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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Egmont, complete incidental music [52:26]
Elisabeth Breuer (soprano), Robert Hunger-Bühler (recitation)
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra/Aapo Häkkinen
rec. live, 31 December 2018-2 January 2019, Musiikkitalo, Helsinki, Finland
Complete printed texts in German (original language) and English.
ONDINE ODE1331-2 [52:26]

Beethoven’s score for Goethe’s Egmont does not involve a reciter when used for a staging of the play. When, however, we hear the music today in the concert hall, which is actually quite rare, it often includes all or much of the spoken text. As you may have observed from the heading, this one, recorded live, features the full score with the reciter. Personally I favor eliminating the reciter, especially in this instance since Ondine provides full texts in both German and English. Actually, recordings of works requiring a narrator or reciter are often more effective without the spoken text, unless it appears on separate tracks that can be skipped over. That could not be done here since the recitation is often interleaved with the music in many numbers.

Works like Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf need their narration. Others – like Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 7 (Sinfonia Antartica), Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, and especially Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible in either the Abram Stasevich or Michael Lankester arrangements – are better served without their spoken text. Now I will add Beethoven’s Egmont incidental music to the list. Why hear the same verbiage over and over again when you play the work, especially after you know the text? Moreover, for people not fluent in the German language, the reciter will not be a welcome aspect of this recording. For one thing, in a few instances he even speaks during the music, as in Zwischenakt I (No.3) and Zwischenakt II (No.4). As to how much of the 52:26 timing of this recording is taken up by spoken text, I would estimate it to be fifteen minutes or slightly more.

For those wanting the recitation or not bothered by its inclusion – and I realize there are many in both camps – this recording could just be an ideal choice for Egmont. The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, on period instruments, delivers an excellent performance: they play with spirit, accuracy and all-out commitment, and sound quite imposing and sonorous for their smaller size. A photo of the ensemble in the album booklet shows just twenty-four members, although several photos of them on their website suggest a varying number, from eighteen to twenty-four. Yet, the album booklet names forty-five members. Although this performance may not use that many, it certainly sounds sounds bigger than twenty or so instrumentalists. Conductor Aapo Häkkinen consistently shapes the score to capture effectively just about every aspect of the music’s drama.

The famous Overture gets a fine, somewhat brisk performance, the music brimming with energy and effervescence. The closing track, Siegessymphonie, using much of the same music, is played similarly but with an even more manic and colorful character. In the other numbers, the phrasing and execution are always convincing; the pacing is generally moderate. In the slower parts of the aforementioned Zwischenakt I and II, one notices the slightly different string sound associated with Baroque ensembles. The horn sonorities in the latter number also betray an early-music tone, yet in neither case is it really a problem. Austrian soprano Elisabeth Breuer has a light, rather angelic voice, and sings very well in both her numbers, Die Trommel gerühret (No. 2) and Freudvoll und leidvoll (No. 5), the latter especially impressive. Swiss-born actor Robert Hunger-Bühler is quite dramatic in delivering the recitation, sometimes working up emotional outbursts of great passion.

As for the music itself, it effectively depicts the heroic Egmont standing for the rights of his people against the tyrannical Duke of Alba, who sentences him to death leaving Clärchen, Egmont’s lover, to take her life. The music is mostly top-drawer, and when it is not, it is still pretty good. Goethe praised the score, speaking of Beethoven’s “remarkable genius” in matching the music to the play’s drama and discerning his (Goethe’s) intentions.

Regarding the competition, the Karajan on DG from 1961, with Gundula Janowitz and the Berlin Philharmonic, which eliminates all but the small amount of recitation in Melodram (No. 9), is very compelling, as is the Szell on Decca, with Pilar Lorengar and the Vienna Philharmonic from 1969, which has the recitation. But of course the sound reproduction on both of these is not up to today’s standards. That said, this new recording does have a little noticeable background noise from the audience, but the sonics are otherwise quite fine with an up-close perspective. This is a fine performance then, but your choice will likely depend on whether you prefer the recitation.

Robert Cummings

1. Ouverture [11:14]
2. Lied: Die Trommel gerühret [3:50]
3. Zwischenakt I [5:26]
4. Zwischenakt II [6:03
5. Lied: Freudvoll und leidvoll [2:09]
6. Zwischenakt III [6:26]
7. Zwischenakt IV [4:55]
8. Clärchens Tod [5:01]
9. Melodram [6:00]
10. Siegessymphonie [1:13]

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