Furtwängler's definitive 1954 Salzburg Freischütz in superb sound quality
Vast sonic improvements over all previous issues of this essential recording
"Despite the joys of the various commercial recordings by Kubelik, Keilberth,
Heger, and Carlos Kleiber, this performance is the one I will most often turn to"
This recording has appeared on a number of labels, large and small, over the years. The present transfer was taken from mint 1982 Italian LP pressings on the Fonit Cetra label, and - I believe - presents this superb performance of Der Freischütz in by far the best overall sound it has ever received.
Significant improvements in the pitch anomalies present in the original have now been possible, thanks to technological developments unavailable to previous restorers, but more than this, the application of Pristine's 32-bit XR remastering process has brought forth a rich tonal quality and depth that appears to have evaded all previous issues. Gone is the often thin, sharp, unappealing sound heard elsewhere - in its place the full glory of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under maestro Furtwängler can be fully appreciated at last. Likewise the singing, surprisingly well captured for a stage performance, rings through clearly and beautifully, with none of the unpleasant hard edge to be found in previous issues.
The aim here has been realism, above all. I believe this issue comes significantly closer to this goal than any that has gone before it.
WEBER Der Freischütz
Elisabeth Grümmer - Agathe
Rita Streich - Aennchen
Hans Hopf - Max
Alfred Poell - Ottokar
Karl Dönsch - Kilian
Oskar Czerwenka - Kuno
Kurt Böhme - Kaspar
Claus Clausen - Samiel
Otto Edelmann - A Hermit
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor
Recorded 26 July 1954
The performance remains one of the finest of this opera ... grab this reissue because of its sonic improvement over all predecessors.
I entered this performance, when it was issued on CD by Music & Arts, into Fanfare’s Classical Hall of Fame (24:3), and that review can be found in the Fanfare Archive. For that reason I will not go into great detail here. But I will say that while the Music & Arts has been the best remastering of this somewhat dry sounding 1954 recording until now, Pristine Audio has improved upon it significantly. Andrew Rose, the proprietor of Pristine, felt that the best sound of prior versions was the Fonit Cetra LP issue (and I’ll admit it was close to the M& A, though I preferred the latter) and he used a mint condition set of those LPs as his source. What he has managed here is a richer orchestra sound, with a particularly striking depth in the bass, and he has taken some of the edge off the voices of the singers. A bit of that hard edge is still present—probably there forever—but the overall sound now is extremely satisfying.
The performance remains one of the finest of this opera, although Fanfare’s Jim Miller in 12:5 dissents a bit, finding it a satisfactory performance but not a great one. Furtwängler is slower than most, but I find his conducting intensely theatrical and powerful. As I said in my original review, “If you think of this as a light folk opera, this performance will seem overblown. But if you see the opera as the root of German Romanticism through to Wagner, then this reading will make a great deal of sense.” Furtwängler gets everyone in the cast on the same page, so that we hear real characters interacting with each other, not singers vocalizing to the audience. The inflection is dramatically alert and convincing in the spoken dialogue and in musical numbers.
Hans Hopf’s somewhat whiny tone remains a bit of a problem, but his singing is more lovely and elegant than it usually was and he is effective for the most part. The rest of the cast is terrific, most particularly Grümmer. You are likely to want to stop breathing during Agathe’s great cavatina, as she and Furtwängler create a very special world.
As is usual with Pristine, there are minimal notes (actually, only an excerpt of my earlier Fanfare review and a producer’s comment). Nonetheless, fans of this performance, or those who are tempted by the extraordinary combination of cast and conductors, should grab this reissue because of its sonic improvement over all predecessors.
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.
This justly famed performance already has five previous reviews in the Fanfare Archive, for five previous incarnations on CD. Easily the best of the previously available versions is that on Music & Arts, discussed in detail by Henry Fogel back in 24:3. Here, Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio has again applied his trademark XR remastering wizardry to produce a new sonic profile that significantly improves on all previous versions, with the results being nearly on the level of studio recordings of the same vintage.
In that review, Fogel wrote: “As for the performance, there is no other Freischütz like it....There is a gravitas about this Der Freischütz that is unmatched by any recording I know....What is most startling is its dramatic impact.” With those sentiments I concur completely. Although I have a few criticisms of the conducting for being too slow in spots—e.g., the Peasant Dance in act I is overly heavy in tread, and the final portion of “Durch die Wälder” is so drawn out that Hans Hopf, a singer known for his considerable lung capacity, audibly struggles to sustain his phrases—there is indeed no other conductor who matches Furtwängler for the weight and intensity of expression he brings to this drama. And, of course, he has the Vienna Philharmonic at his command here. Unless you’ve heard this performance, warts and all, you arguably have not really ever heard Der Freischütz.
Fogel and I do differ in our assessments of some of the singers. In his earliest review of a release of this performance (dating all the way back to issue 6:3!), he wrote: “Every role is superbly sung with the exception of Max....Once beyond Hopf, though, you will hear some of the finest singing Weber has ever been treated to.” In my judgment, this performance falls short vocally compared to what I consider to be the desert-island Freischütz, the nearly contemporaneous 1955 radio broadcast conducted by Erich Kleiber with three of the same principals: Elisabeth Grümmer, Rita Streich, and Hans Hopf. Fogel and I agree absolutely on the merits of Grümmer as Agathe and Streich as Aennchen (both nonpareil) and the demerits of Hopf as Max (a flabby, beefy voice and somewhat whiny characterization). All three are much the same in the two performances; with Kleiber, Hopf has better breath control under his faster tempos but is somewhat careless at certain points about intonation.
After that, our judgments diverge. I have always considered Kurt Böhme to be a much overrated singer, afflicted with a grainy, somewhat hollow voice and persistent wobble. Here, he is actually in fairly good form as Kaspar—generally steady in emission and suitably malevolent in characterization, though his top notes are clearly a stretch. He is, however, simply no match, either vocally or interpretively, for the wonderfully sinister and potent Max Proebstl under Kleiber. In the comprimario roles, Alfred Poell sings Ottokár in both performances, but is heard to significantly better advantage under Kleiber. Böhme appears under Kleiber as the Hermit instead of as Kaspar; he’s tolerable, although Otto Edelmann for Furtwängler is even better, but neither one can hold a candle to Gottlob Frick in the EMI set under Keilberth that still remains far and away the best studio and stereo recording of this opera. (That set also has the stupefying luxury of Hermann Prey as Ottokár!) As Kuno, I prefer Heiner Horn under Kleiber to Oskar Czerwenka under Furtwängler, and likewise the well-sung Kilian of Kurt Marschner is infinitely superior to the grotesquely ugly Sprechgesang of Karl Dönch. Finally, Kleiber also has the superior Samiel in that important speaking role, and the studio sound effects for the Wolf’s Glen scene for him are of absolutely hair-raising horror.
All that said, even with its secondary flaws, this set is still indispensable. While the Kleiber performance is in my judgment much superior, there are a couple of factors that may sway other people’s in a different direction than mine. First, the Kleiber version was a radio studio broadcast that used professional actors for the spoken dialogue instead of having the singers speak their own lines. That doesn’t bother me—at least in this instance, because every one of the actors is superb—but some people may object. Second, the broadcast has two cuts: the long spoken narrative in act I of the institution of the “free-shot” competition, and Aennchen’s act III aria. According to booklet notes in the Koch-Schwann release of the Kleiber version, this apparently was done because Streich fell ill in the course of making the tapes for broadcast. However, since Streich’s singing of that aria is preserved not only here but also in a complete studio recording of the opera on DG conducted by Eugen Jochum, I’ve simply remedied that omission by splicing in these two items from the Jochum set into the Kleiber broadcast on CDs I burned for myself.
In the last analysis, then, Kleiber remains my top recommendation for a recording of Der Freischütz. In addition, one should also have the aforementioned EMI studio set with Keilberth, which yet again stars Elisabeth Grümmer as Agathe. While not ideal, Rudolf Schock is a major improvement on Hans Hopf; Lisa Otto is a fine Aennchen, if not quite in Rita Streich’s league; Karl Christian Kohn is a solid Kaspar vocally, though somewhat short on menace; all the smaller roles are cast from strength; and Keilberth leads a well-considered though not superlative account of the score. While this Furtwängler version ranks third behind Kleiber and Keilberth as an overall performance, it arguably ranks first for its masterful conducting, and is an essential acquisition for that reason—especially in this superior new transfer. Despite some caveats about casting in minor supporting roles, highly recommended.
James A. Altena
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.