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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 - 1826)
Der Freischütz (1819-20) [122:43]
Agathe - Christine Brewer (soprano)
Ännchen, a young cousin of Agathe - Sally Matthews (soprano)
Max, a gamekeeper - Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Kaspar, a gamekeeper - Lars Woldt (bass-baritone)
Samiel, the dark hunter/Ottokar, Duke of Bohemia - Stephan Loges (bass-baritone)
Kuno, the Head Gamekeeper - Martin Snell (bass)
Ein Eremit - Gidon Saks (bass)
Kilian, a rich peasant - Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Four bridesmaids - Lucy Hall (soprano)
Huntsmen and retinue, bridesmaids and countryfolk - London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. live, 19 and 21 April 2012, The Barbican, London
German text and English translation included
LSO LIVE LSO0726 [64:20 + 58:23] 

Only recently I reviewed a magisterial LSO Live recording of the Berlioz Requiem by Sir Colin Davis. Just a couple of months previously he had conducted the orchestra and its chorus in a pair of performances of Weber’s great Romantic opera, from which this new recording derives. Those two concerts may well have been Sir Colin’s last appearances at the Barbican. At the time, my colleague, Jim Pritchard, reviewedthe second of these performances for Seen and Heard.
 
This was by no means the first time Davis had conducted concert performances of opera which were subsequently issued by LSO Live. There was a 2004 Peter Grimes, which impressed Mark Bridle (review) and a 2009 Otello, about which Jim Pritchard was most enthusiastic (review). There were other operas, not reviewed on MusicWeb International, including Fidelio in 2007 (LSO0593) and a Falstaff from 2004 (LSO0055) and we must not forget Sir Colin’s superb Berlioz opera sets.
 
This recording of Der Freischütz is, then, the last in the line and, coincidentally, it reunites Davis with two of the principals from earlier opera sets. Simon O’Neill was his Otello - his role debut, I believe - and Christine Brewer was his Leonore.
 
I confess that I’m not sure what to make of this set. Trying to banish any sense of sentimentality at hearing one of the last recordings of a conductor I greatly admired I wanted to like it but there are definite problems with it. One concerns the flow of the action. Like Die Zauberflöte, this is a singspiel with spoken dialogue punctuating the musical numbers as, until a few years earlier, sung recitative would have done. For these LSO performances I understand that a spoken narration in English replaced most of the dialogue - we get a few snippets of German dialogue during the musical numbers, principally in the Wolf’s Glen scene - but the narration has not been included. That’s understandable: listeners might not have welcomed the narration every time they played the discs and certainly its inclusion would have necessitated a third SACD. Also, I recall Jim Pritchard was irritated by the tone of the narration, so on repeated listening it might have proved to be too much of a good thing.
 
The downside of omitting the dialogue is that there’s no link, no flow, between the musical numbers. Nowhere is this more damaging than at the start of the finale to Act III into which we’re rather plunged in media res, finding Agathe presumed shot to death by Max but actually just about to wake from her ‘dream’. That’s pretty confusing for those who don’t know the opera and though the booklet contains a synopsis by David Cairns I strongly suspect that this is reproduced from the concert programme and that Cairns wrote it assuming that his readers would understand the action because they’d heard the narration.
 
I wonder if in the performances themselves the singers felt a bit disengaged from the action. In the theatre they would have been participating in the dialogue but here I presume they sat and listened to stretches of narration and then stood up to sing. Perhaps this explains why I had the sense that the performance fails to catch fire for quite some time though matters do improve somewhat during and after the Wolf’s Glen scene.
 
The other reservation I have concerns the voices. How do you visualise Max and Agathe? It seems logical, I think, to assume that they’re relatively young people; probably no older than thirty. That’s not how they sound here. Both Simon O’Neill and Christine Brewer have big voices - both are seasoned Wagnerians, for a start - but it’s not just the scale and sound of the voices; neither really suggests to me total immersion in their respective characters. Davis recorded this opera many years ago for Philips. I haven’t heard that recording but I believe I’m right in saying that his Max was Francisco Araiza and Karita Mattila sang Agathe. As I say, I’ve not heard that recording but I have heard both those singers, Mattila in particular, many times and in my mind’s ear I can imagine that on that earlier recording they would have brought more vocal lightness and more youthful emotions and ardour to their respective roles than what we hear in this LSO performance.
 
Other listeners may react very differently, I appreciate, but I find that O’Neill in particular is unconvincing. He has a strong ring to his voice but I don’t find that the tone opens enough; it just doesn’t sound free. So I miss any sense of youthfulness or of lyrical ease in his aria in Act 1, though he ends it in suitably dramatic vein. In the Wolf’s Glen scene, at ‘Ha! Furchtbar gähnt’, I don’t really get any sense that this is a frightened young man and, in all honesty, I didn’t really enjoy the sound of his voice at any time.
 
Christine Brewer, by contrast, makes some very pleasing sounds but though she offers some intense singing in her Act III cavatina I can’t persuade myself that I’m hearing a young - or even a young-ish - girl singing the music; the voice is too big. I responded better to ‘Leise, leise, Fromme Weise’, which she sings with fine feeling; here the LSO’s accompaniment is atmospheric, as is the case throughout the opera.
 
Among the supporting cast Sally Matthews does well as Ännchen. Lars Woldt is somewhat blustery in the role of Kaspar but perhaps that’s not inappropriate to the part and in the final scene Gidon Saks is sufficiently authoritative to get his way even over a Duke. Stephan Loges doubles that role with the spoken part of Samiel. Loges is a fine singer but on this occasion, well though he sings as Ottokar, I was more impressed with his speaking: he’s really menacing in the Wolf’s Glen scene, so much so that even the malevolent Kaspar is cowed - though he soon reverts to type once Samiel has left the stage.
 
For the Wolf’s Glen scene we get some limited sound effects which, apparently, were dubbed on later. These are not all that spectacular - but nor are they distracting - and when Kaspar casts the bullets it’s the whiplash playing of the LSO and the vivid contributions of the LSO Chorus that really make the impact.
 
Truth to tell, it’s the orchestra and chorus that are the real stars of this particular show. The LSO’s playing is consistently fine while the LSO Chorus makes a strong impact at their very first appearance in Act 1. They sustain this level of exciting participation right through to their exultant contribution to the jubilant concluding ensemble.
 
I think this may have been one of those rare occasions when the force wasn’t really with Sir Colin. I don’t think this was a question of failing powers. Just recently, in a TV programme about him, I saw some clips from the St. Paul’s Cathedral performance of the Berlioz Requiem, given two months later. He sat down for most of the time and, superficially, didn’t seem to ‘do’ much but, as we know from the audio recording, he still galvanised his forces in a searching interpretation. I don’t feel this performance is on the same level. It’s good but, as I indicated earlier, it doesn’t catch fire for a long time and though the performance is livelier during and after the Wolf’s Glen scene I’ve heard Davis produce much more dramatic results on other occasions.
 
Der Freischütz is an astonishingly original and inventive score but this particular performance, though it contains much to admire, doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye for me.
 
John Quinn   

See also reviews by Göran Forsling and Simon Thompson

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