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Albert LORTZING (1801-1851)
Der Wildschütz (1842)
Count von Eberbach - Gottfried Hornik (baritone):
Countess von Eberbach, his wife - Doris Soffel (alto)
Baron Kronthal, brother of the Countess - Peter Schreier (tenor)
Baroness von Freimann, young widow, sister of the Count - Edith Mathis (soprano)
Nanette, the Baroness's maid - Gertrud von Ottenthal (mezzo)
Baculus, schoolmaster - Hans Sotin (bass)
Gretchen, his fiancée - Georgine Resick (sop) /Juliane Korén (speaker)
Pancratius, the Count's major-domo - Reiner Süß (baritone)
A guest - Bernd Riedel
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin/Bernhard Klee
rec. Christuskirche Studio, Berlin, 1980-1982. ADD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94701 [74:34 + 76:58]

It is not too hard to understand why, despite its enduring popularity in Germany owing to its plethora of good tunes and high spirits, Lortzing’s “komische Oper” - or, more properly, “Spieloper” – has failed to travel beyond the borders of German-speaking countries. The preponderance of dialogue presents an obstacle unless, as with many productions of “Die Zauberflöte”, it is cut. Whereas Mozart’s “Singspiel” can survive that treatment, the speech in “Der Wildschütz” is necessary to clarify the twists of a labyrinthine plot stuffed with improbable cross-dressing disguises and impenetrable hidden kinships.

I confess that I am inclined to ignore the niceties of the plotline and sit back to enjoy the melodies and an authentic singing style emerging from the performers’ immersion in the traditions of German operetta –although, insofar as these distinctions matter, there is a case to be made that “Der Wildschütz” is not an operetta but a proper comic opera the equal of “Don Pasquale”.

The first performance of Lortzing’s masterpiece was in Leipzig on New Year’s Eve, 1842. It is in the German Romantic mould more closely related to its predecessors, Weber’s “Der Freischütz” and Marschner’s “Der Vampyr”, premiered in 1821 and 1828 respectively, but it is of course much more light-hearted and also borrows, especially in its vocal ensembles, elements from “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”, Mozart being the composer Lortzing most admired. The kinship of titles with Weber’s opera is co-incidental, “Wildschütz” meaning “poacher” as in “one who illegally shoots wild game”, and “Freischütz” meaning … well, no-one has ever satisfactorily or neatly translated it but “The Marksman”, “The Freeshooter” - yuk – and “The Trial Shot” are some attempts.

There are not too many extant recordings in the catalogue; this, the latest, is already thirty years old, being a bargain edition from the Brilliant label of the 1980-82 recording which first appeared on Berlin Classics; the highlights disc has already been favourably reviewed by MusicWeb International colleague Bob Farr. There is another likely-looking version, presumably from the 1960s, on Eurodisc and conducted by Wilhelm Schüchter, starring Renate Holm, Erika Köth, Gottlob Frick, Rudolf Schock and Marcel Cordes and also a live Orfeo performance conducted by Heinz Wallberg with another attractive cast including Irmgard Seefried, Waldemar Kmentt, Renate Holm (again), Hilde Rössel-Majdan, Georg Volker and Karl Dönch but I have heard neither of those and they are not easily available. Thus the main competition remains the 1963 EMI recording starring Anneliese Rothenberger, Hermann Prey, Giesela Litz, Fritz Ollendorff and, above all, Fritz Wunderlich. This has appeared in various EMI guises on Electrola, EMI Studio and, most recently, EMI Classics, in a neat cardboard box. Neither Brilliant nor EMI provides a physical libretto but you can download one from their websites.

As you may see from the above summary of recordings, “Der Wildschütz” has attracted an impressive roster of native, post-war German singers to sing it and it’s not hard to hear why. In addition to the melodic inventiveness, the opera offers the opportunity for a true singer-actor to deliver the comic dialogue in accents ranging from the exaggerated, drawling Hochdeutsch of the Countess to the Saxon dialect of the steward Pancratius. To the English-speaking listener, there is an element of “G&S in Lederhosen” about the patter songs – and Lortzing has Sullivan’s gift for a catchy tune, too.

Regarding the relative merits of the versions conducted by Heger and Klee, an absolute choice is complicated by the fact that both are excellent in terms of their warm analogue sound, spirited conducting and first rate casts; I am happy to listen to either with one major reservation regarding the later recording. That derives from my personal antipathy to what I hear as Peter Schreier’s hard, nasal tenor, especially when juxtaposed with Fritz Wunderlich’s mellifluous Baron; once again we are made to lament his early death but also reminded to be grateful for the veritable orgy of recordings he made during his short reign as the world’s most bankable lyric tenor before his untimely demise. By comparison, Schreier is really strained and unlovely of tone in the beautiful Duet and Cavatina, “Bleiben soll ich”; Wunderlich is simply glorious.

Otherwise, the vocal honours are even. The ensemble work in both is delightful; the quartet “Kann es im Erdenleben” in the finale, much of which sung a capella, has a charm and delicacy worthy of Lortzing’s idol, although his essential naivety means that it never encompasses the bitter-sweet irony with which Mozart laces his ensembles. Anneliese Rothenberger as the Baroness for Heger is pure and sweet, but her smallish, soubrette soprano lacks the allure and amplitude of the pulsing, bell-like tone of Edith Mathis for Klee. Given that the basso buffo role of Baculus was Lortzing’s invention and addition to the libretto based on August von Kotzebue’s stage comedy, its delivery is crucial: Hans Sotin has the more conventionally beautiful, resonant bass and superb diction but Fritz Ollendorff – familiar to collectors as an amusing Bartolo in the celebrated Callas-Gobbi “Il barbiere di Siviglia” – has more comedic flair; Sotin sounds intrinsically too noble. Both make a good job of the set piece “Fünftausend Thaler”, though you can hear that Ollendorff is the more experienced comedian. Hermann Prey as the Count has more of a smile in his voice than Gottfried Hornik, whose attractive tone is sometimes faintly tremulous, but both are characterful and make much of their polonaise aria. Prey, however, concludes with a high A flat and is vocally more varied. Gisela Litz for Heger speaks the role of Countess engagingly but the unattractive beat in her voice means that she must yield to Doris Soffel for Klee. The Gretchens are equally fine.

Both orchestras are first-rate German bands from Berlin and Munich, each led by an experienced practitioner of the folksy German idiom which pervades this work; there is nothing to split them.

On balance, my preference still lies with the earlier EMI recording for reasons I explain above but as long as you enjoy the Baron here, you will not be disappointed by the quality, or indeed price, of this Brilliant re-issue.
Ralph Moore