Germany, and frankly I didn’t know that it contained two fine duets for the cellarer Hans (bass) and the squire Veit (tenor) – who has the misfortune to fall in love with and marry the mermaid Undine, a circumstance which at least leaves him with some impressive tales with which later to regale his drinking buddy (Hans). I wouldn’t say that Schreier, Adam or indeed Suitner are natural comedians, but I’m not sure that Undine is really a comedy either. In any event, all are in their element here. As indeed they are in the rarely-heard duet ‘Pamina, wo bist du?’ (sung by Tamino and Papageno), which is generally omitted from performances of Die Zauberflöte – and with good reason, given that it could only have the effect of delaying the action and sounds decidedly second-rate musically. I wasn’t surprised to discover that its authenticity is in doubt, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear it.

So, what to make of this collection as a whole? To be honest I still can’t really see who it’s intended for. It’s potentially a valuable ‘starter pack’ for someone developing an interest in opera – but the repertoire performed very much reflects what you might hear specifically in a German opera house, and you need German (and ideally French and Italian as well) to have much idea of what’s going on. At the same time, though, the monolingual booklet is no use to you unless you can read English. Add to that the fact that by no means all newcomers to opera will appreciate 1970s Eastern Bloc sound as much as I do, and you have what in purely marketing terms may well be something of a non-starter. On the other hand, the package represents exceptionally good value (three discs for a bit less than the price of one), most of the performances are very good, and – perhaps particularly to those of a certain age – it’s an at times poignant reminder of three distinguished artists (Schreier, Adam and Suitner) whose work gave a great deal of pleasure during a particular phase of recorded musical history. Probably best, then, just to enjoy it for what it is, rather than fretting too much about what it isn’t.

Nigel Harris

Contents (first lines of vocal items are given in the language in which they are sung here):

Disc 1: Overtures [67:39]
Otto NICOLAI (1810-49): Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor – Overture [8:38] (Staatskapelle Berlin/Bernhard Klee)
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-84): The Bartered Bride – Overture [6:23] (Staatskapelle Dresden/Otmar Suitner)
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921): Hänsel und Gretel – Prelude [7:47] (Staatskapelle Dresden/Otmar Suitner)
Richard WAGNER (1813-83): Der fliegende Holländer – Overture [11:29] (Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Franz Konwitschny)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901): La Traviata – Prelude to Act III [4:08] (Staatskapelle Dresden/Giuseppe Patanè)
Emil Nikolaus von REZNICEK (1860-1945): Donna Diana – Overture [4:15] (Dresdner Philharmoniker/Herbert Kegel)
Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-95): Dichter und Bauer – Overture [9:14]; Leichte Kavallerie – Overture [7:09] (Staatskapelle Dresden/Otmar Suitner)
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-99): Die Fledermaus – Overture [7:56] (Bamberger Symphoniker/Manfred Honeck)

Disc 2: Choruses [66:30]
(all with Chor der Berliner Staatsoper, Staatskapelle Berlin/Otmar Suitner)
Giuseppe VERDI: Otello – “Fuoco di gioia” [2:42]
Georges BIZET (1838-75): Carmen – “Les voici! Voici la quadrille des Toreros” [4:05] (with Kinderchor des Philharmonischen Chores Dresden)
Richard WAGNER: Der fliegende Holländer – “Summ und brumm, du gutes Radchen” [3:38] (with unnamed mezzo-soprano)
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945): Cavalleria Rusticana – “Gli aranci olezzano” [7:08]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919): Pagliacci – “Don, Din, Don, Din” [2:38]
Richard WAGNER: Lohengrin – “Treulich geführt, ziehet dahin” [4:41]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91): Die Zauberflöte – “O Isis und Osiris” [2:35]
Otto NICOLAI: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor – “O süsser Mond” [3:53]
Friedrich von FLOTOW (1812-83): Martha – “Mädchen, brav und treu” [2:48]
Giuseppe VERDI: Aïda – “Gloria all'Egitto” [6:57]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-93): Faust – “Vin ou bière, bière ou vin” [5:04]; “Gloire immortelle” [2:51]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826): Der Freischütz – “Was gleicht wohl auf Erden dem Jägervergnügen” [2:35]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848): Don Pasquale – “Che interminabile andirivieni” [3:48]
Richard WAGNER: Tannhäuser – “Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle” [6:37]

Disc 3: Duets [50:52]
(all with Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, Staatskapelle Dresden/Otmar Suitner)
Bedřich SMETANA: The Bartered Bride – “Komm, mein Söhnchen, auf ein Wort” [7:52]
Charles GOUNOD: Faust – “Ich bin da! Was soll das Erstaunen?” [7:32]
Georges BIZET: Les Pêcheurs de Perles – “Am Abend war’s” [6:07]
Giuseppe VERDI: La Forza del Destino – “Die Stunde ist heilig” [4:11]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail – “Vivat Bacchus!” [2:02]
Albert LORTZING (1801-51): Undine – “Ich war in meinen jungen Jahren” [4:39]; “Was seh’ ich? Ihr seid glucklich wieder da?” [6:46]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART: Die Zauberflöte – “Die Weisheitslehre dieser Knaben” [6:19]; “Bewahret euch vor Weibertücken” [0:51]; “Pamina, wo bist du?” [3:40]

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