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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter) opera in three acts (premièred Berlin, 1821)
(Original spoken dialogue, replaced by narrations)
Andreas Schager - Max, assistant huntsman (tenor)
Lise Davidsen - Agathe, Kuno’s daughter (soprano)
Alan Held - Kaspar, assistant huntsman (bass-baritone)
Sofia Fomina - Ännchen, a young relative of Agatha (soprano)
Markus Eiche - Ottokar, a Bohemian prince (baritone)
Christoph Filler - Kilian, a rich peasant (baritone)
Andreas Bauer - Kuno, a hereditary forester (bass)
Franz-Josef Selig - A Hermit, vocal part (bass)
Corinna Kirchhoff - Samiel, the Black Huntsman (speaker)
Peter Simonischek - Hermit (speaker)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Marek Janowski
rec. 2018, HR-Sendesaal, Frankfurt, Germany
German texts with English translation in booklet
PENTATONE PTC5186788 SACD [77:01 + 38:51]

Marek Janowski conducts this wecome new release of Der Freischütz recorded in Frankfurt under studio conditions for Pentatone with a well-chosen cast of soloists. Specialising in German Romantic repertoire, Janowski has recorded Der Freischütz previously in 1994 at Berlin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin on RCA Red Seal (reissued on Sony).

Premièred at Berlin in 1821, Der Freischütz is generally considered as the first influential German Romantic opera. Based on German folk legends the three-act opera with spoken dialogue is set in Bohemia in the middle of the 17th century. Capturing the Nationalist fever that was prevalent in the country, Weber’s pivotal work in German opera became successful throughout Europe.

For this new recording the original spoken German dialogue has been replaced by specially commissioned short narrations provided by Katharina Wagner and Daniel Weber. Actors Corinna Kirchhoff (Samiel) and Peter Simonischek (Hermit) are the narrators. I’ve seen this method of using a narrator instead of spoken dialogue used extremely successfully, notably in Martin Duncan’s 2017 Bayerische Staatsoper staging of Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Fundamentally Der Freischütz is a dark and shadowy folk tale about a young assistant forester Max who unconsciously becomes in league with the devil in his bid to win a shooting contest as ‘King of the marksmen’. By winning Max will be permitted to marry Agathe, daughter of the head forester Kuno, hopefully becoming his successor. Weber described the two essential components of his opera as, ‘the life of the hunter and the rule of demonic powers’.

In truth Der Freischütz has four principal characters. Andreas Schager as Erik plays the tenor role of the young hero Max, the assistant huntsman. Schager who made his Bayreuth debut in 2016 has sung the role of Erik at Wiener Staatsoper in 2018. Agatha, Kuno’s daughter is sung by Lise Davidsen. A lyric dramatic soprano, Davidsen is one of the rising stars of the operatic world who made her Bayreuth debut just a few months ago. Kaspar another assistant huntsman is taken by bass-baritone Alan Held who has sung the role at Wiener Staatsoper. The soprano role of Ännchen the young relative of Agatha is taken by Sofia Fomina. In 2012 Fomina burst on the scene at the Royal Opera House, London as Isabelle in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable.

The Der Freischütz overture with its tone poem qualities is often played as a stand-alone concert piece. Setting the tone for the opera in the overture with its striking horn quartet Marek Janowski and his Frankfurt players provide a mood of dark foreboding which concludes on a celebratory note. Heroine Agatha has a significant scene and aria (prayer) in act two ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer… Leise, leise, Fromme Weise!’ (‘How did sleep come to me… Softly, softly, my pure song!’). As Agatha, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen is in impressive voice, singing with a lovely smooth, fluid tone, displaying a moving expression as she prays to God for help. From act three Agathe’s cavatina ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle’ (‘Even when clouds hide it.’) where she prays for care, sits mainly in the top register and Davidsen achieves her high notes splendidly. Andreas Schager is convincing as Max, the assistant forester, a role that seems ideal for the Austrian tenor. Max has a substantial first act aria ‘Nein! Länger trag’ ich nicht die Qualen… Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen’ (‘No, I can no longer bear the misery… Through the forest, through the meadows’) where he sings of his despair at losing the shooting contest and fears losing Agatha too. Schager sings with persuasive emotion, displaying his reasonably bright tone resolutely with only little noticeable strain.

Sofia Fomina as Ännchen who has a highly attractive arietta in the second act ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegange’ (‘When a slim boy comes along’) sings of her courting ritual, wooing boys with her glances. In attractive girl-like voice the Russian soprano is bright, smooth and focused. Delightful too is Agatha and Aennchen’s act two duet ‘Schelm! halt fest’ (‘Hold fast, you wretch!’) with the attractive voices of Davidsen and Fomina combining with aplomb. Assistant forester Kaspar, sung by Alan Held, has two main arias: the drinking song ‘Hier im ird'schen Jammerthal’ (‘Here in this earthly vale of tears’) and the arresting aria that closes act one ‘Schweig, schweig - damit dich niemand warnt!’ (‘Silence, silence, that nobody will warn you’). In firm voice the American bass-baritone sings with credit portraying a suitably murky and scheming character, communicating his pleasure in gaining revenge as Max falls from grace. Baritone Christoph Filler is the rich peasant Kilian, who beats Max in the shooting contest. Killian’s first act aria with chorus ‘Schau’ der Herr mich an als König!’ (‘Now sir, look at me as king!’) really works well, conveying a mocking rather humorous quality. Corinna Kirchhoff takes the principal vocal part of Samiel (the Black Huntsman) speaking outstandingly, witch-like with clarity and blood chilling expression.

Concluding act two is the renowned ‘Wolf’s Glen’ scene where Caspar and Max, guided by Samiel (the Black Huntsman), cast their magic bullets and with the Frankfurt orchestra under Janowski combine to create a disconcerting, oppressive and sinister sense of the supernatural. Contributing strongly to the success of the album the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, coached by chorus master Philipp Ahmann, is in outstanding voice. Especially enjoyable is the lusty ‘Huntsmen’s Chorus’ from act three. Completely at home with this opera the experienced Janowski conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony with attention and intelligence, producing a striking level of vitality and well-focused textures with tempi that feel ideal.

This SACD (played on my standard unit) was recorded in the studio of HR-Sendesaal, Frankfurt. Highly experienced the Hessischer Rundfunk engineering team excel providing commendable sound quality. In the booklet the German libretto with an English translation is provided but strangely there is no synopsis. Included too is a helpful essay titled ‘A fairy-tale of horror and hope’ written by Kasper van Kooten. I notice Simonischek’s name is spelt wrong on the rear of the box.

A landmark opera Der Freischütz; there are several admired recordings in the catalogue. On CD probably the best-known recording is from 1973 at Lukaskirche, Dresden performed by the Rundfunkchor Leipzig and Staatskapelle Dresden under Carlos Kleiber on Deutsche Grammophon. Recorded under studio conditions Kleiber’s soloists are Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, Franz Crass, Siegfried Vogel, Bernd Weikl, Günther Leib and Gerhard Paul. Another favourite Der Freischütz of mine on CD is a very well performed 1951 radio recording conducted by Rudolf Kempe with the Staatskapelle Chorus and Staatskapelle Dresden. This abundantly atmospheric performance commemorates the 125th anniversary of Weber’s death in 1826. Kempe’s principal soloists are Karl Paul, Werner Faulhaber, Elfride Trötschel, Irma Beilke, Bernd Aldenhoff and Kurt Böhme. This radio broadcast from sessions at Dresden Hygiene Museum has been re-mastered from the original Dresden Radio Station recordings on Profil Edition (review).

For those wanting a DVD/Blu-ray of Der Freischütz I enthusiastically recommend a captivating film of stage director Axel Köhler’s 2015 Staatsoper Dresden production from Semperoper, Dresden. The Staatsopernchor and Staatskapelle Dresden is conducted by Christian Thielemann with soloists Adrian Eröd, Albert Dohmen, Sara Jakubiak, Christina Landshamer, Georg Zeppenfeld and Michael König. In 2015 I attended one of these Köhler Semperoper stagings and wrote in my review, ‘Axel Köhler’s must-see production is a tremendous spectacle both for the sheer quality of the performances and the remarkable sonic and visual pyrotechnics’ (review).
This studio recording of Der Freischütz from Marek Janowski captivated me from start to finish.

Michael Cookson

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