Record reviews

A special place of honor is ordained for the EMI recording of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” first accomplished in 1954 and now at hand  in a two-disk CD reissue. Whatever your feelings may be about the work itself, you have to recognize this performance as one of those rare occasions when everything worked, when every component of an assembled dream cast, and a conductor uniquely responsive to the score itself, became transformed into a performing mechanism simply without flaws.
The cast list should make anyone’s mouth water: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the title role, Irmgard Seefried as the Composer, Rita Streich as Zerbinetta, the young Hermann Prey as the Harlequin. Herbert von Karajan, already regarded in some (but not all) circles as the first great postwar conductor, was in charge.
Doubts about Karajan’s omnipotence were already in circulation when this “Ariadne” appeared (on a three-record Angel LP album). On records he had already stiff-armed his way through a few Mozart albums and a rather coarse “Meistersinger” from Bayreuth. For this project, however, he was on his best behavior, and the result is a performance so delicately shaped, so subtly woven out of a multitude of elements, that the passages in Strauss’s score that seem like so much padding — some of the argle-bargle in the Prologue, and the mercilessly extended final love duet — seemed this time like integral parts of the score.
The performance is complemented by a full roster of small delights: the gloriously stuffy Major Domo of the great Viennese actor Alfred Neugebauer, the elegant pomposity of Hugues Cuenod’s Dancing Master, the exquisite Echo of Anny Felbermayer, the playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra, whose first-desk players at the time included the legendary hornist Dennis Brain. I know better operas on records, but few  better performances. But why a booklet, for this most verbose opera, with no English text?
If you saw the Long Beach Opera’s production of Karol Szymanowski’s “King Roger” a year or so ago, you might have noticed — despite the  strange production that visited interesting  violence upon  the time or place of the action — that the music itself was an extraordinary experience.
Szymanowski’s huge dramatic pageant, set in medieval Sicily and involving some striking argumentation on the nature of religious faith, embraces a wide panorama of musical influences: Debussy and Stravinsky foremost, with more than a sidewise obeisance of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” Now, for the first time, we can examine this extraordinary score at its own pace. “King Roger” is now available in a domestic release, two disks on the Acanta label,  from a  broadcast from Warsaw’s National Opera in 1965.
The opera is short — 80 minutes, and don’t believe the mislabeling on the back of the CD box — and the performance under Mieczyslaw Mierzejewski, with Andrzej Hiolski and Hanna Rumowska as Roger and his Queen, is more trustworthy than glorious. So is the recorded sound. The accompanying booklet gives a plot summary and a fair amount of historical background but no text in any language.
These are important, but not fatal drawbacks. The point is that “Roger” — as even the up-and-down Long Beach production suggested — is a great opera, and this release is unlikely to be duplicated from any other source in the near future. Filling out the second side is another Szymanowski score I’ll bet you’ve never heard, the ballet-pantomime called “The Highland Robbers,” full of lusty folkdances and some delicious orchestrations. It’s time we gave Szymanowski the attention he has long deserved., and this album points us in the right direction.
If Szymanowski’s opera languishes in the shadows of undeserved neglect, it is like a neon billboard on Main Street compared to Franz Schmidt’s “Notre Dame,” which turns up — implausibly but admirably — in a West Berlin  performance distributed on the energetic, Los Angeles-based Capriccio label. The much admired Christof Perick is the conductor; the cast includes such well-known figures as Gwyneth Jones, James King and Kurt Moll (as, you might have guessed, the hunchback Quasimodo).
Schmidt (1874-1939) still reigns as the central deity of a small but dwindling cult, mostly in his native Austria. In my student days in Vienna I remember attending a performance of his luridly overstuffed oratorio “The Book of Seven Seals” —  which the audience  absorbed reverently, without taint of worldly applause  — and feeling as if I’d wandered onto some unknown but hostile planet. Confessing my boredom to otherwise rational friends, I found myself looked upon as a blasphemer.
That oratorio, should you care, is also on records, but “Notre Dame” is considerably more fun. Come upon it without prior knowledge, as I did during a recent broadcast, and you’d swear you’d discovered something unknown from Wagner’s middle years — a couple of missing acts of “Lohengrin,” perhaps. The libretto — from Victor Hugo’s novel, of course  —  is co-authored by Schmidt himself, with Leopold Wilk. There is, at least, plenty of action, some grand choral scenes, and a pathetic if amusing attempt by the composer to evoke the medieval setting of the novel through some naive archaisms.
The opera dates from 1906, had a middling success at its 1914 Vienna premiere, and still shows up there from time to time (most recently in 1975, with Julia Migenes as Esmeralda). The recording is from a radio performance which, considering the meagre visual suitability of Gwyneth Jones as the seductive dancing girl, is probably just as well. To my surprise, I find the music almost constantly pretty, sometimes rather stirring. Considering the recent fate of Victor Hugo in the musical theater, I would endure ten performances of “Notre Dame” over one return visit to “Les Miz.”
Georg Buchner’s “Wozzeck” was first performed in Vienna in the same year as the “Notre Dame” premiere. We don’t know — but can surely guess — what the rising young genius Alban Berg might have thought of the Schmidt opera, but we know of his bedazzled reaction to “Wozzeck,”and have its fruition in Berg’s operatic setting of Buchner’s text. It’s late in the day to proclaim Berg’s score as one of the  masterworks of this century.
Claudio Abbado’s new Deutsche Grammophon recording takes the full measure of this surging, harrowing drama. It comes from a live performance of last season’s new production at the Vienna State Opera, and, of course, the in-person quality of the sound adds much to the vibrance of the final product. I have never been partial to the steely esthetic that seems to inform the Pierre Boulez recording of “Wozzeck” — the only version, of several formerly available, to survive into the last Schwann catalog. Abbado’s is altogether superior; the emotional spectrum, from the accents of private horror to the grisly shadow-dances in the Tavern Scene, is broader, and the sweep is irresistible.
The cast is superfine: Hildegard Behrens as Marie, Franz Grundheber as Wozzeck, Heinz Zednik and Aage Haugland as the grotesque Captain and Doctor. The photographs in the accompanying booklet are enough to make one ache to see this production in person. From the fine print on the album cover I glean the information that the performance was also televised.
“Wozzeck” is a difficult opera to approach, although the rewards are overwhelming. It is simplicity itself, however, beside the contents of another recent DG release, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Samstag aus Licht” (“Saturday from Light”).
Since his early  electronic pieces at the experimental lab in Cologne in the  1950s, Stockhausen’s stature as the guru of the artistically outrageous and the artistically possible has never been challenged. It may be, as in the case of that other pioneer John Cage, that his eventual fame will rest upon the paramaters he has devised for musical experiences, rather than the music itself. In any case, his creativity has been well documented, most of all by Deutsche Grammophon, whose recording engineers have dogged his footsteps almost from the start. (His recordings do not, however, linger in the domestic catalog for very long. You need friends in Europe to help catch up on such past treasures as the spellbinding “Sternklang” or the “Mantra,” which have come and gone on the local lists.)
Stockhausen’s major project in recent years has been an operatic cycle called “Light,” which when completed will consist of seven separate works — one for each day, each a score of considerable dimension. Perhaps “operatic” is the wrong word; what Stockhausen has in mind is more like some gigantic ritual, with Eternity the real subject matter. “Thursday,” whose central character is the Archangel Michael (interpreted, as near as I can figure, by a solo trumpet) was completed and recorded (also on DG) five years ago; now comes “Saturday,” nearly four hours long, built around the figure of Lucifer, Bringer of Light.
The work involves magic, vast spatial effects, and infinite forbearance. You know that deep thinking is taking place, and the curtain parts often enough to reveal the product of a phenomenally complex creative instinct. The great moments in “Samstag aus Licht” — except for one special moment — have a direct power which, for all its abstruseness of design, can hold you spellbound.
The performance, under La Scala auspices, was actually given in a Milan sports arena, involving as it does spectacular lighting effects, sounds racketing around a vast enclosed space, a large chorus, solo players and, as principal performers, a huge college marching band — in this case, the entire University of Michigan Symphony Band deployed around the hall. Just as noise, therefore, and  as remarkable recording, this is exhilarating stuff. Whether the exhilaration will last through four hours, however, is something I leave to you to decide.
One moment, however, is precious. During the recording sessions the band members, apparently restless and, perhaps, absorbing the spirit of native Italian pit orchestras since time immemorial, stop playing and start yelling about unfair overtime. The mild-mannered Stockhausen tries desperately to sweet-tongue them, to no avail. Some flunky from La Scala is summoned; he speaks no English and scolds the musicians for not knowing Italian. The situation ends in what sounds like a standoff. The album notes, maddeningly explicit in detailing the complexities of Stockhausen’s system of interrelated thematic elements, offers few clues to this real-life situation.
To the credit of Stockhausen, a practiced hand with musical “happenings” and other performance-art phenomena, most of the episode, from the outbreak forward, has been left on the recording. It is one of the moments in “Samstag aus Licht” whose high dramatic impact is evident to all.