Nedbal: Die Winzerbraut / Mogg, Musik Theater Schonbrunn
Oskar Nedbal is one of the most fascinating and certainly most tragic minor Czech composers. Outside of his native land his hold on the repertoire is extremely tenuous at best – his greatest ‘hit’ the beautifully melancholy Valse Triste could hardly be termed staple fare. Searching the current catalogue turns up just a single disc of orchestral music - which includes the overture to the operetta recorded here - from Douglas Bostock and the Carlsbad Symphony Orchestra on the ClassicO label and a violin sonata on a relatively recent Supraphon disc. The back catalogue adds two discs of his pantomime-ballets and a Czech-language highlights disc of this same operetta. And that is just about it; yet here is a musical polymath who was in Dvorák’s composition class, learnt violin with the same teacher as Franz Lehár (Antonín Bennewitz) and co-founded the great Bohemian String Quartet with fellow-pupil Josef Suk. He was also one of the first principal conductors of the Czech Philharmonic. This brief biography reads as if he was a musical titan so the revelation that he jumped to his death from the upper floor of Zagreb Opera House on Christmas Eve 1930 aged just 56 beset by personal debts and ill-health is shockingly poignant.
My impression is of a composer spiritually marooned out of time and one at odds with the harsh realities of an artist’s existence in the inter-war years. I have been a great admirer ever since making a chance purchase of an LP of one of the above mentioned pantomime-ballets Pohádka o Honzovi (the Tale of Johnny Simpleton) which includes the previously mentioned Valse Triste. This work reveals all of Nedbal’s virtues that are also apparent in the current recording. He has a genuine melodic gift; lyrical and memorable but tempered with enough backbone of nationalistic folk-influence to prevent a descent into saccharine sentiment. As one might expect of a Dvorák pupil his orchestration is charming and effective.
I have written before about my admiration for the CPO label and their uncanny knack of unearthing extraordinarily diverse and unusual repertoire and recording it in performances of considerable worth. That proves to be the case here and with a two disc set of running just shy of 100 minutes we have the most substantial single piece of Nedbal’s music ever recorded. I am very pleased to be able to report that this performance is a great success on just about every level. One of the many strands of CPO’s imaginative release strategy has been to record many of the great Viennese operettas in definitive and complete performances. Unfamiliar Lehár works have been a particular beneficiary but this new Nedbal recording must go high up the list of successes. Die Winzerbraut, which variously translates as Vinobraní or The Vineyard Bride, was premiered in Vienna in 1916. The plot does not tax the brain-cells too much once one recognises the basic boy meets girl, loses girl, meets again, decides to give up girl for nobler reasons but finally realises true-love surpasses all plot. The ‘twist’ is that the boy is in fact an old count. The vineyard bride of the title alludes to a May-Queen-esque celebration held at the Count’s vineyard home in the second act whereby a girl is chosen to be a ritual bride. This faux-folk ceremony gives Nedbal plenty of opportunities to flex his nationalistic muscles and the score abounds in folk-influenced melodies and rhythms. Therein lies both its strength and potentially some of its weakness or lack of longevity outside the Bohemian countries.
Nedbal was born in Tábor, in southern Bohemia and trained in Prague. He moved to Vienna around 1906 and co-founded the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra. Pohádka o Honzovi had been a hit in Prague in 1902 as were the other ballet-pantomimes but the operettas were premiered in Vienna. His second essay in the form Polenblut was his greatest success racking up 3376 performances between its premiere in 1913 and 1921. But there is just a tickling question about whether he was trying to appeal to the Austrian or Czech market – I wonder whether for fickle nationalist audiences his music fell too much between two stools and ‘belonged’ to neither. From a hundred years distance that detail seems irrelevant and we can enjoy the music for what it is; unpretentious and appealing.
The opening quite extended Overture immediately shows all the virtues of the work. It bubbles along with bright-eyed bonhomie and a sense of melodic familiarity that has you convinced you have heard the tunes before even when you have not. The performance is in the experienced and knowledgeable hands of Herbert Mogg. He finds exactly the right swaggering bounce for the tempi. He is helped by an energetic chorus and orchestra. The Musik Theater Schönbrunn is a training organisation that brings together students and recent graduates from around the world – apparently 13 nations are represented here – to educate players in and perpetuate the traditions and performance values of Viennese operetta. All I can say is that it works a treat here. The playing is alert, technically adept and brimming with energy and élan. The main cast prove themselves to be equally attuned to the demands of the genre. None of them are exactly major international names and none have the most simply beautiful voices you will ever hear but they sound so very right for their roles and the piece. Dialogue is included and you can follow this in the provided German/English libretto - the liner notes are in French too. Rather skillfully CPO have cut the dialogue to an absolute minimum ensuring there is dramatic sense to the text without inhibiting the musical flow which is what the majority of us are there to hear. All credit too to the singer/actors for not allowing the dialogue to be spoken in that dreadfully arch ‘from the diaphragm’ mannered way that afflicts too many similar performances. The recording is perhaps just a tad over-resonant but I rather like the way the voices are set back into the orchestra. Very occasionally they are overwhelmed by the accompaniment but I would happily pay this price especially when it allows you to hear Nedbal’s rather subtle and detailed writing in the various melodramas and underscoring. The Act I finale [CD 1 track 11] is a good example of all of these virtues as well as showing Nedbal’s ability to produce the obligatory Viennese Waltz. If there are any doubts about Nedbal’s ability it is that the emotional range of the music lacks that last twist of a passionate knife a Lehár is able to drive into your heart. Nedbal is on very safe operetta ground here with no-one really doubting for a second the ultimate happy ending. Conversely the second act shows up his talent for local colour and bustle with various folk-inspired dances and choruses. The would-be lovers’ meeting is a highlight [CD2 track 5] although it will be down to individual taste whether the rather worn voice of Wolfgang Müller-Lorenz is too sorely tested by this beautiful waltz-duet and indeed elsewhere. As a character (and indeed characterful) voice it is ideal but perhaps here something simply more beguiling would have been better still. The extended (13 minute) Act II Finale shows how effectively Nedbal could write for expanded ensemble. This is also the part of the work which allows him to exploit the ‘local colour’ of the libretto. What is particularly impressive is the way the music flows from chorus to dance to solo or duet in one long fluent musical argument. In contrast the closing Act II has nearly no music at all once the three minute entr’acte has been accounted for – again one assumes the plot demands of tying up loose ends resulted in more dialogue than the producers wanted to include here. There is time however for one last appealing waltz-duet this time between the second lead characters Franjo and Julja [CD2 track 18] and the final reprise of a beautiful underscore using strings, light woodwind and celesta. It’s a far from sophisticated moment but utterly charming. In the best manner of Viennese operetta the closing finaletto has a feeling of smiling through tears and brings the work to a satisfying conclusion.
As ever the CPO liner-note provides lots of useful information but couched in rather opaque English. All in all this is a delight of a set and one that makes one hope CPO will return to Nedbal’s dramatic works. As well as the big hit Polenblut Nedbal tried his hand at opera proper once with Jacob the Peasant in 1920. I have never heard a note of this latter work but the title alone sounds more like a 19th century folk-opera than a piece in tune with post-war angst. The four main ballet-pantomimes would benefit from new and indeed complete recordings too. Those on Supraphon suffer from a slightly glassy recording quality and the music is represented by extended highlights. One little curio – there is a rather rare Supraphon CD of highlights of the current work but in its (still performed) Czech language version Vinobraní. Again, recording quality here is not all it might be but the piece takes on a quite different character. Here under Mogg’s direction the rather benevolent Viennese charm is to the fore whereas the Czech version conducted by Paul Kuhn (from memory) has a greater rustic muscularity that works rather well. I would not want to be without either although the Czech Graf Milan is the finer singer without doubt.
A fine addition to CPO’s catalogue of operetta rarities and perhaps the start of Nedbal’s overdue reassessment.
-- Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 777629-2
Composer: Oskar Nedbal
Conductor: Herbert Mogg
Orchestra/Ensemble: Schonbrunn Music Theater Chorus, Schonbrunn Music Theater Orchestra
Performer: Andreas Rainer, Bibiana Nwobilo, Marcus Niedermeyr, Mirjam Neururer, Wolfgang Muller-lorenze