NZSO – incidentally, on Naxos…..

BEETHOVEN – Incidental Music to “Egmont”

Concert Aria “Ah! perfido!” Op.65 / Marches WoO 18/19

Madeleine Pierard (soprano)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

James Judd (conductor)

NAXOS 8.557264

MENDELSSOHN – Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (complete)

Jenny Wollerman / Pepe Becker (sopranos)

Varsity Voices / Nota Bene

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

James Judd (conductor)

NAXOS 8.570794

There’s much to enjoy in both of these NZSO/Naxos recordings, perhaps more consistently so with the Beethoven than with the Mendelssohn, though the latter, for all its idiosyncrasies, still contains many felicities, especially with regard to the orchestral playing. Under the direction of its former chief conductor James Judd, the orchestra delivers highly-polished, fleet-fingered accounts of all of the music on both discs. Some will love the Mendelssohn recording, relishing the fusion of music with spoken text from Shakespeare’s play, while others may well be annoyed by the way that it’s been put together. Less problematical in that respect is the Beethoven disc, especially as the Naxos recording concentrates largely on the music and doesn’t follow the example set by its Decca predecessor from the 1970s. This featured George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic, with soprano Pilar Lorengar, but also included several of the spoken melodramas adapted by Franz Grillparzer from Goethe’s original drama, including Egmont’s final stirring speech that precludes his execution and the “Victory Symphony”. The Naxos – rather lamely, in my view, though others may disagree – includes from the spoken drama only Egmont’s  account of his vision in a dream of the heroine Clärchen. This means that the “Victory Symphony” bursts in at the end as if out of nowhere – there’s no preamble, and certainly no sense of Egmont’s pending execution and his defiance of the forces of tyranny and repression.

So, of the two productions, it’s the Mendelssohn recording on which efforts are made to integrate the incidental music with the drama. As I’ve said, the playing by the NZSO is terrific throughout both discs, even if James Judd’s somewhat “neutral” conducting personality doesn’t deliver any great insights or searing revelations – although making the famous donkey’s calls in the overture sound more musical than asinine might be counted a good thing by some listeners. Throughout the well-known orchestra-only pieces – Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Wedding March – one registers beautifully supple orchestral strings, both delicate and full-toned, along with nicely-flavoured winds and crisp, focused brass, with deft touches of percussion in appropriate places (though the timpani are too backwardly recorded for my taste). Especially good is the Intermezzo – superb wind-playing at the outset, and a wonderful dovetailing of parts, making for a real sense of swirling magic in the interweaving lines; and then a beguiling change of mood with the entry of the mechanicals to the strains of a march. And the Wedding March seems to gain in depth and amplification as it progresses, working up to something properly celebratory and swaggering by the end.

Voices there are aplenty, both singing and spoken – delightful and engaging are the singing voices, the two soloists both characterful and utterly different (some people are bound to like one or t’other!), and the choir voices beautifully elfin, the sounds they make as light as thistledown. Jenny Wollerman’s bright, infectiously tangy soprano has more of the solo work than Pepe Becker’s pure, relatively chaste tones, though for me it’s a case of “vive la difference!” when they follow one another in “Ye spotted snakes”, each voice creating its own “face” and character in turn. Perhaps the tempo in the latter is a bit fast for a “lullaby”, but the lightness of touch helps create a “faery” atmosphere, even if the effect is a tad breathless here and there – of course, “Through this house, give glimmering light….” conversely needs to urgently scamper, in accordance with the Overture’s bustling activity – as it does here, brilliantly.

Recordings can be curious beasts in the way the parts are put together – and this one verges on the bizarre, with the orchestra-only contributions set down in 2003, the solo and choral numbers taped in New Zealand during 2007, and the actors’ contributions two years later in England! Despite this the orchestral and vocal items have been convincingly married, and sound pretty much of a piece. A pity, therefore, that the spoken texts and melodramas don’t have anything like the same sense of integration with the whole, partly the result of being recorded by voices from the other side of the globe, with little or no thought given to creating a theatrical or dramatic atmosphere in the same acoustical space as the orchestra. Even given these discrepancies the matching of voices with music could have been managed far more sensitively – unfortunately, the actors are all too close to a microphone, and there’s no sense of interplay with the orchestral interjections (which is presumably what the composer wanted).  I quite like the voices themselves as such, though dramatically they’re a variable bunch, both Oberon and Titania getting full marks for impeccable diction and zero for dramatic evocation in their “Ill-met by moonlight, proud Titania” scene. The Puck is better, though he’s also too “present”, the voice again too close, and,like all the others, having little or no sense of being in “a wood, near Athens”.  Unfortunately, the over-riding formulas relating to international marketing of recordings probably would have told against the idea of using New Zealand actors to speak the stage roles – whereas I thought that, in this of all plays, a bit of local rustic spoken colour different to the “BBC Shakespeare” norm might well have added more interest to the idea of this disc and its conception.

Still, fascinating though the dialogues and melodramas are in their theatrical context, the music’s essentially the thing – and Mendelssohn, if not Shakespeare, is well-served by this beautifully-played and musically well-caught recording. Some people won’t, I’m sure, share my objections to those voices, either theatrically or recording-wise, while others won’t think it matters in the context of the whole. When all’s said and done, it’s a disc I’m glad to own. Speaking of context, for people who know Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, but haven’t heard any of the rest of the incidental music inspired by Goethe’s drama, the other Naxos NZSO disc here will be well worth investigating. Again, the production involves the use of spoken word, but, unlike the “completeness” of the Mendelssohn disc, here only one of the spoken melodramas  makes a brief appearance, to accompany the sequence of Egmont’s dream and his vision of Clärchen, his heroine-lover. It’s a shame that we don’t get at least some of Egmont’s final speech leading up to his execution and the final Victory Symphony – compare the Szell Decca recording at this point for a proper scalp-prickling theatrical effect at the end, with the music rounding off the drama as the composer presumably intended.

In remarking that, as with the Mendelssohn recording, there’s little “atmosphere” generated by the placement of the speaker’s voice on the Beethoven Naxos recording (again, simply too microphone-bound, and seeming not to “share the space” with the musicians), I must point out that neither does the older Decca recording capture the spoken voice with any great dramatic verisimilitude – don’t people who make these recordings know anything about theatre? Fortunately, (and again, as on the Mendelssohn disc) the orchestral sound has plenty of impact, focus and colour, and the bright, sonorous tones of Madeleine Pierard’s soprano have been well-caught by the engineers, both in the two “Egmont” arias and in the dramatic stand-alone concert aria “Ah! perfido!”

The “Egmont” Overture has, of course, one of the most arresting opening chords in all music; and James Judd and the NZSO players here achieve a fine beginning – sharp attack, then big-boned orchestral tone, followed by a beautiful woodwind rejoined, and then a renewed orchestral surge, with rich wind chordings. Judd gets a real sense of expectation in the progression via the repeated descending phrase leading to the allegro, where there’s again fiery attack and plenty of tone – though the strings don’t fix their teeth insufficiently upon the speeded-up version of the opening, repeated-note motto,and sound a bit too well-mannered (there’s even a hint of a diminuendo on one of the last notes of the phrase first time round, weakening the effect – those notes surely ought to be hurled at the listener like thunderbolts!). But Judd makes amends with the “Victory Symphony” at the end, encouraging on-the-spot attack from all departments and getting a heady rush of musical adrenalin as a result.

As Clärchen, Madeleine Pierard sings splendidly, never letting us forget that she is not actually a soldier – others such as Birgit Nilsson or Pilar Lorengar (each heard on previous recordings) might, in “Die Trommel geruhret”, depict the cut-and-thrust of battle and the pulsating of blood through the veins more excitingly and viscerally; but with Pierard we hear a young woman’s attractive and eager voice (singing a different note on the first “sondergleichen” to the singers in the other recordings, which could be in the edition she used), more feminine than Valkrie-like, in her evocation of the conflict and dreams of glory.

The following “Entr’acte” vividly delineates interactions between the citizens of Brussels, arguments leading to violence, while the succeeding episode accompanies the appearance of Count Egmont with his soldiers, to restore the peace, the music’s nobility of utterance reminiscent of similar themes in Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” – both of these exerpts are beautifully realized by Judd and the orchestra. Madeleine Pierard returns for “Freudvoll und leidvoll”, and sings it as well and committedly as I’ve heard anybody, beautifully negotiating the somewhat treacherous vocal descent at the end. Another “Entr’acte” echoes Clärchen’s “Freudvoll und leidvoll”, before the music changes to a stirring march, again reminding us of “Fidelio” and the entrance of the tyrant Pizzaro, the drama concerned with the Dulke of Alva’s plans to arrest Count Egmont. A tragic note is struck at the beginning of the Fourth Entr’acte, where Egmont is arrested, and Clärchen attempts to rouse the citizens to help resist the Duke and her beloved’s arrest. Act V draws from Beethoven music of great melancholy and anxiety as Clärchen awaits word of Egmont’s fate, then takes poison at news of his imminent execution.

And so to the final scene, in Egmont’s prison, where the hero sends a final message to his beloved, before sleeping and dreaming of her (“Süsser Schlaf!”), uttering words of joy at her visitation to his thoughts, before calmly resigning himself to his fate at the executioner’s hands. The ensuing “Victory Symphony” sweeps in (on its own, alas – no stirring words beforehand), and the drama concludes in a blaze of fervent heroic triumph.

As if by compensation, several additional items round out the disc, two marches which the composer called “music for horses”, written for the Archduke Anton, the elder brother of Beethoven’s patron, the Archduke Rudolph; and the famous concert aria “Ah! perfido”, Beethoven’s setting of a passage in Metastasio’s drama “Achille in Sciro”, composed in 1796. Both the marches (great fun!) and the aria considerably add to the recording’s attractions – in “Ah! perfido!” Judd encourages a lean, athletic sound, and Madeleine Pierard tears into the opening declamations with intensity and gusto, carrying these qualities right throughout the first section, depicting the anger and frustration of a jilted lover, including a plea to the gods for vengeance, and then a change of heart, in favor of mercy. Perhaps the central aria-like section “Per pieta, non dirmi addio” lacks a little light and shade on the singer’s part, but when the agitations return, at “Ah, crudel!” Pierard again commands the music, her voice firing and sparking as she rails against the cruelty of fate, the coloratura giving her little signs of trouble. Though stylish-sounding throughout, I felt that orchestra and conductor could have made something more gutsy of the aria’s instrumental conclusion, the effect here being “contained” instead of properly full-blooded, more classical than romantic. Perhaps Judd didn’t want to overload the performance with anything that smacked of anachronistic force of expression, despite the overt emotionalism of the text. Something tells me, however, that the composer would probably not have minded any such “excess of feeling” in the least!

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