August 10, 2017


Handel: Occasional Oratorio. Julia Doyle, soprano; Ben Johnson, tenor; Peter Harvey, baritone; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Howard Arman. BR Klassik. $37.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Daniel Behle, Camilla Nylund, Louise Alder, Simon Bode, Sebastian Geyer, Margit Neubauer; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfürter Opern- und Museumorchester conducted by Eun Sun Kim. Oehms. $29.99 (2 CDs).

     Minor Handel done splendidly and major Lehár handled thoughtlessly show the promise and peril of releasing live recordings of infrequently performed music with enough attention to packaging – or not enough at all. The occasion for Handel’s Occasional Oratorio was the Jacobite revolt of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie: the work was intended to rally the populace, if not the troops, in the months before the battle of Culloden brought a brutal end to the revolt in April 1746. Handel created the work in haste and did considerably more than his usual plethora of self-borrowings, including bits of everything from Israel in Egypt to Zadok the Priest to the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. The libretto, a mishmash of material from Milton, Spenser and others, takes various Old Testament verses out of context and throws them together for a strong assertion that righteousness (in the form of King George II and his Protestant supporters) will triumph – a most suitable position for a composer beholden to the king and court to take. But for all the haste of its composition and all the flaws of its construction, and they are many, the Occasional Oratorio comes through highly effectively in a live recording on the BR Klassik label, in a sure-handed and elegantly paced performance led by Howard Arman and featuring first-rate singing and the knowing use of original instruments by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The music is by and large excellent in a “greatest hits” sort of way, the many recognizable arias and choruses never really blending – they do have different sources, after all – but coming across individually as highly effective. Because the occasion for the work’s composition is now obscure, it is easy to listen to the oratorio divorced from the religious turmoil and political machinations of Handel’s time and simply enjoy the assertiveness, poetry and beauty of the music. Soloists and chorus alike manage their parts with a sure sense of period style and with all the seriousness and solemnity the rather overwrought texts require. Like Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick, another work that could be called an “occasional oratorio,” Handel’s piece is scarcely among his best, being more interesting for showcasing the political realities surrounding and impinging upon musical creation in the times when Handel and Beethoven wrote – realities that were forerunners of those faced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others, at a much later date. BR Klassik has given the Occasional Oratorio the best possible showcase not only by making this excellent performance available but also by including just what a well-made modern recording should have: a booklet containing information on the work and its time, well-done but not overdone material about the performers, and a full libretto in the original language (here, English), with translation (here, into German). The presentation on CD makes this release of Handel’s Occasional Oratorio into an occasion worth celebrating – modestly – in its own right.

     At the opposite extreme, the execrable packaging by Oehms of Lehár’s Der Graf von Luxemburg will leave lovers of this wonderful operetta continuing to hunger for a top-notch modern recording and clinging gratefully to the EMI version featuring Nicolai Gedda if they have it – despite the fact that that reading, conducted by Willy Mattes, is now almost 50 years old. The problem here is certainly not the music. This is Lehár’s most-tuneful opera, without a single number that falls flat or fails to bring joy or heartbreak, whichever the composer intended. It is the composer’s ultimately lighthearted tribute to his friend Puccini’s La Bohème, with the work’s second couple even being introduced in a “Bohème-Duett.” It is also very much a fin de siècle piece in orientation, if not in its actual date (1909): there is a certain nostalgic gloom underlying the proceedings, and the primary story is of two world-weary people, to whom nothing much matters (certainly not love, with which both clearly have considerable experience), discovering that love does matter after all, and it is not too late to find that süsse, goldene Traum. Of course the naïveté of operetta pervades this formulation – Lehár himself was soon to rebel against it – but in Der Graf von Luxemburg the whole thing works, and works brilliantly, because of some wonderful touches in the operetta’s libretto (by Robert Bodanzky, Alfred Maria Willner and Leo Stein) as well as the unremitting beauty of the music. This is an operetta that desperately needs dialogue, which was surely included in the live performances from which Oehms took this recording. But there is none of it here: the melodramas (words spoken through music) are present, but the dialogue that carries the action along and explains it is wholly missing. And there is no libretto here – a horrible decision, the opposite of that made for the Handel recording, and one that is not easy to rectify by looking online (Oehms does not offer any way to get the words). And to make matters worse, the summary of the action is one of the worst accorded to any operatic work in years. It goes beyond truncated to become incoherent and well-nigh illiterate. The central importance of the perfume Trèfle incarnat (“crimson clover”)? Never mentioned. The marvelous device by which René and Angèle enter into a sham marriage, without seeing each other, so she can obtain a title – using a painting through which she inserts her hand, giving him the chance to be enchanted by it and flirt with it? Never mentioned. The basic story arc of two jaded personalities finding each other through an unlikely but emotionally satisfying chain of events? Omitted. The summary is beyond useless: it is insulting to the story and music. Making matters even more disappointing is the fact that Oehms had plenty of room on the CDs for dialogue (the discs run just 35 and 51 minutes, respectively), and plenty of room in the booklet for a libretto or, at the very least, a far more extensive and decently written summary: the synopsis takes up a mere three pages (with plenty of white space), but there are five pages promoting other Oehms CDs, 19 giving information on the performers, and eight that are blank except for graphics or section titles. This is beyond the realm of ridiculous and into that of insulting to purchasers. The egregious presentation errors make it tempting to dismiss this recording outright or give it only a basic rating, perhaps (++). But the music is so wonderful, the orchestral playing so fine, and the singing by some of the soloists so good that the release gets a (+++) rating. The two female leads are particularly good: Camilla Nylund, an opera singer of considerable quality, is a wonderful choice for Angèle – who, in one of the libretto’s many felicitous touches, is an opera singer. And Louise Alder is light and airy enough to be a convincing Juliette – her “Chanson” in the first act is lovely – although it is hard to figure out what she sees in Armand, who is sung rather stolidly by Simon Bode. Unfortunately, the weakest soloist is Daniel Behle as René: he repeatedly pushes his voice and characterization too far, and the mundanity of his introductory aria makes Lehár’s brilliant stroke of later turning the bright and carefree music into a bitter lament less effective than it can and should be. Eun Sun Kim has a knack for bringing out the composer’s delicious orchestral touches in this score – she particularly highlights the percussion, to fine effect – but she tends to push the music too hard and too quickly from time to time, as in the breakneck conclusion of the Act III “Marsch-Terzett” and, even more clearly, the end of the Act II “Polkatänzer.” The fact that the orchestra can even keep up with the conductor in these and other passages is rather remarkable; indeed, the orchestral playing is a big plus here, as is the choral singing. This recording of Der Graf von Luxemburg could have been a great or at least near-great one. All it needed was somewhat closer attentiveness to the score and much more attention paid to the packaging and presentation of a truly marvelous work that remains vastly under-appreciated. As is, what listeners get here is something wonderful-sounding but largely incoherent – so the Gedda/Mattes recording remains the treasurable version of this most cherishable operetta.

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