Der Freischütz. © 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas

CD Spotlight

Powerful Drama

RODERIC DUNNETT listens to 'Der Freischütz' from René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester

'... a whispering, confidential or, where needed, overawing and commanding performance ...'


Despite his regrettably early death, Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) composed a significant body of stageworks: the two earliest, now lost, when he was only twelve - virtually the same as Mozart, his cousin by marriage, who in an even shorter life wrote his first two aged eleven and twelve; his third, the amazingly assured La finta semplice, aged thirteen; and the fully mature Mitridate, aged fourteen.

Some early Weber is perhaps inevitably lost, or fragmentary; of Rübezahl (composed 1804-5), little got written or at least survived, a distressing loss. His notable teachers included, briefly in his teens, Michael Haydn (1737-1806), but also the much-travelled Abbé Georg Vogler (1749-1814), and Johann Kalcher (1764-1827), who helped oversee these early efforts.

But it is indeed for his operas (and perhaps works for clarinet) that Weber became mainly known. His maturity was first evident from the impressive Silvana (1810), the year he originally considered the possibility of the sinister, magical Der Freischütz. However finally he embarked on an opera entitled The Marksman, or The Freeshooter, soon, as we know, renamed Der Freischütz - The Free Shot - based on a recently compiled collection (Gespensterbuch, Book of Ghosts) by - just before his death - August Apel (1771-1816) and Friedrich Laun (1770-1849). Weber's gifted librettist was Johann Kind, a prominent literary figure from his then home city of Dresden.

From the start, René Jacobs prises out a whispering, confidential or, where needed, overawing and commanding performance from his accomplished, animated Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, which excels for Jacobs especially with its upper and lower strings, of which Weber makes endless striking, and often unusual use.

Der Freischütz has, of course, been much recorded. The celebrated genius is Carlos Kleiber, with the Staatskapelle Dresden (on DG). Three (Furtwängler, no less, Erich Kleiber, Carlos's father, and Joseph Keilberth) feature the wondrous soprano Elizabeth Grümmer as the heroine, Agathe; while the massively experienced Robert Heger (on EMI) fields a dazzling cast of Birgit Nilsson, Nicolai Gedda and Walter Berry. Bavaria offers us Jochum and Kubelik. Of four Vienna versions, Karl Böhm's stars Gundula Janowitz, also Carlos Kleiber's gorgeous Agathe.

Might one reasonably ask the point of this new René Jacobs version? His brilliant Baroque programming has encompassed Cavalli, Scarlatti, Carl Heinrich Graun, Reinhard Keiser, Telemann's riveting opera Orpheus, and the Italian friar Pietro (or Antonio) Cesti (1623-69). Can he bring the same flair to a composer who - with Spohr (Faust, 1813), E T A Hoffmann (Undine, 1816) and Marschner (from 1818) - explores supernatural worlds and is hailed as the forefather of Wagnerian German opera?

Yet few, if any, of these recordings - even Harnoncourt on Warner employing the Berlin Philharmonic - offer the special magic uplift of period instruments. Jacobs is virtually the first to bring his exceptional Baroque mastery to this galvanising, occult score. True, his actual ensuing reading is not notably dissimilar to some others. But the vivid sound he draws from not just his Freiburg strings but also galvanising, finessed woodwind, while not exactly exclusive, is certainly most appetising.

Amid much praise, perhaps a few reservations. The evil figure in this opera is the grotesque demon, Samiel. In seemingly all other versions he is kept in the background, not overstated, his sinister personality an occasional eerie voice hovering or snarling in the shadows. But seizing on the fact that there is ample latitude with the spoken libretto (this being a Singspiel), this version introduces him, or his eerie, unpleasant voice (Max Urlacher), on countless, and frequently illegitimate, spurious, occasions. Is it overdone? Most likely. Making this dark figure omnipresent might seem a good idea, but it might equally be argued that this constant interplay (mostly with Kaspar, sometimes with Max) tends to detract, rather than make him more gruesome. There might even be a comedic tendency.

The opera is intended to start with a dramatic burst of shot, and the surge of a peasants' ebullient chorus. We learn early that the story focuses on a practical and emotional tussle between Max, the honest master shot and aspiring son-in-law, and Kaspar, who is in league with the devil and plans a terrible outcome.

More successful - arguably - is the introduction of the benevolent Hermit, usually a deus ex machina at the end, at the start. The music - part extracted from the overture, part anticipating his benign, merciful later appearance, and with an attractive affinity to Mozart's Sarastro, is finely and warmly sung by the splendid ex-Tölzer Knabenchor (alto) boy soloist, Christian Immler. However while Kind's libretto apparently exists, Weber composed no music. Did he choose to omit it?

It could rather be argued that the Hermit should surface not now, but as a concluding surprise. One doubts even more so when he engages in a substantial added dialogue with Agathe (with the warning 'What is earthly passes away'). We should encounter the maiden first, movingly, with her exquisite, innocent aria 'leise, leise'. This meeting, which appends a supposedly (or actually) healing rose, might surely weaken her real and exquisite arrival.

Listen — Weber: Leise, leise, fromme Weise (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 17, 1:04-1:54) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Another undoubted complaint is the glossy, generous accompanying booklet. It quite simply falls apart. Pages separate and drop out. It's highly annoying, indeed wrecking; and so are a number of the track numberings. Often they are confusing, don't relate to the specific scenes, and are hard to follow. We gain handsomely from two valuable essays, but I could find no information on the singers. In the list of scenes, no page numbers are given. One has forlornly to search. It's a considerable nuisance.

Enough, for the moment, of reservations. Much of the time René Jacobs has given us a vivid, lively, impressively varied performance. His orchestra shines constantly. If Agathe's arias (sung by the Hungarian soprano Polina Pasztircsák) and almost as vivid, aria-like recitatives as well are adequate if not quite memorable, so are those of her maid, Ännchen. The girl can be irritatingly trite, but Ukrainian Kateryna Kasper (of Frankfurt Opera) somehow avoids this excess, and the result is that the girls' pairing is perhaps as successful as on any version.

Listen — Weber: Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 16, 0:00-0:42) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Equally Max's arrival, full of fear and foreboding ('Bange Ahnung'), 'Versagen' - failure, despair, and 'Missgeschick' - misfortune pursues me') by its very terror calls for a dramatic, petrified vocalisation. Maximilian Schmitt certainly makes his horror and trepidation vigorously dramatic and powerfully believable.

The force of Weber's arias is remarkable. It's a surprise, therefore, that the very desirable three-stanza Romanze of the Head Huntsman, Kuno (track 8) was actually poached by Jacobs and his team from an entirely different opera, and not even by Weber, but one by Schubert. So far from objectionable, it's surprisingly appropriate, its merit being the opportunity it takes for Kuno to elaborate on the young Huntsmen's competition, on which the main story hangs.

Listen — Schubert: Herr Ottokar jagte durch Heid und durch Wald
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 8, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

The accompaniment above - one can hear oboe and flute enchantingly and inspiredly fused here - and the enriching orchestration in both halves of the opera - is utterly enchanting. Aptly for such a tale, the horns figure prominently. But alongside his marvellous strings it is René Jacobs' clarinets that consistently win our admiration; and the sensational details Weber pens for single flute (on high), or paired flutes (horrifying, and low), or yelping piccolo to paint a nasty picture of Kaspar, all bring this magical, highly individual score so grippingly and unendingly to life. Curiously in fragments of chorus - perhaps because Jacobs keeps the volume admirably down - there is a hint of tinniness which actually tinges the start of the Overture too. But it is very slight, and may just be a quirk of the player.

Max's most famous, blithe aria ('Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen') loses initially to Maximilian Schmitt's intermittent, slightly intrusive vibrato. But it provides an uplift amid the tension, distress and foreboding that vexes him in anticipation of his reunion with Agathe.

Listen — Weber: Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 11, 2:12-3:03) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Kaspar is the very opposite. His sinister, echoing voice and drinking ditty, then violently threatening vocal assault (utterly hellish, ending 'Triumph! Rache' - revenge!) are splendidly rendered by Russian Dimitry Ivashchenko, a full-blooded bass. Weber would next time round, in his through-composed opera Euryanthe, give his Kaspar-like villain Lysiart an even more tumultuous, brutish outburst: a double recitative and double aria, in which 'Rache' is even more terrifyingly invoked.

In his spoken passages here Kaspar is interrupted by Samiel some twenty or more times (once temptingly reminding him that the shooting contest will fall 'on the day of Christ's death') This is not entirely beneficial. Samiel's constant overt intrusions leave scant room for our sense that Kaspar's double-dealing with the devil is seated in his own head.

Listen — Weber: Schweig', schweig', damit dich niemand warnt! (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 14, 0:00-0:58) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Kuno and Kaspar alike have a lot of spoken text, and although every recording assumes its own, generally different, wording, the speaking here as a whole - that includes the girls - is of a very agreeably high quality. Kuno (the excellent Salzburg-trained Matthias Winckhler) is a man of fine, religious sensibility: 'He who builds on God builds well!' Just occasionally, from one performer or another, the singer's German enunciation mislays an umlaut (accent), or gains one. But this is minor.

Some of the hovering spirits seem a bit feeble, or trite. Much more vivid is the country people's cavorting early on, led here by a buoyant Kilian, whose shenanigans should usually launch the sung scenes of the opera (Yannick Debus, from Hamburg and Lübeck), which are, as so often, packed with zest, excitement and bonhomie. The dance music suggests an interesting parallel: it could almost be one of the captivating dance movements - in symphonies, quartets or elsewhere - by Haydn.

The exchanges between Kuno and the two rivals are involving, and his advice to, and support of, Max is especially touching. By contrast, Kaspar continually (and smugly) whispers to himself that he possesses a more significant and reassuring ally ('ein höher Kraft' - he means he is sure Samiel is on his side). Weber prefers to feature mainly arias (and the girls' scenes periodically touch on duet); but at this point Max, Agathe and Ännchen deliver a short trio, sharing their anxiety, part of which has a flavour of Così fan tutte. Agathe not only warns Max against the acute risk and dangers of the menacing Glen, but also alerts him (he recalls) to Kaspar's 'Verdebtheit' - Depravity.

Listen — Weber: Wie? Was? Entsetzen! (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 19, 1:38-2:28) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Once we enter the shuddering Wolf's Glen, the very thought of which brings shivers and trepidation to Max as to Agathe, the music Weber conjures up remains to this day some of the most awe-inspiring in all opera. A personal detail here worth mentioning: from Weber's house above the Elbe high aloft outside Dresden, he could see straight down to the rock stacks of 'Saxon Switzerland'. And the view most prominent while he was composing Freischütz was an awful, ugly, yawning gap in the mountains which quite obviously evokes the ominous 'Wolf's Glen'. It is not surprising that Weber's chilling creation is often likened to the haunting, jarring evocations of the artist Caspar David Friedrich, just twelve years older than Weber himself.

Samiel's sinister, hissing injections - or cruel, sneery, growling patter - are heard repeatedly through this version. Before the casting of the magic bullets - the central point of the opera and its main climax - Max has to endure a long exchange with Kaspar, at which the latter, deceptively and ironically calling him 'Kamerad' or 'Bruderherz', urges him (unsuccessfully) to get drunk, intones a ditty in celebration of beer and gambling, increasingly attracts his unfortunate victim into unpleasant intrigue, and shows him (successfully) how to shoot down a high-soaring eagle. Unlike in other versions, here Samiel's voice features no less than eighteen times. It's part snarl, sometimes, so soft as to be almost inaudible. It does at least imply a danger: Samiel may be in league with Kaspar, but he can change his mind at any moment.

Listen — Weber: Agathe hat recht (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD1 track 13, 1:42-2:33) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

The misdoings in this appalling rock-hewn location involve Kaspar by stages enticing Max, in all his innocence, into the idea of the alarming 'Freikugel': a bullet, one of seven, which he maintains has the ability accurately to hit its target. Six are harmless, and productive. But if with number seven Max completes his public display of prowess to win Agathe, that seventh bullet 'belongs to the devil'. It is Kaspar's intention that his machinations will lead to Max's bullet flying off, seeking out and killing Agathe. We are not to know at this stage that Kaspar's brutal intentions will be dramatically thwarted.

The savage, ferocious, monstrous and heinous music to which Weber brings a unique imagination - fearsome woodwind tremolos, deep echoes, diminished sevenths, roaring trombones - drag the seemingly doomed Max into what appears to be inevitable disaster. It is not just vastly repellent and intimidating; we are witnessing an abomination. And the scene, which falls into some five sections, involving several horrifying build ups, spans a whole twenty minutes.

Listen — Weber: Ah! Zische, brause, koche auf (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD2 track 5, 1:54-2:49) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

With this masterly opera, to select a first recording of choice is not simple. The conducting, pacing, liveliness, intensity, the expression of innocence and of evil alike, are served well enough in this Harmonia Mundi offering. True, there is no great cause for us to applaud René Jacobs' over others; but equally, no reason of any kind not to welcome its boldness, its flair and constant lucidity. There has to be a sense of irony too, a feeling of life and fun, and amid the awfulness, also a feeling of impudence, of parody (in the slightly pompous woodsmen's tradition), of exuberance and gusto (right from the livelier, less fearsome sections of the Overture). There is no difficulty in finding all of that here.

After the sheer panic and terror of the casting scene, the tone of the opera generally relaxes. Max and Kaspar meet next morning (spoken) as if normality is restored. Max, however, is preoccupied with obtaining the last two bullets - and above all the last, the seventh, on whose accuracy he believes his success - and his hoped-for marriage - hinge.

That anticipated marriage is of course to Agathe, and the next long (sixteen minute) scene brings us again to her and Ännchen. Agathe's celebration of the shining sun (hence of God) is another masterpiece, the cello solo an absolutely sensational example of Weber's orchestral inspiration, although I fear that at least two points, perhaps more, including a falling passage, Pasztircsák allows herself to go fractionally (but audibly) flat, and Jacobs and his editor have inexplicably allowed this through.

Listen — Weber: Und ob die Wolke (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD2 track 8, 0:00-0:54) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

If there's one pretty silly scene in this opera, a moment when Friedrich Kind, after so much inspiration, lets down the show, it's the feeble story that Ännchen regales us with about a purportedly terrifying experience, which turns out to be merely a banal, paltry mistake. Its function is hard to discern. Possibly it offsets the continuous intense moments of what has preceded and the edge of seat moment (the firing of the Devil's bullet) which ensues. Light this aria may be, but hardly of any dramatic value. Rather, a diminution. But yet again, Katerina Kasper shines gorgeously and excels: abutted by the most wondrous viola solo, her vibrant singing is first rate, immensely characterful, subtle, inventive, witty, and magnificently sustained. She holds us agog. Her slithers of coloratura are sensational. Her top notes are stunning.

Listen — Weber: Einst traümte meiner sel'gen Base (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD2 track 10, 0:51-1:51) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Max, relieved as danger retreats, is rewarded with some enchanting bassoon detail. Agathe's notes again regrettably flatten, more than once. Two main characters take their place here in Act III. One is Prince Ottokar (a clearly Bohemian name), a gracious, spoken role (doubled by Yannick Debus with Kilian), who is present to witness the crucial 'trial shot' and on learning the truth, briefly bursts into anger. The other is the redeeming Hermit (Christian Immler), mentioned at the start, and who produces a distinctly senior, noble pronouncement of forgiveness.

There is an entrancing girls' (bridesmaids') ensemble; and a further scene with chorus; I cannot say that the recording levels of this latter emerge too well. The effect is somewhat fuzzy, and suppressed. There is also some very patently 'modern day' laughter, with seemingly no attempt to characterise meaningfully.

The optimistic spirit of the whole is captured by the famous Huntsman's Chorus.

Listen — Weber: Jägerchor (Der Freischütz)
(HMM 902700.01 CD2 track 13, 0:00-0:43) ℗ 2022 harmonia mundi musique sas :

Despite a ropy team effort at yodelling, when René Jacobs turns up the volume (as here), his evocation of the buoyant, exuberant hunt is as captivating as ever.

Copyright © 3 June 2022 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK







 << Home              Next review >>