Schreker Irrelohe Sony Classical

Franz Schreker (1878-1934)

Graf Heinrich: Michael Pabst (tenor)
Der Forster/Anselmus: Goran Simić (bass)
Eva: Luana De Vol (soprano)
Lola: Eva Randová (contralto)
Peter: Monte Pederson (bass-baritone)
Christobald: Heinz Zednik (tenor)
Der Pfarrer/Stahlbusch: Neven Belamarić (bass-baritone)
Der Muller/Ratzekahl: Sebastian Holecek (baritone)
Funckchen/Ein Lakai: Helmut Wildhaber (tenor)
Wiener Singverein
Wiener Symphoniker/Peter Gülke
rec. live, 15 March, 1989, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Vienna
No libretto – cued synopsis
Sony 88985470362 [2 CDs:126]

Franz Schreker was seen as Strauss’ successor and indeed enjoyed a decade of great success before the combination of the comparative failure of Irrelohe, premiered by Otto Klemperer in 1924, and his Jewish background in the context of the rise of anti-Semitism in first the Weimar Republic then Hitler’s Germany put paid to his prospects and his work was declared to be “entartete Musik” (degenerate music). He died prematurely from a stroke aged 55.

The composer himself wrote the rather unsavoury libretto in a matter of days; the title of the opera – derived from a real place-name in Bavaria, Irrenlohe – is essentially untranslatable but approximates to something like “Wildfire”, “Flames of Madness” – or perhaps just “Flaming Mad”! Unlike the “cleansing fire” of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, this fire seems to be one of psychosis and irrationality which burns the brain; the plot is Gothic/Grand Guignol and features rape, lunacy, a disrupted wedding dance, fratricide by strangulation and acts of arson perpetrated by proselytising pyromaniacs disguised as travelling minstrels, all set in a village dominated by a louring castle inhabited by cursed aristocracy in the 18th century. It has more than a touch of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein about it – and after all that, we are meant to believe that the young lovers can put behind them the trauma of the Count killing his mad brother and his family seat burning to the ground and live happily ever after – at least their ecstatic love duet which concludes the opera would have us believe that is so.

Schreker’s musical style was a fusion of disparate elements – late Romantic, oriental, Expressionist and Second Viennese School – but still essentially tonal; Irrelohe is lushly scored for a very large orchestra and organ and for me the most obvious comparison is with Strauss’ Elektra but without the memorable leitmotifs and melodies; it is a wash of thickly orchestrated sound in which tunes are present but fleeting and ephemeral and I find that there is a problem with the pacing of the opera as drama; there are passages which amble in between the melodramatic highlights, and the instrumental preludes and interludes linking the action are, musically speaking, arguably often the most interesting, especially the eerie, atmospheric prelude to Act III – and as you might expect, the orchestra is superb.

This is a live ORF radio broadcast of a concert performance with a cast of regular singers from the Staatsoper. They are uniformly good, beginning with the sturdily-voiced and sadly short-lived American bass-baritone Monte Pederson, who died of cancer aged only 43. Eva Randová is likewise firm and even. Character tenor Heinz Zednik makes a creepy Christoph, hymning the purifying virtues of fire. Luana De Vol’s role as Eva is not large but her voice is, and she makes the most of her opportunities, singing with warmth and passion. Her Act II love duet with Michael Pabst as the young Count, who has a tight but suitably neurotic-sounding tenor, is the most attractively lyrical section of the score. The merry band of musician-arsonists have some jolly music, too. The chorus and processional music in the wedding scene (tracks 12-14) are reminiscent of the opening of Die Meistersinger and the end of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, again indicating the influence of Wagner. The music depicting Peter’s death at the hands of his brother is striking – although it seems unlikely that the bystanders would look on while one brother asphyxiates another…

The sound is excellent with excellent balances and virtually no extraneous noise, the occasional cough notwithstanding. This was first released in 1995 but is still available; unfortunately, no libretto is supplied, only a cued – and minimal – synopsis, which is always a problem with an unfamiliar opera.

Ralph Moore

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