The year 2021 marked the 200th anniversary of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. Several recordings acknowledged the benchmark, while others focused on Weber’s significant output of instrumental music.
Weber, born in 1786, is best known today as the composer of Der Freischütz, largely because that opera had such a strong effect on the young Richard Wagner, who was inspired by it to intertwine fantasy elements into his own operas, the Ring cycle in particular. In fact, Weber wrote ten operas, half of which survive complete, along with one (The Three Pintos) that Gustav Mahler finished long after Weber’s death in 1826. Besides Der Freischütz, only Oberon, his final opera, gets much attention these days. Weber also wrote dozens of pieces for solo piano, chorus, vocal solo, and orchestra with and without soloist.
One of the recent homages to the Freischütz anniversary was a re-release of a classic compilation: Wagner Overtures, from 1957 – 1959, with Hermann Scherchen conducting the Orchestre du Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Archipel’s digital version includes the overtures to four complete works – Freischütz, Oberon, Euryanthe, and Abu-Hassan – in addition to those of the incomplete Peter Schmoll and incidental music for the plays Preciosa and Jubel.
The Freischütz overture is handled with Brahmsian weight, particularly in the horns. Unfortunately, the sound quality is threadbare and marred by distortion; clearly the master tapes were not well preserved. But it’s always interesting to hear mid-20th-century interpretations of Romantic works, which often have a density that is no longer fashionable.
Laurence Equilbey and her Insula Orchestra offer a 21st-century celebration of the opera’s anniversary. The Freischütz Project comprises both audio and video recordings of highlights from the opera, with Equilbey conducting the Insula, joined by the very skilled chorus Accentus and a strong cast of soloists.
The recording, on Erato, has rich, nuanced sound. With a sure hand Equilbey traverses the overture’s many facets, starting with a pastoral calm quite different from Scherchen’s raise-the-roof approach. Equilbey also highlights the spooky qualities in the overture, an appropriate harbinger to the Satanic goings-on in the story.
After all, Freischütz is technically a “melodrama,” which in the mid-19th century meant a German-language serious, dramatic opera with spoken dialogue. To test the level of horror and drama of a Freischütz recording, it’s always good to listen to the famous “Wolf’s Glen” scene, which is included in every music history textbook I’ve ever learned or taught from.
In the style of a Greek chorus, the men of Accentus sing in skin-crawling monotone and the women shriek. Christian Immler’s spoken Samael (the devil) is not as terrifyingly raspy as in some recordings, but Vladimir Baykov as the magic-greedy Kaspar sounds determined and unstoppable with a sure baritone.
The best new Weber recording includes some excerpts from Der Freischütz along with a wide range of other works by the composer. On the Alpha label, Weber features the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and conductor Christoph Eschenbach, recorded live at the Berlin Concert Hall for the venue’s 200th anniversary. That also happens to be where Freischütz had its premiere in 1821. There are two guest artists, pianist Martin Helmchen and soprano Anna Prohaska.
The dark-voiced Prohaska brings out the depth of Weber’s melody writing in her interpretation of a scene from Freischütz Act 3. Weber took advantage of every opportunity to write spooky, fantastical music, even in surprising moments of a libretto. In the romanza introduction to what is eventually a happy and hopeful aria, the character Ännchen tells her friend Agathe about a cousin’s ghostly nightmare.
This recording also includes some lesser-known orchestral works, such as the symphonic overture Der Beherrscher der Geister, Op. 27, which was a reworking of the overture to Weber’s 1810 opera Rübezahl. That work was never performed and exists today only in fragments.
Helmchen’s contribution is found on a more famous piece, the Konzertstück in F minor, Op. 79, for piano and orchestra. With four sections in contrasting tempos, it is in effect a 16-minute mini-concerto. Helmchen’s graceful playing captures its intense Romanticism. His use of rubato is especially effective, pulling at the pulse of each sub-phrase just enough to make you catch your breath.
This was not the only new recording of the Konzertstück in the past year. Ronald Brautigam played it on Weber: Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra, a BIS release with Michael Alexander Willens conducting Die Kölner Akademie. The recording also includes Weber’s two piano concertos.
The most obvious difference between this and the Helmchen/Eschenbach performance of the Konzertstück is that Brautigam is not playing piano, but rather fortepiano, with a wooden frame instead of metal and no sustain pedal. Most listeners rarely associate historical performance-practice techniques with 19th-century music, but it’s an appropriate path of enquiry: What instrument would keyboardists of the time have most likely played? Because the steel-framed piano was a new invention, most would still have been using a fortepiano. The resulting sound is delicate and transparent, with each note distinctly articulated, quite different from the smooth sweep of notes possible on the modern concert grand.
Besides two piano concertos, Weber also wrote a half-dozen concertos and concertinos for various winds. His two clarinet concertos can be heard on Eric Hoeprich’s recent album Weber and Kurpiński: Clarinet Concertos. On this Glossa release, the Orchestra of the 18th Century is conducted by Guy Van Waas. The Clarinet Concerto in B-flat Major by Polish composer Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857) is placed between the two Weber works. If this single-movement opus is any indication, Kurpiński was a skilled but conservative practitioner, heavily influenced by Haydn and early Beethoven.
Hoeprich gives a confident and elegant performance of the Weber concertos, but the painfully inadequate sound production leaves the orchestra by turns muddy and almost screeching. This is a waste of good playing and conducting, and there’s no excuse for it nowadays.
Happily, there are plenty of other recordings of the Clarinet Concertos to choose from. I recommend Karl-Heinz Steffens’ version (Tudor Records, 2011), with Radoslaw Szulc leading the Bamberg Symphony.