Keiser: Fredegunda / Hammer, Munich Neue Hofkapelle
There is a real danger, especially in Handel’s anniversary year, that he and other major composers such as Bach and Telemann eclipse their talented contemporaries completely. Yet the Leipzig Council, for example, cannot have been entirely bone-headed in preferring Fasch and Graupner to Bach for the post of Kantor at the Thomasschule. The story that they thought Bach ‘mediocre’ is, however, based on a misunderstanding.
CPO have also recorded his secular cantatas (CPO999 8562 – ‘a lovely disc’: see review) and his version of the Christmas story is coupled with Graupner’s Magnificat on ‘a splendid festive offering from Carus – albeit short value at forty five minutes’: Carus 83.417 – see review). Keiser was also the first composer to set the Brockes Passion, a text later employed by Fasch (recorded by Naxos on 8.570326 – see review), Telemann and Handel; perhaps Naxos will now record that, too.
There are two recordings of his St Mark Passion: the older Claves recording of his St Mark Passion is available from eMusic, albeit on 50 tracks, which will mean blowing your whole monthly £12 allocation in one go. The single-CD Christophorus recording on original instruments is, in any case, the one to go for, (CHR77143 – Parthenia Vocal and Parthenia Baroque/Christian Brembeck); it’s also available from classicsonline as a very acceptable 320k download. Bach certainly possessed a copy of this work and there are points of similarity with his St Matthew and St John settings, including the traditional tune of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden – compare Keiser’s setting of Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden (track 5) with Bach’s. I’m sure that I shall be listening to it on future occasions.
Like those other two operas, Fredegunda (March, 1715) was composed for the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt, or Goose-market Opera, where it was extremely popular, four years after Crœsus. The libretto is by Johann Ulrich von König (1688-1744) after an Italian libretto by Francesco Silvani (c.1660-c.1725). It is sung in German and Italian. The plot concerns the tempestuous relations between the sixth-century Frankish King Chilperich and his mistress Fredegunda; each of them has another lover, making for two sets of love triangles though all, of course, ends happily.
As usual, I set out first to test the claims made in the blurb on the rear insert, that this is ‘an important and entertaining ... opera [which] abounds in melodious, often ravishingly orchestrated, music.’ More crucially, do the performances do justice to the music?
Certainly the music is very attractive – listen to track 28 of CD1 Ricordati, ben mio (‘Remember, o my beloved’) for some of the finest baroque music – though the opera has its moments of longueur and there is no doubt that posterity has been correct in preferring Telemann and Handel. If you have already become familiar with their music, however, Fredegunda is well worth trying.
The opening Sonata goes with a real swing in this performance; there’s no stodginess here, but rather the kind of abandon at the start which I associate with modern Italian performances of baroque music. On the other hand, there’s enough contrast between the sections to avoid the problem of having everything too hurried, which I recently found with Collegium Musicum den Haag’s performance of Telemann’s Ebb und Fluth (L’Europe réunie, ORF SACD3008).
Dora Pavlíková as Fredegunda begins her opening recitative in fiery mood, too: at first she sounds almost too fiery to hit the notes securely, but soon settles down, especially in the aria Du verlachtest die Tränen (‘you mocked my tears’, CD1, track 3). After all, Fredegunda is a fiery character and she is chiding Chilperich for preferring Galsuinde – she opens the recitative by referring to him as Grausamer, ‘awful man’, and ends the ensuing aria by referring to his undoing their relationship mit deiner falschen Hand ‘with your faithless hand’.
Tomi Wendt’s Chilperich comes over as penny plain to Pavlíková’s twopenny coloured Fredegunda – I might have preferred him to be a little more sonorous and her a little less squally, but, again, this is not inappropriate to their roles – Chilperich is something of a wimp at this stage. By the time that we come to Fredegunda’s arias on tracks 20, (Ihr reizende Blicke, ‘your ravishing looks’) and 22, (Schließet euch, ihr holde Kerzen, ‘be extinguished, dearest candles’) Pavlíková is in much more mellifluous voice and Wendt’s Chilperich much firmer-toned. By track 24 (Zur Rache! ‘Revenge!’) both the character and Wendt’s voice have come much more to life.
The first notable aria is Galsuinde’s Lasciami piangere, ‘let me weep’ (CD1, track 7), and Bianca Koch sings it well. I might have preferred her to bring out its beauty a little more lovingly; it is, of course, a lament, but laments don’t have to be entirely squally. Galsuinde has some of the finest music – and the aria Ricordati, ben mio (CD1, tr.28), to which I have already referred as some of the finest baroque music, is sung by Koch in a manner which could hardly be bettered.
Michael Kranebitter as Sigibert, too, sings attractively, if a little too forthrightly: in his recitative Ich kann ja wohl die Zähren nicht verdammen (‘I cannot condemn the tears’, track8) he almost seems to have two different registers, one more attractive than the other. His diction is not exactly ideal: so keen is he to bring out the drama of his words that he sometimes fails to enunciate them perfectly. His aria Ich muß schweigend von dir gehen (‘I must be silent and leave you’, track 16) did not affect me as it should – here, more than anywhere, I felt that he was the weakest link in the cast, though not as disastrously so as Elisabeth Scholl, who is really off-form in Naxos’s recording of Handel’s Semele – don’t just take my word for it in my review; see also Robert Hugill’s review.
Katja Stuber as Bazina also has an attractive voice; in her first scene (track 9), however, she is slightly out-sung by Tomo Matsubara as Hermenegild. His voice has an attractive timbre, though his diction, too, is not perfect – he is not a native German-speaker. His aria Eine stolze Hand zu küssen (tr.11) illustrates both the attractiveness of his voice and his comparative failures of enunciation. If Stuber is a little reticent here, she is certainly in fine and powerful voice by track 30, giving Fredegunda as good as she gets in Du drohest and rasest (You threaten and rave). By this point, too, Kranebitter’s Sigibert has also warmed up somewhat; though I still found him a little too droopy in Ach betrachte doch die Wangen (tr.35 ‘Just look upon her cheeks’), his account of Mich schrecket kein Eifer, ich achte kein Drohen (tr.37, ‘Your overbearing threats do not frighten me’) is just right.
Tobias Haaks as Landerich is perhaps a little too forthright in the recitatives but he sings Ach, ich will viel lieber sterben (tr. 44, ‘Ah, I would much rather die’) in such a way as to make it one of the highlights of the first CD, almost at its close. If, as I suspect, the Chilperich-Fredegunda duet Vieni, o cara, o mio Tesoro (tr.48, ‘Come, my dear, my treasure’) which closes CD1, is meant to outshine Landerich – the few arias in Italian are some of the highlights of the music – it doesn’t succeed here: their singing sounds merely very decent by comparison, though they round off the act and the disc stylishly enough.
Matters are much the same on CD2, which begins quietly with the duet of Galsuinde and Bazina, Sanfte Lüfte (‘Gentle breezes’). There is some intrusive stage noise here – much than on CD1 – and in the ensuing scene. Bazina’s aria Ein Sklav’ ist mehr beglückt (tr.3, ‘a slave has greater fortune’) is a little underpowered. If Kranebitter is the weak link on CD1, he atones somewhat in Sigibert’s duet with Galsuinde (tr.5), though he is still a little too lugubrious and Koch’s Galsuinde still a little shrill.
Pavlíková’s Fredegunda, too, is just a little too shrill for my taste in Vieni a me (tr.7, ‘Come to me’) by contrast with the delicate accompaniment. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but she does seem to tone down the shrillness for the repeat of this aria (tr.11).
Wendt’s Childerich is in much better voice than he was on the earlier part of CD1. His aria threatening to react with slaughter of his foes, Con le stragi (tr.13) goes with quite a bang, as does Haaks in Landerich’s Da voi fieri guerrieri (tr.15, ‘Your beauteous eyes, proud warriors’). Both these Italian arias are among the high points of the opera, and both receive good performances.
Fredegunda’s invocation of Hecate (tr.17) is another high spot and here Pavlíková is in almost ideal voice despite some unusually intrusive stage noise. Yet she is able to achieve real tenderness a few moments after this outburst in Ach, nenne mich doch nur noch einmal Königin (tr.19, ‘Oh, let me just once more be called the queen’).
Matsubara really manages to convey Hermenegild’s indecision (tr.21, Ach nein, ich kann nicht entscheiden, ‘Ah. No, I cannot decide’) and does so with fewer problems of diction than before. Paradoxically, Kranebitter’s diction in Su’l mio crine (tr.23, ‘I shall be crowned with love’) is less than ideal.
Wendt, in Childerich’s aria bidding fortune do its worst, Weich immerhin zurück (tr.25) is affective, though not entirely tonally secure. Koch is equally affective and in better voice in Felice moriró (tr.30 ‘I shall die happy’). The whole opera is rounded off by a suitably jubilant performance of the short fifth act.
This, then, is not a ‘Sunday-best’ cast but it is a good, often very good, workaday one. It’s certainly good enough for me to predict that I shall return to it – and I shall follow with interest the careers of these singers, mostly still in their twenties.
Christoph Hammer’s direction is secure; his own solo keyboard performances have clearly prepared him well to lead the Munich Neue Hofkapelle. Though founded in 1992 to specialise in historically informed performances, their playing offers baroque music without any of the excesses which sometimes spoiled period performances in earlier days and still sometimes intrude where one least expects it – on Jordi Savall’s rather strident, but still enjoyable, version of Biber’s Missa Bruxellensis (AV9808) for example. Some of the accompaniment here is really sensitive, as in the case of Fredegunda’s aria Vieni a me (‘Come to me’, CD2, tr.7).
Apart from some very minimal stage noise and applause at the end of each CD, there is little to indicate that the recording was made live. That it was so helps in part to explain why some of the singers are a little slow off the mark at the beginning – in a studio performance, of course, there could have been retakes to round off some of the slightly rough edges. The recording itself is neutral in the best sense of the word.
The libretto, mostly in German but with sections in Italian, is available online as a pdf document but in portrait A4 – how do you get that into the CD case? – and there is no English translation, which is a problem, since even those with a decent knowledge of German may find the sometimes archaic diction hard to follow. It would be much better to offer the libretto as a download in landscape mode at a size capable of being cut, folded and inserted into the case – Naxos, please learn from Chandos, Gimell and Linn, who offer texts and notes in this manner with their downloads. Actually, it is possible to cut and paste the text into a Word document and print this in the correct format, but it is a nuisance to have to do so.
I would gladly have forfeited the booklet’s four-and-a-half pages of illustrations of the parent production, from the Bayerischer Theaterakademie August Everding, in favour of the libretto. These illustrations make me grateful to have received this recording on CD rather than DVD, since they show the production to have been the kind of up-dated version which I almost inevitably find annoying – featuring, in this case, a baby carriage and, apparently, the use of a taser.
-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 8660231-32
Composer: Reinhard Keiser
Conductor: Christoph Hammer
Orchestra/Ensemble: New Munich Hofkapelle
Performer: Bianca Koch, Dora Pavlíková, Katja Stuber, Michael Kranebitter, Tobias Haaks, Tomi Wendt, Tomo Matsubara