December 21, 2017
(++++) BEYOND THE USUAL BEYOND
Bizet: Piano Works. Johann Blanchard, piano. MDG. $18.99 (SACD).
Lehár: Die Juxheirat. Gerhard Ernst, Maya Boog, Alexander Kaimbacher, Sieglinde Feldhofer, Ilia Staple, Rita Peterl, Jevgenij Taruntsov, Anne-Sophie Kostal, Christoph Filler; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
There is nothing particularly unusual about wanting to explore beyond a composer’s best-known works. But there are certain typical ways of doing so. Anyone interested in Georges Bizet beyond the obvious and unending fascination that is Carmen will generally turn to operas such as Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth, for example, on the very appropriate basis that Bizet was primarily an opera composer and it makes sense to look past his greatest success at his other productions of the same type. But a fuller exploration of Bizet requires a more wide-ranging view of his music, a view that includes his songs and choral works on the vocal side and, on the instrumental one, his pieces for piano. Bizet was a first-rate pianist who deliberately chose to forsake a virtuoso’s career so as to devote himself to composition. Thus, although he did not create a body of virtuoso display pieces for piano, he was highly familiar with the instrument’s expressive and technical capabilities and more than capable of producing fine music for it. Johann Blanchard offers a fine hour-and-a-quarter recital of Bizet’s piano music on a recording with top-notch sound from MDG. And although he plays the works on a Steinway, Blanchard choose a particularly interesting one for this repertoire: a 1901 model D, which dates to just a quarter-century after Bizet’s death and retains some of the sonic qualities that the pianos of the composer’s time would have had. Furthermore, the music here is arranged chronologically, making it possible to experience this little-known aspect of Bizet’s work while at the same time viewing the composer’s development through a new lens. The Grand valse de concert and Premier Nocturne both date to 1854, when Bizet was 16, and are both well-formed and rather orchestral in texture. Chasse fantastique and the six Chants du Rhin, the latter being a set of songs without words in Mendelssohnian manner, date to 1866 and are suitably evocative, the standalone work of the cursed hunt of its title and the small Rhine songs of scenes from works by the poet Joseph Méry (1798-1865), in whose memory the set was commissioned. Interestingly, Bizet dedicated each of the songs to a different French pianist – the sixth of them to Saint-Saëns. Also here are a Nocturne in D and Variations chromatique de concert, both from 1868, the latter directly inspired by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor of 1806. Bizet’s structure of the variations is especially clever and shows his understanding of the piano: the first seven variations use the theme in C minor while the second seven use it in C major. The final work here seems to be the best-known but in fact is not – at least not in this form. It is L’Arlesienne Suite No. 1, whose often-heard orchestral version dates to 1872. Bizet’s piano rendition, however, was not published until 1878, three years after the composer’s death and a year before Ernest Guiraud created L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2. The piano version of the first suite is impressive, each of its four movements neatly evoking a specific scene from the play for which the music was written. The suite sounds not so much like a piano reduction as like a pianistic treatment of material that the composer separately handled in full-orchestra guise. Blanchard plays everything here with skill and, often, considerable warmth, and the piano sound – subtly different from that of newer Steinways – is full-bodied and fits the material attractively. It is a pleasure to have a disc that explores a genuinely less-often-examined portion of Bizet’s legacy.
And what of the legacy of Franz Lehár? It is as difficult to get beyond his Die lustige witwe as it is to get past Bizet’s Carmen. Yet here too there are typical ways of exploring more than the composer’s most-famous work: there are the pieces written for Richard Tauber, such as Paganini and Das Land des Lächelns, the exceptionally tuneful Der Graf von Luxemburg, and such standalone waltzes as Gold und Silber. But there is very little exploration of the operettas that Lehár composed before his greatest hit, and that makes the new CPO recording of Die Juxheirat very welcome indeed. The title translates as “The Joke Marriage” but may be taken, less literally but more explanatorily, to be “The Marriage Hoax.” Written only a year before Die lustige witwe, this work too revolves around a widow, but one different in almost every way from Hanna Glawari. For one thing, she is American – from Rhode Island – although the fact that she lives in a castle and all the elements of her life are distinctly European tends to give the lie to the officially designated geographical location. So does the fact that she is designated “Selma, baroness von Wilfort.” In any case, Selma (Maya Boog) is so determined not to remarry – apparently her marriage was less than ideal and, more important, she is a feminist – that she and some of her friends (Phoebe, Sieglinde Feldhofer; Edith, Ilia Staple; and Euphrasia, Rita Peterl) form a group called LVM. That stands (in German, obviously) for Los vom Manne, which means “get away from all men.” Obviously this will not stand by the end of the operetta, but it makes for a lot of complications during the story. One is in the form of chauffeur Philly Kaps (Christoph Filler in the part that was the real starring role when Die Juxheirat played in 1904) – he has imprudently promised marriage to both Phoebe and Euphrasia, is arrested as a result, usw. (and so forth). Then there is Harold von Reckenburg (Jevgenij Taruntsov), the man Selma’s father, Gerhard Ernst (Thomas Brockwiller), wants her to marry. Harold has a twin sister, Julianne (Anna-Sophie Kostal) who has a plot of her own, involving making a false statement to the LVM members that Harold has a twin sister who sometimes cross-dresses – a rather daring notion in 1904. Through a series of machinations, Selma enters into a Juxheirat with Harold because she mistakenly believes he is a cross-dressing woman. Things are eventually sorted out in the final act, with the LVM group dissolved and Selma refusing Harold’s offer of divorce papers after concluding she loves him despite his gender. The very complicated libretto, filled with witty wordplay and complex contemporary references, was written by a well-known Viennese critic named Julius Bauer (1854-1941). But none of this will come through to the audience for the new CPO recording, because the dialogue has been thoroughly reworked (by Leonard Prinsloo) – and English speakers will fare even worse than ones who know German, because while CPO has, thank goodness, included the lyrics for the sung numbers in its booklet (albeit only in German), it gives none of the dialogue at all. And the spoken parts here are quite extensive. So much of Die Juxheirat will be thoroughly incomprehensible to those who are not fluent in German, and partially incomprehensible to those who are. There are also some completely unjustified emendations to the lyrics themselves, notably in the concluding couplets sung by Philly Kaps, which now include references to the Bad Ischl festival (where this live recording was made in August 2016), to global terrorism, and to Donald Trump. That is pure idiocy that dates the operetta more hopelessly than would its original verbiage. However, and it is a big enough “however” to earn the recording a (+++) rating, there is the matter of Lehár’s music. This is a very big matter indeed. The many ensemble numbers are particularly attractive here; there is a delightful waltz song for Selma’s brother, Arthur (Alexander Kaimbacher); the scoring of the quartet for Selma, Phoebe, Edith and Euphrasia in Act II is particularly felicitous; and there is even a duet that includes and pokes fun at snippets of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. All the singers exude charm and appear at least moderately comfortable in their roles, and the orchestra under Marius Burkert plays very well indeed, although the chorus sounds a bit straitlaced. Lehár’s woodwind writing is especially piquant here, and the touches from the harp are lovely. Musically, Die Juxheirat has a great deal to recommend it, especially for lovers of Lehár’s works who really want to explore some of the less-visited nooks and crannies of his oeuvre. The ghastly rewriting of the verbiage of the operetta, and CPO’s continuing way of metaphorically shooting itself in the foot by failing to provide libretti and translations, pull down the overall quality of a work that deserves far better than the obscurity it has languished in almost from the start: it originally ran for only 39 performances. Lehár lovers can and should rejoice at this recording even as they can and should bemoan the numerous compromises and inadequacies that, taken together, make exploring Die Juxheirat far less than the unalloyed pleasure it could have been.