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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Recording Review: Dead City, Live Opera

Die Tote Stadt from Frankfurt.
Paul (Klaus Florian Vogt, right) haunted by the memory of his dead wife.
Photo by Barbara Aumüller © 2009 Frankfurt Opera.
With rumors flying around about the death of the CD, I've decided that music reviews on this site will now be labeled recording review instead of CD review.. It's really a matter of nomenclature. 

I upload just about everything I listen to (as high-quality MP3s) and those form the listening experience I write from. It's not a fancy stereo setup, but hey, we're on a budget.

It is hard to believe that this 2009 recording made in Frankfurt is only the third version of Die Tote Stadt in the catalogue. Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote the opera when he was 19, constructing the libretto with help from his father Julius, a noted Vienna music critic. The composer's most famous work before his Hollywood exile, it is chiefly remembered for "Gluck das mir Verblieb." This sentimental tune shows up in many Hollywood movies, most recently in The Big Lebowski.

Die Tote Stadt is set in Doctor Evil's home-town, the "dead city" of Bruges, Belgium. The town's gothic atmosphere permeates the score, which is written in a lush orchestral style. Korngold stands with Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler as the last heirs to the Romantic tradition in music. But history (specifically the rise of the Nazis and the Anschluss) intervened, and the Jewish Korngold fled to Hollywood. There, he became one of the fathers of film music, which brought personal success but derision from the world of "serious" musicians.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle takes the famous "Gluck das mir Verblieb" as slowly as possible, allowing soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya to linger over the phrases. The effect is one of Wagnerian longing in this famous tune, drawing out the characters' nostalgia and inner anguish, expressed through this inspired melody. Elsewhere, the giant orchestra is adeptly led in the dance music for Marietta and the phantasmagoric carnival scene in Act II. 

Heldentenor Klaus Florian Vogt is captured here in marvelous voice. He sounds relieved to be free of the strange opera productions of Katherina Wagner's Bayreuth. This is the right voice for Paul, the hapless composer haunted by the memory of his dead wife. He sings the role with great tenderness and understanding, but is also  credible when portraying Paul's rage and confusion when confronted with Marietta. He brings frightening power and pathos to the scene where Paul strangles the phantom of his wife.

The engineers from Oehms Records are to be commended for bringing out the complexity Korngold's high-calorie orchestrations. A smooth fabric of strings wraps around the listener, ably supporting the vocal line. Brass and timpani are fully captured, including the complex writing for celesta and triangle. Although this is labelled as a live recording, the mic-ing is well forward of the house. An occasional cough or stage noise is audible, but it's not enough to distract from one's enjoyment of the music.

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