Joshua and I are back home.
Our trip was a long one, but we had a good time, and we very much enjoyed our brief visits to Oklahoma and Denver.
The high school graduation in Oklahoma on Friday night was a major affair. It seemed as if the whole town had turned out. There was an enormous crowd, and the ceremony was very dignified and very moving. It was reassuring to see so many wholesome young men and women mark the official end of the first twelve years of their formal education in what will be the last time they will ever congregate as a group. From this point, over 75 per cent of the class will matriculate to various colleges and universities, in Oklahoma and elsewhere—and, if statistics hold true to form, over 50 per cent will seek their fortunes outside of Oklahoma once they graduate from college. These young men and women will disperse south to Texas, north to Chicago, east to New York or Washington, and west to Southern California, and most of them will never again return home other than for seasonal visits. This occasion, therefore, was both a happy event for the students and their families as well as a sad one—it marked the beginning of the process by which over half of these young men and women will say farewell to their native soil.
It was good to visit my brother in Denver, too, if only for a short time. We only stayed in Denver for one day and two nights, because we accomplished everything we set out to do on Sunday. Josh and I helped my brother with some cleaning, and we helped him pack a few boxes for shipping things home. We also packed boxes for Josh and me to bring back home with us. Other than cleaning and packing, we did not do much—I cooked a few things for my brother to eat over the coming week—but we had a good visit. He is very much looking forward to getting out of Denver. In another month or so, he will be home for good.
The road part of our trip was not too bad, all things considered, because we had our own food with us and because we had good music to listen to. During each leg of the trip, we listened to “The Magic Flute”, “Fidelio” and “Der Freischutz”, in sequence.
The recording of “The Magic Flute” we took with us was the legendary Otto Klemperer recording from 1964 on EMI, one of the greatest opera recordings ever made.
This was the final opera recording produced by Walter Legge, and the microphones captured a great, great performance. It is hard to believe that shortly after this recording was completed, Legge retired from EMI, disbanded the Philharmonia Orchestra, and abruptly and rancorously ended his decade-long professional association with Klemperer (the two never spoke again, although Legge did maintain contact with Klemperer’s daughter, Lotte).
Much of the credit for the success of the venture must go to Klemperer, a great Mozart conductor still in full command of his artistry at age 79. In Mozart, Klemperer always emphasized the writing for woodwinds, and the playing of the winds of the Philharmonia Orchestra is one of the special glories of this set.
Klemperer also possessed a remarkable command of rhythm and pulse, which served him well in practically everything he conducted. Here, he chose mostly leisurely tempi, which he then invested with great rhythmic definition, vigor and spring, allowing him both to emphasize interesting orchestral detail and to propel the music-making (and the story) forward.
More than any other conductor, Klemperer understood that “The Magic Flute” is a deeply serious, noble and spiritual work. Today “The Magic Flute” is generally treated as frivolous comedy, musically and dramatically, but Klemperer understood that the essence of the work was the profound spirituality of the music, not the veneer of Viennese singspiel that serves as skeleton of the plot.
Klemperer rightly sees the lengthy tenor recitative with chorus, “Die Weisheitslehre Diese Knaben”, as the turning point of the drama, and his sovereign handling of this number, given perfunctory treatment in almost every other recording of the score, is one of the greatest moments in the entire recording. He also understands, better than any other conductor who recorded the opera, the Bachian counterpoint of so much of Act II of the score.
The large cast assembled by Legge is probably the starriest cast in the history of the gramophone, with so many legendary singers that it is almost impossible to count them.
The women are the attractions among the singers more than the men. A very young Gundula Janowitz and a very young Lucia Popp, both making their recording debuts, give the finest recorded performances of their roles on disc. Janowitz’s Pamina carries the set—justifiably so, since Pamina is the central character—with a voice of unparalleled purity, creaminess and freshness. Janowitz is as delightful in the lighter moments of the score as in the most profound. Popp’s performances of the two arias of the Queen Of The Night are, simply, nonpareil.
Producer Legge was as good a talent spotter as ever lived, and he was fearless in assigning major roles in important projects to unknown young artists if they possessed the talent. Janowitz and Popp were only 27 and 25 years old, respectively, at the time this recording was made, and both were virtually unknown—but both immediately became major international stars upon the release of this recording.
The Three Ladies (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Marga Hoffgen) are the finest on disc, voices well-matched and full of character, and the Three Boys (Agnes Giebel, Anna Reynolds, Josephine Veasey) are finer than the Three Ladies on any competing set.
The men are excellent, too, but their work is not quite as memorable as the remarkable work of the women. If any of the men is disappointing, it is Nicolai Gedda, who sings cleanly and with the appropriate sense of style for Mozart, but whose Tamino is bland, almost faceless, in comparison to his fellow cast members. Given that, however, music-lovers of today would kill for a Mozart tenor of similar accomplishment.
I have known the Klemperer “Magic Flute” for years—since I was eight years old, in fact. I know the set so well, and I love the set so much, that I can hardly listen to any other conductor in the work, on disc or in the theater. Even the recordings conducted by Thomas Beecham, Ferenc Fricsay and Karl Bohm, all excellent in their own ways, fail to move me as Klemperer does.
Josh loved “The Magic Flute”. He fell in love with the opera, and the recording, on the very first listen, as I suspected he would.
On the other hand, “Fidelio” did not move Josh the first couple of times we listened to it. Josh thought the work lacked drama and theatricality, and he thought the music was absolute music and, as such, unsuited for the stage. However, Josh is in the process of changing his mind about this, I believe.
Klemperer recorded his “Fidelio” set in 1962, Legge again serving as producer. Just as Klemperer’s “Magic Flute” recording is the standard version of that work, Klemperer’s “Fidelio” is the classic account among “Fidelio” recordings. By comparison, Arturo Toscanini in “Fidelio” sounds positively lightweight, Herbert Von Karajan is stiff, and Fricsay lacks spirituality and his reading is bereft of philosophical qualities.
It is, again, Klemperer’s powerful rhythmic thrust that propels the drama forward. Even in the curtain-raising singspiel, Klemperer’s rhythmic definition is like granite—and his rugged approach works splendidly. By springing rhythms so effectively, he satisfies the domestic, human-scale concerns of the work’s early moments before more dramatic—and universal—themes begin to emerge midway through Act I. Klemperer manages this transition more successfully than any other conductor who recorded the opera. Only Karajan came remotely close.
Klemperer is also up to the work’s great final scene, which in other hands comes across as little more than a run-through of Beethoven’s unremarkable “Choral Fantasia”. There is power and majesty, rejoicing and emotional release in Klemperer’s treatment of the finale. In other recordings, the finale is a conventional symphonic finale tacked on, somewhat lamely, to a stage work.
The cast members have come to exemplify their roles for most listeners. The Leonore—Ludwig, again—is a mezzo soprano, but she has the high notes not only to handle but also to triumph in the “Abscheulicher”. Jon Vickers is a peerless Florestan, and much more convincing than he was to be ten years later for Karajan. Walter Berry is a frightening Pizarro, Gottlob Frick an understanding and fatherly Rocco, Gerhard Unger a youthful, impetuous Jaquino and Ingeborg Hallstein an echt “keck” Marzelline. Never was a recording producer better at gramophone casting than Legge.
There is one peculiarity about EMI’s reissue of this recording: EMI has appended Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 at the end of Act II, borrowing a performance of the overture from a different Klemperer disc. It was Gustav Mahler who first adopted the practice of performing “Leonore” No. 3 before the final scene of “Fidelio” in the opera house, and over the last century this has become virtually standard practice worldwide—but Klemperer and Legge believed, rightly, that to perform the overpowering “Leonore” No. 3 before the final scene destroyed the great culmination that Beethoven had created for the final scene of his only opera. Accordingly, the “Leonore” No. 3 was never part of the original Klemperer recording. Now, unaccountably, it has been included, but at least “Leonore” No. 3 is placed at the end of Act II, and not before the final scene. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the artists’s original wishes on so important a matter should have been disregarded for the reissue of this classic performance.
(However, exactly one year before this studio recording was made, Klemperer conducted a now-legendary set of “Fidelio” performances at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. During those 1961 performances, Klemperer DID conduct the “Leonore” No. 3 immediately prior to the final scene, whether at David Webster’s instigation or his own.)
Weber’s “Der Freischutz” is an opera seldom staged in the U.S. The Metropolitan Opera last mounted the opera in 1972, during Rudolf Bing’s last year as General Manager, and that 1972 production was not well-received and was retired after one season. New York City Opera presented “Der Freischutz” in 1981, and the NYCO production met the same fate: a poor audience reception and a poor critical reception. It, too, was sent directly to the warehouse, never to be revived.
During the Terence McEwen era at San Francisco Opera, “Der Freischutz” was staged, successfully, and the San Francisco production was revived once or twice. However, that is the sole U.S. production of “Der Freischutz” in the 20th Century that lasted more than a single season.
Why do American audiences not respond to this incomparably great work? I genuinely have no idea, because I have always firmly believed that “Der Freischutz” is one of a handful of the greatest operas ever written. It has been in the repertory, continuously, in Central Europe since 1821, a mainstay of the operatic stage. It holds the stage in Scandinavian countries, and it is performed periodically in Italy and Britain. Only in France can I not recall a single production in recent years, somewhat surprising given France’s abiding love for the music of Robert Schumann.
A greatly-respected conductor once told my father that there are two reasons why “Der Freischutz” has not taken root in the United States: first, the Weber style is simply beyond the capabilities of American singers and conductors—only German singers and conductors are successful in realizing the special style and ethos the music requires; and, second, the many choruses in Weber are impossibly difficult, just as demanding, if not more so, than the choruses in Wagner operas.
The 1958 Joseph Keilberth recording on EMI has always been my favorite version of “Der Freischutz”. It is as brilliant as the version conducted by Carlos Kleiber, but the Keilberth trumps the Kleiber set in its depth of feeling and spirituality. Kleiber, in comparison to Keilberth, sounds brittle and lacking in conviction.
“Der Freischutz” is the only studio recording that keeps the memory of Joseph Keilberth alive, but it has served to keep his name before the public for 50 years. Like the Klemperer recordings of “The Magic Flute” and “Fidelio”, Keilberth’s “Der Freischutz” is the classic reference account of the work. The recording has never gone out of print in Europe.
The Keilberth “Der Freischutz” was recorded in Berlin. The orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic and the chorus is the Chorus Of The Berlin Stadtische Oper (soon to become the Deutsche Oper). Both ensembles are in splendid form.
The cast was the best available at the time, and even the smallest roles were cast from strength (a young Hermann Prey is the Prince Ottokar; Frick—the only singer common to all three opera sets—is the Hermit). The set is most famous, above all, for the Agathe of Elisabeth Grummer, generally acknowledged to be the finest Agathe who ever lived, and for the Annchen of Lisa Otto, the great German soubrette of the immediate post-War years. Both are exceptional. The Max of Rudolf Schock may not be to all tastes, but the role of Max is an almost-impossible one to sing, combining as it does the requirements of a Mozart singer with the demands of a Wagner singer. Every singer I have heard in the part has failed to some degree.
I was twelve years old the first time I heard this “Der Freischutz” recording. It was my first exposure to the work. By the time I had heard the famous overture and the magnificent opening chorus, I was hooked on this work, and I have been hooked on this work ever since. The mere thought of listening to this score again always gets my blood racing. The score is eternal, retaining its freshness and charm after literally dozens of encounters.
Josh loved “Der Freischutz”. In fact, he preferred “Der Freischutz” to “The Magic Flute” and “Fidelio”. He said that “Der Freischutz” was the best opera he had ever heard, and he immediately wanted to know why we had waited so long to listen to it. It was all Josh could do to keep from joining in the choruses, especially the great Act III hunting chorus, which he especially loved.
The post-War era that produced the great opera recordings of the 1950’s and 1960’s is long gone. “The Magic Flute”, “Fidelio” and “Der Freischutz” were remarkable products of remarkable men and women working in remarkable times. The musicians associated with those recordings are gone now, too, or in a very few cases (Franz Crass, Janowitz, Ludwig, Otto, Vickers) still living but long retired.
With the exceptions of Crass, Janowitz, Popp, Prey and Vickers, all of the artists—conductors and singers—involved in all of these recordings were trained in the small opera houses of Central Europe before or during the Second World War. Central European opera houses served as great incubators of talent during the first half of the 20th Century. The sheer number of great artists that emerged from small theaters throughout Germany and German-speaking territories is astonishing. Nothing remotely comparable exists any longer, not even in the German theaters of today.
The German operatic tradition has died out, victim of internationalization that began in the mid-1960’s—by which point all of Germany’s opera houses had been repaired or rebuilt, and had reopened, and were in the process of abandoning the pre-War custom of performing all operas in the German language—and has snowballed since the 1970’s. Today there is little difference in style of operatic performance between Berlin and Barcelona or London and Leipzig, whereas fifty years ago there was a distinct discreteness in national performing styles among different countries and nationalities.
After World War II, the French style died first, followed by the Italian style, ending with the German style. The only way to encounter “authentic” performances of French, Italian and German repertory today is via recordings documenting the work of past generations.
If sales figures are any indication, these now-historic documents are treasured by countless persons worldwide, and listened to and enjoyed constantly.
That is a very reassuring thing.