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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz (1821), Romantic Opera in Three Acts [123:13]
Max – Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Kaspar – Heiko Trinsinger (baritone); Agathe – Jessica Muirhead (soprano); Ännchen – Tamara Banješević (soprano); Hermit – Tijl Faveyts (bass); Prince Ottokar – Martijn Cornet (baritone); Kilian – Albrecht Kludszuweit (tenor); Kuno – Karel Martin Ludvik (bass-baritone); Bridesmaids – Uta Schwarzkopf, Helga Wachter (sopranos)
Chorus of the Aalto Theatre
Essen Philharmonic Orchestra/Tomáš Netopil
rec. live, 12 and 27 December 2018, 17 January 2019, Aalto-Musiktheater, Essen, Germany
OEHMS CLASSICS OC988 [67:05 + 56:08]

Shot through as it is with all the clichés of German Romanticism – forests, hunters, hermits, a conflicted hero and angelic heroine, supernatural forces of good and evil – Der Freischütz has not always travelled well. Its cause internationally is not helped either by the fact that it contains a good deal of German dialogue, sports one of the world’s least translatable titles, and was a favourite of Hitler. On the other hand, it is unmistakably Weber’s masterpiece, full of dramatic intensity, memorable arias, folksy choruses and, not least, superbly inventive orchestration.

Given its practical difficulties and sometimes baleful ideological associations, Der Freischütz is not always an easy work to stage – though Matthias Hartmann’s recent La Scala production, available on a Naxos DVD (review), has proved that such problems are not insoluble. On CD, however, it has done remarkably well: there have been many more or less recommendable versions, conducted by such luminaries as Furtwängler (review), Kempe (review), Keilberth (review), both Kleibers, Kubelik, Harnoncourt (review), and two recordings each by Marek Janowski (review) and Sir Colin Davis (review). So this new version from Essen enters a decidedly well-populated and competitive field.

To come clean straightaway, it seems to me that its most appealing feature is the excellent conducting of the Czech maestro Tomáš Netopil. His account of the overture, with its combination of atmosphere, vigour and characterful wind playing, already augurs well, and these initial expectations are in no way disappointed. Netopil paces the opera well, is sensitive to his singers, can do intense drama and light-limbed dance rhythms as required, and draws consistently impressive playing from the Essen Philharmonic. The full-throated but disciplined chorus is also an asset.

The solo singing, though, is not consistently on this level. Der Freischütz is no easier to cast than it is to stage, given that most of its main roles require voices whose weight lies some way between the Mozartian Fach and the Wagnerian one. The Essen production recorded here favours voices which in the main are lighter than usual – with mixed results. To my ear, the women are more successful than the men. The British-Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead has sung mainly Mozart roles, along with the likes of Micaëla, Mimì and Violetta; so strictly speaking her voice is a size too small for Agathe. In practice, however, her performance is delightful, combining a clear timbre with an attractive quick vibrato. Agathe is of course too good to be true (and certainly too good for her flawed swain Max), but she becomes more or less plausible when communicating with the pure-toned ardour that Muirhead consistently musters. The Ännchen, Tamara Banješević, has a voice of a similar kind, but is easily distinguishable from Muirhead and also does a grand job – reminding us that her character is high-spirited and feisty, but also kind and supportive towards her often troubled cousin.

As the compromised but ultimately forgiven Max, Maximilian Schmitt fields an essentially light, lyric tenor, deservedly much admired in, for example, Mozart and Bach; but Weber’s demands here tend to overtax him, resulting in a good deal of strain, especially on top. As recorded here, Schmitt’s vibrato is also uncomfortably prominent, such as often to obscure – or at least distract attention from – the essential beauty of his instrument. As the devilish Kaspar, Heiko Trinsinger acts well, as he has to; but vocally he is effortful and unmistakably baritonal, in a role that really calls for a dark-toned bass-baritone or true bass. The various small parts, meanwhile, are all adequately taken, but no more than that. The sound is good, and the fact that the recording has been put together from live performances brings few problems: there is not much applause and very little coughing or clunking about on stage; at one point, though, there are some bizarre unexplained bird noises, and there are three or four lengthy silences (dramatic pauses, one assumes), which might with advantage have been edited out. The booklet is elegantly produced and includes a good article by John Warrack; but it provides only a German libretto.

Overall, I can certainly say that I enjoyed this Freischütz, especially for its orchestra, conductor and sopranos. The competition really is intense, though, and by no means all the alternative versions I listed above come in dated sound. Under these circumstances a newcomer to the lists has to be something rather special to warrant anything approaching a prime recommendation; and in that context the present version, for all its qualities, doesn’t really cut the mustard.

Nigel Harris

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