April 18, 2019


Bruch: Die Loreley. Michaela Kaune, Magdalena Hinterdobler, Danae Kontora, Thomas Mohr, Benedikt Eder, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Thomas Hamberger, Sebastian Campione; Prager Philharmonischer Chor and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Stefan Blunier. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).

Alfred Cellier: Dorothy. Majella Cullagh, Lucy Vallis, Stephanie Maitland, Matt Mears, John Ieuan Jones, Edward Robinson, Patrick Relph, Michael Vincent Jones, Sebastian Maclaine; Victorian Opera Chorus and Victorian Opera Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. Naxos. $12.99.

Louise Reichardt: Songs. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Dreux Montegut, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     The aged Max Bruch (1838-1920), like the aged Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), has often been criticized for never moving beyond the musical forms, styles and approaches of his youth – for staying firmly implanted in Romanticism, and early Romanticism at that, when the musical world had long since advanced to wrenching harmonies, atonality, the Second Viennese School, and so forth. Whether all those changes really constituted “advancing” is more a matter of opinion today, when music of all styles and approaches tends to be accepted if it has something to say, than in Bruch’s and Saint-Saëns’ own later years, when they were seen as relics of a time gone by. Even more than Saint-Saëns, Bruch is now known for only a handful of works, and grand opera is certainly not a field with which he is commonly associated. But Bruch’s early promise, his wealth of melodic invention, his devotion to the Romantic ideal, and his willingness to spin out musical beauty at great length, were already apparent in his early opera Die Loreley, written from 1860 to 1863. The libretto was intended for Mendelssohn, who actually wrote three numbers for it before his death, and since Mendelssohn was one of Bruch’s major compositional models, the eventual creation of the opera by Bruch makes considerable historical as well as musical sense – although the path to the work’s creation was by no means smooth. Bruch’s deeply Romantic temperament shows in the way he became attached to a story in which it is unrequited love, with some supernatural assistance, that leads to the creation of the Lorelei, who lures mariners to their death along the Rhine. The Lorelei is not simply a water spirit in Bruch’s opera – she is a woman wronged and thus transformed into a threat, in what is a very Romantic scenario involving the power of love and the risks of its disappointment. There are Lorelei works by Clara Schumann and Liszt that predate Bruch’s opera, but the music of which Bruch’s work is most reminiscent is partly that of Mendelssohn, whose works Bruch tended not only to respect but also to echo at this stage of his career, and partly that of Carl Maria von Weber. For the central scene of Die Loreley, and the first that Bruch wrote – the scene around which he built up everything else in the opera – is one in which Lenore (Michaela Kaune), the wronged woman who will become the Lorelei, calls on dark Rhine spirits for revenge after she has been seduced and abandoned by Otto (Thomas Mohr), the Palgrave (essentially Count), with whom she has fallen in love without knowing his identity. The spirits agree to grant her wish, in a scene quite reminiscent of the Wolf’s Glen scene from Weber’s Der Freischütz, and the remainder of the opera focuses on how that wish plays out – to the happiness of no one, including Lenore. This is a very rarely heard opera, so the live recording from 2014 that is now available on CPO is very much welcome – and CPO, which has sometimes given short shrift to listeners by failing to provide otherwise unavailable texts to allow the audience to follow the action of unfamiliar works, deserves five stars in this release for including a complete German/English libretto. The singing is generally quite fine, not only from Kaune and Mohr but also from Magdalena Hinterdobler as Bertha, the unfortunate countess whom Otto marries and quickly abandons and who, like Otto himself, loses her life as the revenge and curse of the Lorelei take hold. The only vocal disappointment is Jan-Hendrik Rootering as the minnesinger Reinald: his voice is pinched, shaky and not always on key. But the remaining parts come across very well indeed. Sumptuously scored and very well played by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Stefan Blunier, Die Loreley is impressive both as Romantic opera and as further evidence, if any were needed, of the depth to which Bruch – who was only in his 20s when he wrote this work – absorbed and continued to be guided by emotion-packed Romanticism throughout his compositional life.

     The importance of Der Freischütz (1821), and in particular the Wolf’s Glen scene, for later composers can scarcely be overestimated. The scene, lightened and somewhat parodied, even makes its way into Gilbert and Sullivan, in their early The Sorcerer (1877). It is easy to assume that Gilbert and Sullivan ruled the British musical stage in their collaborative years, but a new recording from Naxos gives the lie to that common belief and cannot help but make G&S fans wonder what in the world the audiences of the time really considered top-notch entertainment. The release is the world première recording of Dorothy (1886) by Alfred Cellier (1844-1891), best known today, to the extent that he is known at all, for arranging some of the G&S operettas’ overtures. Dorothy was a genuine phenomenon: its 931 performances were almost as many as those of The Mikado (672) and its successor, Ruddigore (288), combined. Why? The recording makes that question inevitable and suggests that the only possible answer is that Dorothy is so feather-light that audiences did not have to think even briefly about political satire, class issues (except very much in passing), or any sort of topsy-turvy world along the lines of those that Gilbert was such an expert at creating. The full libretto of Dorothy – readily available online, thanks to Naxos – shows the weaknesses of the writing by Benjamin C. Stevenson (1839-1906) even more clearly than do the lyrics sung on the CD, which at least include a single number with a touch of spirit: “The old would be young, and the young would be old,/ The lean only long to grow fatter;/ The wealthy want health, and the healthy want gold,/ A change to the worse for the latter./ The single would wed, but the husband contrives/ To consider his fetters a curse./ And half the world sighs for the other half’s wives,/ With the risk of a change for the worse.” Those are the best lines by far in a very mediocre libretto, whose story it so bland that it brings to mind the words of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience: “If they want insipidity, they shall have it.” The story of Dorothy involves two well-born cousins, Dorothy and Lydia, who vow not to wed (for no special reason) and who disguise themselves as an innkeeper’s daughters (also for no special reason); they meet two interchangeable young noblemen (less differentiated than Marco and Giuseppe in The Gondoliers). The men romance the girls, who give them rings; that night, with the girls out of disguise at the local nobleman’s hall, the men romance the opposite girls (shades of Così fan tutte) and give the rings to the “wrong” ones; the next day, everyone switches back and all is fine (yet again for no special reason). And that is that. The music is serviceably charming, far better than the words although it is largely characterless. The recording of Dorothy is nicely sung, and Richard Bonynge, a longtime advocate of less-known music, conducts as befits a man who has turned up some real gems. But Dorothy is at best semi-precious. Perhaps Bunthorne, again, got it right in figuring out why Cellier’s work was so tremendously popular in its time: “It’s his confounded mildness.”

     Well, being mild and accessible is surely no crime, and certainly was not one in the Victorian age, or even the years immediately preceding it. There is some very pleasant, if ultimately rather inconsequential, music to be rediscovered from that time period, including the songs of Louise Reichardt (1779-1826), a selection of which may be heard on a new MSR Classics CD. Reichardt had a fine musical pedigree, being the granddaughter of Franz Benda (1709-1786) and the daughter of two composers, Juliane and Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Louise (sometimes spelled Luise) was involved in her family’s gatherings of notable literary figures of the early 19th century, including Goethe, Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, and Phillip Achim von Arnim, among others. When she wrote her songs – more than 90 in all – she often used the words of poets with whom she was personally acquainted. She also favored poetry that was popular with other composers, such as the works of Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), often set by Rossini. Reichardt deliberately created accessible, folk-music-like songs that would be easy for students to learn and present: she was a music teacher and a choral instructor, although not allowed, because of her gender, to conduct in public. Amy Pfrimmer offers a nicely chosen selection of 22 of Louise Reichardt’s songs on the new CD, with able support from Dreux Montegut – whose role is distinctly supportive and subservient, but who handles his contributions as well as possible. The selection begins with six songs to Metastasio texts and ends with three others; in between are pieces to words by Tieck, von Arnim, Brentano, Novalis, Karl Friedrich Gottlob Wetzl, Karl Philipp Conz, and Philipp Otto Runge. Reichardt does little to “tone paint” the words, preferring simple expressiveness that sets them to pleasant if undistinguished musical lines. Pfrimmer’s rich but sometimes slightly wobbly soprano serves the generally unchallenging material well, and her expressiveness effectively brings out what emotional depth the pieces possess – not that there is a considerable amount of it. It is largely the thrill of discovery, or rediscovery, that makes this a very pleasant and interesting recording: nothing here is earthshaking (or was intended to be), and Reichardt broke no new ground in the lieder genre. But the disc stands, like those of Dorothy and Die Loreley, as evidence of how much interesting and very rarely heard music remains to be unearthed and given a chance to reach a 21st-century audience that is eager to move beyond the standard repertoire and into some less-explored parts of the musical past.

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