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Jaromir WEINBERGER (1896-1967)
Wallenstein, Opera in 6 scenes (1937) [130.33]
Roman Trekel, baritone (Wallenstein), Martina Welschenbach, soprano (Thekla), Ralf Lukas, baritone (Octavio Piccolini, Dragoon, Capuchin), Daniel Kirsch, tenor (Max Piccolini), Dagmar Schellenberger, soprano (Countess Terzky), Roman Sadnik, bass (Count Terzky), Edwing Tenias, baritone (Illo), Benno Schollum, bass (Wrangel, Watchman), Georg Lehner, bass (Buttler), Dietmar Kerschbaum, tenor (Questenberg, Swedish captain, Seni, 2nd curassier), Oliver Ringelhahn, tenor (Gordon, 1st curassier), Nina Berten, mezzo-soprano (Marketwoman), Claudia Goebl, soprano (Young maiden), Johannes Schwendinger, baritone (Hunter, Servant, Waiter)
Wiener Singakademie, Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, Wiener Konzerthaus, 15 June 2012
CPO 777963-2 [65.32 + 65.01]

Intrepid explorers of the frequently tragic history of central European opera in the 1930s and 1940s may well have encountered this concert performance of Weinberger’s Wallenstein in 2012, when it was given a broadcast relay on BBC Radio 3 (and doubtless elsewhere). They will eagerly embrace the opportunity to make further acquaintance with the work, and to investigate the music in more detail in the context of CPO’s handsome presentation which includes both the full German text and an English translation. (Oddly enough it appears that the opera, although first performed in German at the Vienna State Opera a matter of a mere four months before the Nazi Anschluss and annexation of Austria into the Third Reich, was originally written to a Czech translation of Schiller’s play, although the version by Max Brod restores many of the playwright’s lines.)

Initial critical reaction appears to have been mixed, but the opera was sufficiently highly regarded to receive four performances during those initial months. The fact however that the opera inevitably disappeared from the repertory so soon after its première, followed by Weinberger’s enforced departure into exile, had tragic consequences. Weinberger, despite his reputation as the composer of the popular Schwanda the Bagpiper, soon found himself in relative financial hardship in his impoverished American exile; he subsequently gave up composition altogether in favour of photography, and his frequent bouts of depression ultimately resulted in his suicide. It does not appear that Wallenstein ever was performed again until a staging in Gera in 2009 (with some ten minutes of music excised) which preceded this concert outing in Vienna. It is perhaps surprising that it did not engage the attention of Michael Haas during his magnificent Decca series of recordings of Entartete Musik, but then there were so many scores clamouring for his notice. What is less excusable, as Norman Lebrecht has recently observed, is that so much of that music remains neglected even today.

The booklet gives us valuable historical background on the historical Wallenstein’s career, but less on the musical treatment. Thankfully for CPO, we are spared multi-page essays of musico-psychological analysis, but a little more detail might have been welcome. In the end we are left to form our own judgements on the merits of the opera and its consignment to oblivion for so many years. None of Weinberger’s other operas has succeeded in establishing a place in the repertory with the exception of Schwanda the Bagpiper, and even this has now been relegated to the shadows (apart from the ubiquitous ‘Polka and Fugue’ occasionally featured in concerts of light music) with but a single studio recording and three live transcriptions in the current catalogue. Other once-popular works such as his operetta Spring Storms (premièred in Berlin with Tauber) and his orchestral variations Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree (performed by Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic) seem to have sunk without trace. Perhaps, then, it is simply the case that Weinberger’s day has passed.

But the music is nonetheless of considerable quality. The style is recognisably of a kinship with the other eminent operatic composers of the pre-Nazi era: Korngold, Zemlinsky, Schreker and Pfitzner. The orchestral writing is both rich and varied, with continuing changes of texture to tickle the palate. Weinberger also, as one might expect, has a gift for melodic passages which bear repetition. What is odd is that he seems to avoid the use of Wagnerian leading motives to grab the attention and provide musical guidance to the listener; most of the accompaniment to the dialogue seems to echo the mood and feeling of the words rather than provide an ongoing symphonic texture. This lends an increased importance to the libretto, and here unfortunately Schiller’s wordy prose with its emphasis on political interplay between the characters gives relatively little scope for lyrical development. When the diction becomes more poetic, as at the start of Scene Three (CD1, track 10), Weinberger is not found wanting, but it can seem a long wait before such passages arrive to provide relief. There is nothing wrong with the dramatic development – Schiller points up excellently the differing motivations of the characters – but it does not always seem to gain from the added musical dimension.

At the time of the concert performance on these discs, one reviewer identified an elaborately allegorical interpretation of the opera’s plot. Noting that the score was dedicated to the then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who was attempting to preserve Austrian independence in the face of German pressure, the writer suggested parallels between Wallenstein and Schuschnigg’s assassinated predecessor Engelbert Dolfuss, whose commitment to anti-Semitic and anti-labour measures had been regarded as insufficiently enthusiastic by the Nazi agents who killed him. Even given the somewhat muddled nature of Austrian politics at this time (and the historical representations can hardly be sustained in elaborate detail) any intended allegory can at this stage hardly impinge on the modern listener. Nor can such an intention be employed to understand the frequent changes of idiom, from ominous martial music to heartfelt romanticism and onward into near-operetta territory. It is far better to take the score as it stands, and fortunately it can take such examination without the need to involve any extra-musical considerations.

By far the best singing here comes from Roman Trekel in the title role, delivering his many declamatory passages with firm tone but also capable of tenderness in the rare occasions when the character gives way to introspection. Ralf Lukas is less forthright, with a degree of unsteadiness on some sustained notes, in his portrayal of the treacherous Octavio Piccolomini; and he is far too polite as the Capuchin delivering his ferocious denunciation of the war in the opening scene (CD1, track 3). As the two young lovers, neither Martina Welschenbach or Daniel Kirsch are ideally cast; although she is finely lyrical and warm except when the composer cruelly exposes her to some high-lying figuration, he finds it difficult to encompass the demands of a role that at different times requires lyrical delicacy and heroic declamation. As the scheming countess Dagmar Schellenberger is finely pointed, and the many small roles are taken with skill and aplomb. The solo voices are all set well back in the sound balance, which reflects what might be expected in the theatre – and serves also to minimise any weakness or unsteadiness in the contributions of the singers. The chorus is full-bodied and committed, and the orchestral playing is excellent under the expert direction of Cornelius Meister. The recording too is excellently balanced between the demands of onstage and offstage effects in which the score abounds.

All of this means that, although the opera may well be regarded as a gallant failure rather than a neglected masterpiece, there are many sections of the score which make for most rewarding listening in a performance as well-prepared as this. The strutting soldiers’ chorus at the end of Scene One (CD1, track 4) develops into a display of real menace; Wallenstein’s soliloquy in Scene Two (CD1, track 6) is finely rounded, and ends with a protracted dying fall which brings a sense of poignancy into the music; the duet for the two young lovers, despite its occasional passages of strain, has a delicacy that contrasts finely with the surrounding Realpolitik of the text (CD 1, track 11). In later scenes there is a fine sense of spectacle for the scene with the curassiers (CD 2, track 9) with a repeated trumpet phrase that recalls Mahler’s “Die Gedanken sind frei” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. But the final scene, with the murder of Wallenstein achieved by means of confused and contradictory plotting, is less than ideal in musical or dramatic terms; it is only after the singing has ceased that the orchestra launches into a funerary passage which builds to an impressive climax but finishes too abruptly thereafter.

I recorded the relay at the time of its original broadcast back in 2012, but must admit that I had not been attracted sufficiently by the music to give the opera a further hearing. However this new issue, together with the complete text and a translation which is both comprehensible and idiomatic, makes for a much more approachable proposition; and those who share my interest in the evolution of twentieth century opera will need no further encouragement to invest in this handsomely presented set.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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