Saturday, 29 March 2014

Remembering Gerd Albrecht

Gerd Albrecht - Photo Anna Meuer
The conductor Gerd Albrecht (1935 - 2014) died in February this year. He had a long career, starting as a repetiteur in Stuttgart and taking in positions as senior Kapellmeister at Mainz Musicipal Theatre and Generalmusikdirector in Lübeck (where he was Germany's youngest Generalmusikdirector) before going on to be principal conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich (1975-80), the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (1993-96), Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (1998-2007) and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (2000-04). He was also Generalmusikdirecktor of Hamburg Opera (1988-97). Highly active in the recording studio, he had a wide range, with a discography covering operas by Dvořák, Gurlitt, Janáček, Krenek, Mercadante, Meyerbeer, Puccini, Spontini, Schoeck, Schreker, Spohr and Wellesz.

His desire to push the boundaries of the repertoire encompassed not only his espousal of lesser known operas, but his performing of contemporary music. Over several decades he gave numerous world premières of works by composers such as Henze, Ligeti, Reimann, Rihm and Schnittke, both in the concert hall and the opera house, including the world premiere of Reimann's Lear.

I first came across him in the opera house when he conducted the Zemlinsky double bill (Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragoedie), both operas based on stories by Oscar Wilde. The productions originated in Hamburg (and Albrecht recorded them with Hamburg forces) but I saw Albrecht conduct them in London. The repertoire was typical Albrecht, searching out the lesser known and showing it to be of striking quality, given in robust performances. There was a German kapellmeister quality to him which perhaps did not always endear him to critics in the UK, but his sympathies were remarkably broad just listen to his recordings of Dvorak and Spontini, two very different composers.


In the concert hall, his career was not without incident, and he seems to have been a man of strong convictions which spilled over; he developed a reputation for speaking out on political issues. But even though his later career with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was overshadowed, it is worth bearing in mind that he was the first foreigner to be appointed their principal conductor. 

He also had a strongly didiactic element to his make-up, and was interest in bringing new audiences to classical music, doing so through “conversation concerts” and via the radio and TV. Albrecht wrote children’s books and directed and presented over fifty TV films and recordings for children. In 1989 he set up the Hamburger Jugendmusikstiftung, a foundation to promote talented young musicians. The foundation also runs the Klingendes Museum (Museum of Sound) in Hamburg, which is visited by thousands of schoolchildren every year; there is now also a museum in Berlin.

It is impossible to summarise Albrecht's recordings,  but I thought I would dip into a couple to give a feel for their range.

His recording of Antonin Dvorak's Armida was made live in 1995 with the Czech Philharmmonic Orchestra and Prague Chamber Choir, issued on the Orfeo label (C 404 962 H).  The opera was Dvorak's last, being premiered in 1904 three years after Rusalka. The story comes from Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata with Jaroslav Vrchlický's libretto being based on the one written for Lully.The opera's rather over use of magic effects is perhaps off putting today, and Dvorak seems to have been less than interested in the ceremonial of the Crusaders. But the Oriental setting clearly inspired him and he writes some supremely memorable and lyrical music. This is clearly an opera by the composer of Rusalka. In his performance Albrecht brings out many of the parallels, with the music's wonderful multi-layered complex textures. Albrecht and his orchestra make the music sing, and the recording is notable for the glorious memorability of the orchestral performance. There is a strong vocal cast with Joanna Borowska and Wieslaw Ochman as Armida and Rinald, plus George Fortune as Ismen and Pavel Daniluk as Hydraot.

A very different opera is Spontini's Olympie. Spontini is best known for his French grand opera, La Vestale. Written in 1807, La Vestale was an important precursor of French grand opera, with the combination of historical pageant and private emotions. Spontini was in fact Italian and had trained Naples, including a period of study with Cimarosa. He moved to Paris in 1803 and lived there until 1820. His opera Olympie was premiered in Paris in 1819, to only moderate success. In 1820 the composer moved to Berlin to take up the post of Chief Music Director there and a revised version of Olympie was premiered in Berlin in 1821 (with the final act's death toll being reduced).

It was performed in Paris in this form in 1826 and it is this version of the opera which Albrecht recorded (in French). The recording was made in 1984 with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (on Orfeo, C 137 826 H), and a strong cast which include Julia Varady in the title role, Stefania Toczyska as Statira, Franco Taliavini as Cassandre and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau as Antigone. The opera concerns the infighting happening after Alexander the Great's death, with both Antigone and Cassandre vying for the hand of Alexander's daughter Olympie.

Granted, none of the cast are French, but frankly we have not come much further in our appreciation of French opera of this period and all sing with credible style and not a little affecting power. More importantly Albrecht's command of the opera's style is as well judged as on his Dvorak recording. He brings out the classical sweep of Spontini's writing, whilst making us hear the pre-echoes of Berlioz at times (Berlioz was a great admirer of Spontini's operas). Listening to this disc, its a shame that Albrecht never seems to have recorded La Vestale or any operas by Spontini's other French naturalised countryman Cherubini.

Elsewhere on this blog:

2 comments:

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  2. I was sad to read of the death of Gerd Albrecht. He was a conductor I much admired. Say what you will about the German Kapellmeister system, it bred conductors who knew both their scores and their voices. You can always "breathe" with a conductor trained this way. We first met in Hamburg when he conducted Otello with me and Vladimir Atlantov. Then the new production of Der Fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden. I am sure that the many singers and players who worked with him will miss his great musicality, leadership and experience

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