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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture Beherrscher der Geister [6:32]
Konzertstück for Piano and Orchestra [16:54]
Overture Der Freischütz [9:48]
“Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base” from Der Freischütz [7:00]
“Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Der Freischütz [4:07]
Overture Oberon [9:10]
Martin Helmchen (piano)
Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Christoph Eschenbach
Rec. 21-23 November 2020 & 15-16 February 2021, Konzerthaus Berlin
ALPHA 744 [53:33]

This slightly eccentric compilation of music by Weber is inspired by a series of bicentenaries. 2021 sees two hundred years since the premiere, in Berlin, of Weber’s enormously important opera Der Freischütz. It also saw the opening of Berlin’s beautiful Konzerthaus, the oldest of the city’s functioning concert halls which, a few weeks after the Freischütz premiere, housed the premiere of Weber’s Konzertstück for piano and orchestra.

Such a happy coincidence of premieres requires a celebratory CD, and this is certainly that. However, it’s also a celebration of Christoph Eschenbach’s relationship with the Konzerthaus Orchestra. It’s rarely thought of as one of Germany’s top-flight orchestras, especially when you consider the company it keeps in Berlin, but it sounds terrific here. Their playing for Eschenbach is warm, affectionate, focused and completely together, so that one of the great joys of the disc is simply sitting in contemplation of the sound. OK, you might hear better playing up the road in the Philharmonie, but that orchestra isn’t likely to spend its time on repertoire like this, and that on its own is an argument for enjoying this disc.

The Freischütz numbers all sound great. Anna Prohaska’s voice is agile, if ever so slightly heavy for the soubrette role of Ännchen, with the occasional scoop. However, she revels in the word-painted irony of, “Einst träumte,” and “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch” sounds great, with lightness and sparkle in the orchestral accompaniment. It’s only a shame that Prohaska wasn’t given one of Agathe’s more substantial arias to sing: they would probably have suited her voice better.

The Freischütz overture begins with beautiful sense of the gathering mist in the strings and horns, then a crisply articulated main Allegro that first sweetens and then blazes into C major. It’s a really satisfying performance, as is that of the other overtures. The fey delicacy of Oberon matches its quicksilver semiquavers beautifully, and the less well known Beherrscher der Geister overture sounds pleasingly busy, played as it is with great energy. Whirling strings melt into lyrical wind solos in the central section, and the sense of action is helped by the bullet-like timpani.

However, the real winner on the disc is a terrific performance of the Konzertstück. It’s a super piece, for one thing, regardless of whether you know the work’s (alleged) narrative of the maiden who awaits the homecoming of her crusader knight husband. Either way, it’s a marvelously atmospheric seventeen minutes of music, effectively an opera without singing.

The performers take it really seriously here, too. Melancholic winds and earnest strings set the scene, with martial brass and winds held in store for the work’s second half. Eschenbach shapes it around that narrative turning point very effectively. Maybe the march interlude is a little by-numbers, but the final flourish is exhilarating, balancing the piano’s upward leap against a bright orchestral tutti. Martin Helmchen is a super soloist. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad record of his, and I’m still in love with his 2017 recording of the Diabelli Variations. Here, playing a sweet-sounding concert grand, he plays all the actors in the drama at once, lyrical and poignant for the melancholy opening, then full of urgent drama for the storm-tossed central section.

The whole thing sounds great in the hall’s acoustic, too; rich and resonant, with just the right amount of air around the sound. The balance between the piano and orchestra is really good, too. This is a really involving release, beautifully played and recorded. It’s only a shame that they didn’t squeeze more repertoire onto the disc. Is it really OK to charge full price for a CD these days if the running time is less than an hour?

Simon Thompson

Previous review: David McDade

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