February 21, 2008


Lehár: Wiener Frauen—Highlights; Overtures to “Der Göttergatte” and “Wo die Lerche singt.” Soloists, NDR Rundfunkchor and NDR Rundfunkorchester conducted by Helmuth Froschauer (Wiener Frauen); NDR Rundfunkorchester conducted by Curt Cremer (Overtures). CPO. $16.99.

      This CD of early, little-known music by Franz Lehár ought to be cause for celebration among operetta lovers. But the recording is so inelegantly presented and, in part, so ineptly sung that it is a major disappointment – the least satisfactory of CPO’s many Lehár releases to date. Wiener Frauen (1902) was Lehár’s first operetta and the last gasp of a Vienna-centered style that was already moribund by the time Johann Strauss Jr. died in 1899. Lehár’s Der Rastelbinder, on which he worked at the same time as Wiener Frauen, was to usher in a new form of operetta and allow Lehár a long and successful career.

      The composer’s first effort already shows some characteristics familiar to Lehár lovers, including meltingly beautiful tunes and a yearning solo violin. And the overture to Wiener Frauen is fascinating, being interrupted midway through a cantilena passage by piano chords, after which the pianist (Elsbieta Kalvelage in this recording) offers a cadenza and then the title waltz, before the orchestra returns to round out the overture. Lehár’s creativity is already in flower here – more than in most of the vocal numbers.

      But there are some vocal gems, according to contemporary critics and those who studied the score after it was rediscovered in 2001 (the work had gone unplayed since a 1930 performance for Lehár’s 60th birthday). And here is one way this CPO recording fails badly: it doesn’t include much of the best music. The title song was well regarded; it is not on this CD. There was a much-praised terzett for three female characters – you won’t hear it here. The female lead’s most effective piece was a “Marriage Education” duet with her mother – not offered on this CD. What we do get is thin gruel indeed. One famous piece – called the “Nechledil March” after one character even though it is (confusingly) sung by a different one – does appear, but most of the other vocal excerpts are forgettable. This is partly because of Lehár but also partly because of the singers: sopranos Anke Hoffmann and Anneli Pfeffer do creditable jobs, but among the three tenors, only Boris Leisenheimer (as Brandl) and Peter Minich (who gets a single solo in the Nechledil role) handle their parts respectably. Thomas Dewald, who sings Philippe in two solos and two duets, is often actually unpleasant to listen to, especially in his lower register, where his voice is always on the verge of getting away from him and his vibrato is perpetually strained. It is hard to understand why Helmuth Froschauer, a fine conductor, accepted this.

      Adding insult to injury is the lack of any explanation (in German or English) of just what the excerpts are about and where they fall in the plot (and the words are not provided, so listeners cannot figure things out for themselves). In fact, the booklet notes do not even present an easy-to-follow plot summary – an unconscionable omission. (For the record: Claire once loved her piano teacher, Brandl, because of a waltz song he sang. But he left for America and she is now to marry Philippe – until, on her wedding night, she hears the song again and Brandl reappears. After much confusion, Claire and Philippe are indeed united, and Brandl ends up with Jeanette, Claire’s chambermaid. How hard was that?)

      The Wiener Frauen excerpts run only 45 minutes – there was plenty of space on the CD to include more of the work’s well-thought-of pieces – and are followed by overtures to two other little-known Lehár works. These are analog recordings (although not identified as such) of respectable performances of the overtures to Der Göttergatte (1904) and Wo die Lerche singt (1918). The former is brief, the latter more lengthy, and while each contains some charming tunes, neither is outstanding in its own right. CPO can do much better with Lehár than it has here – hopefully it will be back on track with its next release of his music.

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