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Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Music for the Stage
Die Heiratwider Willen: Act II – In die Bastille-Prelude (1905) [5:29]
Der Kaufman von Venedig (1905) [20:21]
Das Wunder (1912) – Suite (arr. Adolf Lotter) [21:12]
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar -Ballade (1878) [15:15]
Lysistrata – Incidental Music (1908) [10:38]
Andrea Chudak, soprano (Der Kaufman and Die Wallfahrt)
Ruxandra Voda van der Plas, contralto (Der Kaufmann)
Harrie van der Plas, tenor, (Der Kaufman and Die Wallfahrt)
Robert Bennesh, organ (Das Wunder)
Malmö Opera Chorus (Der Kaufman, Die Wallfahrt and Lysistrata)
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Dario Salvi
rec. August 2019, Bengt Hall-salen, Malmö Opera, Sweden
NAXOS 8.574177 [73:27]

Think of Humperdinck and Hänsel und Gretel immediately springs to mind, and if you dig a little bit deeper, Königskinder. Of course, he was far more prolific than that, and clearly had a rare talent for melody, vocal setting and orchestration. He is regarded as being a disciple of Wagner rather than a composer who forged a unique path, although I was interested to discover that he was the first composer to use Sprechgesang -  a vocal technique halfway between singing and speaking, in Königskinder.

This most welcome, well-filled CD gives us a broad cross-section of his music for the stage. It starts with the prelude to Act II of the unknown opera Die Heirat wider Willen (The Forced Marriage), which opens with huge Wagnerian chords leading to more complex passages which quieten to harp chords then return to the opening. It is highly effective, and is probably the most instantly impactive music on the disc.

It is followed by his incidental music to the play Der Kaufman von Venedig (The Merchant of Venice). There are seven sections, the longest being the accompaniment to Act V Scene 1,
The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees

At over ten minutes, it is as long as the previous six episodes put together, and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the word painting to inspire him, Humperdinck produces some magical orchestral effects, employing the harp lavishly to illustrate the moon (with a gentle horn accompanying the harp); the same combination is used at the outset, as the lovers begin their conversation. It is the sort of luscious orchestral sound which lulls one into floating along with it. There are vocal parts in the earlier sections, nicely sung by the tenor, soprano and contralto. The next longest scene at just under four minutes is the masked procession. Once again, the composer uses the harp quite prominently when the music quietens. As with all such incidental music, very short sections (three of the seven are each under one minute) can lead to a rather bitty impression, but Humperdinck manages to keep one’s interest - for example, the Casket Song (soprano, chorus, orchestra and harp again) is a 2:45 highlight.

Das Wunder (The Wonder), is music he composed for a British silent film from 1912 made in colour(!). It was presented at the Royal Opera House in 1912, the film being projected on to a screen with the full orchestra and chorus accompanying. The suite here begins with a prelude for solo organ, leading into a Procession and Children’s Dance, which begins with grand pageantry then quietens down for a rustic dance. The longest sections are the last two, the March of the Army and the Death Motif and the Christmas Scene and Finale. The first is quite memorable with flutes, piccolos, fifes and drums, leading to portentous brass chords for the Death Motif. The Christmas music and finale form a much more serene, ten-minute affair, with the orchestra producing a chiming effect for Christmas bells without orchestral bells being employed. I don’t think that the whole piece shows Humperdinck at his most memorable, but it is enjoyable, nonetheless.

Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar – Ballade (The Pilgrimage to Kevlaar) is a setting of three poems by Heinrich Heine, and Humperdinck uses soprano, tenor and chorus with orchestra. The songs tell of a journey made by a mother and her sick son to the shrine of The Virgin Mary at Kevelaer. The first song – At the Window stands the Mother - is a 3’30” narrative between soprano and tenor with the chorus commenting leading to an impressive, very Wagnerian crescendo, followed by the soloists combining with the chorus in a long, sustained note at the end. The second song, at just over seven minutes, depicts the visit to the shrine with a processional quality which slowly gathers strength. The tenor sings some very passionate music, somewhat reminiscent of Tanhauser’s Rome Narration, in which the boy and his mother are described. The last section at 4’33” – The Sick Son and the Mother – describes the death of the child, and, as one might expect, is duly solemn. The horn accompanies the soprano in dramatic declamation as the boy dies, and the chorus provide a swelling epilogue, with the soprano and harp softening things in a brief threnody at the very end. The work is set in a most sympathetic manner by Humperdinck.

The CD ends with his incidental music to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  The composer tries to capture the antique nature of the play through his instrumentation, but even so we can hear Tristan during an extended cor-anglais solo. It is an attractive short suite.

As I mentioned at the outset, I have found this CD to be a welcome issue, and the last three items are all world premiere recordings. The booklet is informative about the composer and the music, and although texts to the sung parts are not provided, they are available from the Naxos website.

The performances are excellent in every respect, as we have come to expect from Malmö, and the recording is well balanced and natural.

Jim Westhead

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