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02 Jan 2006
WEBER: Der Freischütz
This 1959 recording is one where the whole is bigger and better than the separate parts. It is the German equivalent to the Cetra recordings of the fifties. Those were maybe not the greatest recording of an opera but one felt that everybody was steeped in the Italian tradition. The same is happening here.
This was the last recording of the work with an all German-speaking cast before Swedish, American, Mexican, Finnish tenors and sopranos of international standing took over some of those roles as they were thought to be better sellers (granted, Carlos Kleiber once more had an all German male cast in 1973 but he had the horrible idea to ask theatre actors for the speaking parts).
Not all of these singers were still at the top of their career or even excellently suited to their roles, but all of them had known the opera all their lives, even before they started an opera career and this shows in the flow of the recording, the pacing and the ease in the dialogues. Der Freischütz with its rather naïve story was immensely popular in the broad sense of the word (“volkstümlich the Germans say) and up till the sixties there would have been no German, Austrian or Swiss who didn’t know the hunter’s chorus while most Germans thought the bridesmaids chorus to be a folk tune. Though the recording firms still kept up the pace, performances of Weber’s masterpiece slowly declined in Germany but it would never leave the repertoire as did most of Albert Lorzing’s fine Spielopern.
The recording has some strong points. First, there is the warm sound so typically for DG at the time. How we detested those magnificent stereo Decca recordings of Bohème (Bergonzi, Tebaldi), Lucia (Sutherland, Cioni) etc. because most people got a kind of hollow sound which improved definitely when one turned the volume a few notches up. But when one lived between paper thin walled houses or small apartments one could only try this for a few minutes before an angry knock asked you to calm down and as people still had some politeness and consideration for each other in those days….The DG recordings didn’t neglect the orchestra, but they placed the singers a bit more to the front; they didn’t have Culshaw extravaganzas and were far more easier to listen to in cramped surroundings.
I have fond memories of Eugen Jochum conducting a top notch orchestra (which was Celibidache’s after all). Apart from the Berliner in those days most German top orchestras belonged to a big public radio network as these organisations offered year long contracts in contrast to the opera houses and thus recruited the best players. On rehearing I was surprised at the very slow start of the overture and feared for a moment that my memories had played me false and that Jochum was suffering from a bad case of Furtwänglerism. But soon the conductor speeds things up and succeeds in building the tension that results in a chilling Wolfsschluchtscene. The best vocal performance comes from Rita Streich who would sadly die in 1987, only 56 years of age. She was one of that remarkable trio of light sopranos (the other two being Erika Köth and Anneliese Rothenberger), all born between 1920 and 1925, who still sang a lot of French and Italian roles in German with a fine legato, good top notes and easily distinguishable voices. Streich is sure and light-footed in her solos and has no difficulty at all of being heard in the ensembles though her voice was small. But she brings with her the joy and frivolity and the rock-sure vocal technique needed for someone who recorded a lot of waltzes and operetta though she was foremost an opera and lieder singer.
Next to her Irmgard Seefried is not on the same level. The soprano had a very beautiful voice in her youth and she was a far more popular figure at Salzburg than Schwarzkopf as she unstintingly gave of her best. But she paid a price for her lack of formal training. She was only 20 and still studying when she accepted an offer from the Generalmusikdirektor of Aachen’s small opera, Karajan. As the war was on maybe she was glad to earn a few Reichsmark. By the mid-sixties, only 45, she was spent and she cut short her operatic career and concentrated for many years on lieder before dying at 69. When she made this recording there are already hints of trouble. The warm personal middle voice is still there but the sound becomes thin at the top and one feels her reticence in giving her all as she cannot get away in the studio with flat notes which still passed on the scene. Therefore her Agathe is too tentative, too restrained as the voice no longer can respond to the character’s needs. Richard Holm was a fine Mozartean, a good Tamino though more a Pedrillo than a Belmonte. The voice is beautiful, smooth and well-projected with a good clear diction but the role is a size too big for him and he sometimes has to force in ensembles. Bass Kurt Böhme has more than the size. With a big booming voice he is a fine devil often too much relying on exclamations and Sprechgesang and some people will probably prefer the more smooth interpretation of Gottlob Frick or Karl Ridderbusch in later recordings. Eberhard Waechter in the small role of Ottokar is cast from strength and so is Walter Kreppel as Samuel.
There is no libretto included with this budget issue.