Udo ZIMMERMANN (b.1943)
Weiße Rose (1967 rev. 1986) [68:37]
Grazyna Szklarecka (soprano) – Sophie Scholl
Frank Schiller (tenor) – Hans Scholl
Musica Viva Ensemble Dresden/Udo Zimmermann
rec. May 1988, Studio Lukaskirche, Dresden
No texts; libretto (German only) available online

Udo Zimmermann’s Weiße Rose began life as a one-act chamber opera in 1967 with a libretto by his brother Ingo. Nearly two decades later a 1986 revision took place in a Hamburg premiere. The two-page booklet notes, without libretto - though it’s available at the Brilliant Classics website – don’t go into any detail regarding the revisions. In fact they are essentially focused on the nature of the texts, here compiled by Wolfgang Willaschek from disparate source material – as the notes do suggest, a non-chronological montage from the writings, whether in letters or diaries, from - amongst others - Franz Fühmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Tadeusz Rózewicz.

The opera’s bleak setting is Stadelheim Prison in Munich in the hour before the execution of Hans and Sophie Scholl, the brother and sister members of The White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany. The new libretto emphasises abstract and concrete features in the music, reflecting the feelings and hopes of the condemned Scholls. In the recollections, transformations and urgent fears evoked we listen to a real-time 69 minutes, in which visionary idealisation exists alongside prophetic warning. There are no other characters, and the chamber orchestra of 16 instrumentalists acts as an amplifier of the range of conflicting emotions and expressive states through which the young Scholls must journey as the hour of their death approaches.

There is fully 30 seconds of silence before abrupt, stark dissonances shatter what peace there is, ushering in Sophie Scholl’s lyric and reflective lines, prefiguring the second scene’s almost lullaby-like limpidity. For Hans Scholl, pumping brass and rhythmic angularity accompany his early reflections. For all its reputation, perhaps, as a work of darkly introspective insistence, what is most remarkable about Zimmermann’s 16-scene opera is the way in which he balances brass blocks, percussive interjections, frantic parlando – listen to scene 7 for Sophie Scholl’s rising anguish – with limpid reflective lyricism. It’s testimony to his command of pacing and characterisation that this sounds in no way sentimentalised. The threnodic and the brusque-brutal are both part of the fabric of the score as are the evocations of dance rhythms - heard best in scene 4. There's also a penitential chorale accompanied by throbbing, fearsome thuds in scene 12, as the Scholls approach their own Golgotha.

Through fear comes hope, the Scholls summoning up all their belief in the conquering power of truth – buffeted though they are by the martial intensity of their impending catastrophe. Their last moments see them led away, the ensemble’s crude March theme both scurrying and repellent.

Both Grazyna Szklarecka and Frank Schiller impersonate the Scholls with great conviction, she the more lyric and introspective, he the more bluff and impersonal in the face of his fate. The composer himself conducts the forces of Musica Viva Ensemble Dresden in this May 1988 performance, heard two years after that 1986 Hamburg rebirth. It was first released on Orfeo 162871, which carried a three-language libretto. There’s also a 2005 recording with Zimmermann again conducting, to be found on Berlin Classics, though I’ve not heard it. This ex-Orfeo performance is still a visceral experience, as it should be.

Jonathan Woolf


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