Thursday 5 December 2019

Weber's Der Freischütz in a fine new modern recording with Lise Davidsen as Agathe

Weber Der Freischütz - Pentatone
Weber Der Freischütz; Lise Davidsen, Andreas Schager, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Marek Janowski; Pentatone
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new studio recording of Weber's opera for those wanting a modern orchestral version

Weber's opera Der Freischütz seems to be having something of a mini-moment. Laurence Equilbey, Insula Orchestra and Cie 14:20 had a run of performances of their new production at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris [see my review], which was a co-production between five European theatres, and a recording is in the offing. And now a new recording from Marek Janowski and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra with Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen as Agathe has just appeared on Pentatone.

This is welcome news, because when Laurence Equilbey & Insula performed Der Freischütz at the Barbican last month it was the opera's first major appearance in London in a long time and it has not appeared on the stage of one of the UK's major opera companies for a long time either. The problems with the work are two-fold, first it is a distinctive mixture of folksiness and the supernatural, and secondly there is the spoken dialogue issue.

German composers of the early 19th century used folk melody and folk influences to build towards a German operatic style. Before then, despite superb German operas from Mozart and Beethoven, little tradition had developed. Thanks to composers like Weber and Marschner, a genuine German vein of opera was created, and the folk-style was very popular with audiences. But what makes the work of Weber and Marschner interesting is their use of the supernatural to explore what we might nowadays call the human psyche. This was something that Wagner picked up on, and nowadays we tend to view the German operas pre-Wagner through his prism which can make them seem less innovative than they really are, especially as for us the folksiness can too often degenerate into triviality.

But the eternal struggle for those German composers in the early part of the 19th century was the libretto, finding a decent one was tricky. Der Freischütz is finely constructed but reliant on too much spoken dialogue so that nowadays we hear it with dialogue reduced, re-written or
removed entirely. I am still waiting to hear an English language production of Der Freischütz which uses a reasonable dramatic version of Kind's dialogue. In fact, I have heard few performances of Der Freischütz that use anything like Johann Kind's original dialogue, and on record and in concert it is usually replaced with something like a narration as it is on this new Pentatone set (of which more anon).

Spoken dialogue in opera remains something of which companies fight shy, yet removing it from an opera like Der Freischütz can have a fatal effect on the drama. Yet both Colin Davis (with the LSO in 2012) and Mark Elder (with the OAE in 2016) used spoken narration when performing the work.

Weber's next opera Euryanthe removed spoken dialogue all together and was in many ways ground-breaking. But the librettist, Helmina von Chézy (author of the failed play Rosamunde for which Schubert wrote the incidental music) was inexperienced and the weakness of the libretto shows through. Ironically, text would remain a problem in Weber's final completed opera, Oberon. Written for Covent Garden with a libretto by the pantomime writer, James Robinson Planché, it is best understood in terms of the English tradition of semi-opera, rather than singspiel. Interestingly, John Eliot Gardiner, who has conducted Oberon in versions with full dialogue, narration and with sung recitatives provided by one of Weber's pupils, stated that for him the version with full dialogue worked best. Would the conductors would understand that about Der Freischütz.

With Der Freischütz there is also the problem in each performance of making the rest of the opera stand up to the remarkable Wolf's Glen Scene which comes at the end of Act Two. This can be the grand Romantic set piece, yet without a finely calibrated view of the whole work the scene can distort things somewhat.

The post-Wagner view of the opera also affects the music, as nowadays we cast Max and Agathe as jugend-dramatisch in the young Wagner mould (I saw the opera at Covent Garden with the distinguished helden-tenor Alberto Remedios as Max, and Colin Davis' LSO Live recording used Christine Brewer as Agathe). My own preference is for the more historically informed view of the work, and frankly I am looking forward to Laurence Equilbey's recording even though another critic viewed both her soloists as rather light for their roles!

There is no danger of that on this new recording from Pentatone where Marek Janowski conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra with Andreas Schager as Max and Lise Davidsen as Agathe. Schager is firmly in the helden-tenor category, singing Siegfried (he sang the title role in Parsifal at Bayreuth this year, see Tony's review), and Davidsen is the jugend-dramatisch du jour, she was Elisabeth in Tannhauser at Bayreuth this year (see Tony's review) and will be Sieglinde there next year.

Schager makes a surprisingly youthful Max, lithe, bright toned and flexible, only a tendency for vibrato to intrude makes him less than perfect (And that is very much a matter of personal preference). Davidsen is, not surprisingly, a slightly dark-toned Agathe, well able to spin a beautiful phrase in 'Leise Leise' and having fluent brilliance in the fast music, not to mention the beautifully floated high notes in her Act Three cavatina. Similarly, Alan Held's Kaspar is well sung and well away from the over-done theatrics of many performances, whilst Sofia Fomina's Aanchen is complete delightful in both her arias.

If you want a full symphony orchestra account of the work then there is a lot to be said for this one, as Janowski and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony give quite a lithe account, whilst not stinting on the Romantic theatrics in the Wolf's Glen. It is not Janowski's first recording of the opera, his Berlin account dates from 1994, so he clearly loves it and draws fine playing from his orchestra. He has a nice view of the structure of the work, the long set piece arias flow well and are placed within the larger structure.

But there is one element of this recording that I just cannot live with. Samiel is played by the actor Corinna Kirchhoff, and as well as playing the role of Samiel she and Peter Simonischeck (as the Hermit) provide linking narrations. But the highly theatrical narrative style that they use (Kirchhoff seems to make Samiel as something of a cackling witch) mars it for me, and this is particularly true of the Wolfs Glen Scene. You could easily programme the narrations out, but not Samiel's role in this climactic scene. Not everyone feels this way about the opera, and I have read a few reviews which seems to take the characterisation as acceptable.

Your 'ideal' recording of Der Freischütz is very much a matter of taste, some may prefer the added touch of orchestral drama which Colin Davis brings, whilst others may want more period sensibility or the full historically informed. This new recording is very much in the frame if you want modern orchestra with Wagnerian-scale singers, especially as it is a good modern studio recording, but be warned about the narration.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) - Der Freischütz
Max - Andreas Schager (tenor)
Agathe - Lise Davidsen (soprano)
Kaspar - Alan Held (bass-baritone)
Annchen - Sofia Fomina (soprano)
Ottokar - Markus Eiche (baritone)
Killian - Christoph Filler (baritone)
Kuno - Andreas Bauer (bass)
Samiel - Corinna Kirchhoff (spoken)
Hermit - Franz-Josef Selig (bass)
Hermit - Peter Simonischeck (spoken)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir
Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Marek Janowski (conductor)
Recorded in November 2018 in the HR-Sendesaal, Frankfurt/Main
PENTATONE PTC 5186 788 2CDs [77.01, 38.51]
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