Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
Der Blaue Vogel -The Blue Bird, Incidental Music (1912)
Seven Symphonic Pictures from The Blue Bird (2021, arr. Steffen Tast)
Juri Tetzlaff (narrator)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Steffen Tast
rec. 2021, RBB Saal 1, Berlin
Includes German libretto and English translation
CAPRICCIO C5506 [2 CDs: 87]

The fantasy play for children, L’Oiseau Bleu (The Blue Bird) was written by Belgian poet and author Maurice Maeterlinck for a premiere in Moscow in 1908. By 1910 an English translation opened in New York for a successful run on Broadway. The tale became so popular that Maeterlinck’s long-time mistress, Georgette Leblanc, would write a version of the story in novel form that would be published many times over, starting in 1913. The play would be the subject of no less than four film versions of the story: 1910, 1918, 1940, and 1976. The last two films are how most people today might recall the story, mainly because of the star power of Shirley Temple in 1940, and the less familiar 1976 Russian-European co-production which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Cicely Tyson. In musical terms the work would be turned into a relatively forgettable French opera by the Dutch composer Albert Wolff, for a premiere at New York’s Metropolitan 1919. I have heard Wolff’s opera and it is a very poor imitation of Debussy’s style of music for Pelléas et Mélisande, which simply doesn’t work on any level. Therefore, it seems that this somewhat sentimental children’s tale has been with us in one form or another since it was first created.; possibly this is because Maeterlinck cleverly kept the Bluebird of happiness as an ever elusive goal for the children in the story. No matter how close the bird seems to be to us, it is always just slightly out of our reach. This simple metaphoric device resonates with so much of human experiences in daily life that it is not surprising that the tale has a lasting appeal to adults and children alike.

Humperdinck created his Incidental music score for a German production of Maeterlinck’s play which had been translated and conceived by the theater impresario Max Reinhardt. It had its first production in Berlin in 1912, after which it seems to have disappeared, and legal squabbles kept the work from being published in its complete form, even after Humperdinck’s death. The booklet notes which accompany the CD indicate that Steffen Tast discovered the original manuscript of the complete score in a library. Some individual items must have been copied or published because two excerpts from the score made it onto a Virgin Classics CD of music by Humperdinck in 1990 review. This new recording is the premiere release of the complete score and also of the newly arranged Suite that derives from it.

The first thing one can say about Humperdinck’s writing is that the music has brought out some of his most inspired musical themes. Time and again he reveals the story in music that is reminiscent of his teacher Richard Wagner but with a soupçon of sentiment added in to the mix. The musical themes are melodiously interwoven with simple folk-like charm, but there is none of the moralistic weightiness that pervades his score for the opera Königskinder. As one might expect, Humperdinck is a master of orchestral textures. One perfect example of this is in the gorgeously atmospheric writing for solo violin, celesta, and harp, to represent the emptiness of the children’s house once they have departed on their journey. The musical themes are frequently quite brief; therefore, to maintain the continuity of the storyline, they have been presented here with a narration written and performed in German by Juri Tetzlaff. This device introduces some of the more important points found in the Maeterlinck’s text. Tetzlaff proves to be a skillful narrator as he modulates his voice to represent different characters and provides the verbal sense of wonderment that the score can’t convey on its own. He finds just the right balance without over-reaching himself into becoming annoying for repeat home listening.

Steffen Tast really deserves credit for restoring this work to the repertoire and for giving such a fine and dedicated traversal of the music. One only has to listen to the stately but regretful theme as the children take leave of their grandparents in the land of memories to get a sense of Mr Tast’s rapport with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. This music bears a strong resemblance to Mahler, but just until the solo violin takes over with a sentimental theme that is lusciously played by the un-named concertmaster. Tast elegantly shapes the beautifully sketched musical themes for Bread, Fire, Water, and Milk, who all become characters in the play. The Rundfunkchor Berlin gets to briefly display their talents in a Christmas carol arranged in two parts, and then later in a wordless chorus for the expectant mothers welcoming their unborn children. Overall Tast skillfully reveals the richness of Humperdinck’s orchestration in an carefully judged reading of this important score.

While the booklet does not reveal much about it, Tast and Capriccio have helpfully provided a lengthy Symphonic Suite which features the majority of the play’s music collected together on the second CD. This is the version which will probably be the way that most music lovers will want to encounter this gorgeous score for repeated listening. Capriccio is really to be commended for offering the public the best of both worlds on this release. The engineering team have provided a sound of wonderful immediacy but not neglecting a feeling of spatial depth and warmth that is essential for such a rich score. There is a decent booklet with notes and texts in German and English. Ideally there would have been more information provided about the Symphonic Suite and possibly an interview with Mr Tast to help the listener grasp his sense of discovery of this wonderful score. But then that would have been too much like trying to grasp hold of the Bluebird of Happiness. Wouldn’t it?

Mike Parr

Help us financially by purchasing through