Notes and Editorial Reviews
A near-definitive account of an opera whose take on The Tempest has yet to be equalled for sensitivity and insight.
– Gramophone [8/2011]
“A score of such luminous beauty, and such a sure sense of dramatic timing, that it's a mystery that we've had to wait until now to hear it in its entirety. Fischer's conducting is quite magnificent: full of attention to detail and ideally paced. A major operatic release that is not only distinguished but also truly inspiring.” – International Record Review
Thierry Fischer, cond; Robert Holl (
); Christine Buffle (
); Simon O’Neill (
); Dennis Wilgenhof (
); James Gilchrist (
); Netherlands R Ch & PO
HYPERION CDA 67821/3 (3 CDs: 152:48) Live: Amsterdam 10/2008
A month or so ago I heard two film critics on television discussing Julie Taymor’s movie adaptation of
. They gave it a lukewarm reception. One critic explained, “
was Shakespeare’s last and least play. The director didn’t have much to work with” (although possibly more than she had to work with on
Spiderman: The Musical
). I do not agree with that assessment of Shakespeare’s play, and I daresay the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890–1974) would not have agreed either. He was obsessed with
for many years. In 1950 he composed a choral work,
Five Songs for Ariel
, and then spent 1952–56 working on an operatic version, which he began with no commission or any other impetus bar the desire to set the play to music. Several other distinguished composers have written incidental music to this play (such as Sibelius and Sullivan), also some undistinguished composers (yours truly); Tippett set Ariel’s songs, while Lee Hoiby turned it into an opera in 1985, and Thomas Adès’s opera on the subject was premiered in 2004, both to great acclaim.
is set on a mysterious island where the usurped Duke of Milan, Prospero, rules by virtue of his magic powers (personified in the captive spirit Ariel), until a shipwreck deposits a retinue of his friends, relatives, and enemies on his shores. He teaches them the error of their ways using various subterfuges. Eventually, he makes amends with his treacherous brother, and his daughter Miranda is free to marry Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, with whom she has fallen in love. Caliban, a grotesque native of the island, has been enslaved by Prospero, but once the latter has achieved his goals he frees both Caliban and Ariel from servitude and readies himself to return to Italy, a tired and world-weary man. The play touches on many important themes: the nature of power and how it affects people’s judgment, illusion and reality, redemption and forgiveness, even racial stereotyping in the case of the indigenous Caliban (although Shakespeare certainly didn’t think in such terms). Not much to work with, indeed!
Martin’s idiom is familiar. Though he “brushed up against” 12-tone music (to use Alex Ross’s phrase), he never abandoned a sense of tonality. His harmony can be complex and dissonant but common chords do occur within it, employed for color as much as a harmonic anchor. Martin chose to set August Wilhelm von Schlagel’s German translation rather than Shakespeare’s English (although this opera has also been performed in English) and that is what we hear in this recording from a concert staging of the work in Amsterdam in October 2008. The word-setting is a through-composed
with a few set pieces, most of which belong to Prospero (who has some wonderful set-piece speeches in the original, “Our revels now are ended” being one of them).
An ethereal overture evokes the magic element that permeates the action. With its concentration on high strings and woodwinds, uneasy rocking harmonies and magical associations, the music brings to mind Busoni’s
, a work that is similar in many ways (not least in its declamatory vocal lines). We then plunge into the shipwreck, excitingly conjured up by the orchestra, and a rather long and expository scene with Prospero and Miranda. Martin differentiates between the various groups of characters by assigning them different styles of music, rather as Britten does in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
but with less clear parameters. Prospero is given an all-purpose atonal idiom that gradually reverts to tonality as he progresses toward his final lyrical epilogue (“Now our charms are all o’erthrown”). Miranda, the most grounded character, maintains a reassuring consonance throughout, while the ardor of Ferdinand is captured in the leaping intervals and straining top notes of a high tenor (very much a feature of 20th-century German opera).
The original play, typical of Shakespeare’s late work, mingles low comedy with the dramatic and philosophical aspects. Martin, not a composer necessarily known for his sense of humor, does well with the shipwrecked courtiers’ teasing of the pompous but well-intentioned Gonzalo, using a stolid Bavarian
in their scene at the opening of act II. Unfortunately, the low clowns (namely the drunken Trinculo, Stephano, and to some extent Caliban) defeat him: Martin leaves them to perform their shenanigans mostly in spoken word with a minimal, percussive “Mickey Mouse” accompaniment. (Busoni would have relished giving these characters vocal music; he understood clowns.)
As usual, the character of Ariel poses a problem. This free spirit personifies the forces of nature, including nature’s arbitrariness, yet Ariel’s connection to Prospero is intimate and even human. Eagle-eyed
readers may recall my complaint about Adès’s use of a high coloratura soprano as his Ariel, rendering the character’s words incomprehensible. Martin’s solution is interesting but even more problematic: He gives Ariel’s dialogue and occasional songs to an offstage choir. The plus side is the sense this creates of the vast elemental forces of wind, thunder and so on that Ariel embodies, but again clarity becomes an issue. In a staged production it would be impossible to dismiss the impression that Prospero was talking to himself in his scenes with the offstage choral Ariel. Even on disc we miss the emotive pull of the scene where Prospero finally grants Ariel freedom. Martin’s idea allowed him to import his choral
Five Songs for Ariel
directly into the opera, but at considerable dramatic cost.
I will go out on a limb and declare that this recording is the only complete version of
available in any form. Luckily, it is excellent. Although recorded live, these performances were given in concert so common problems like noisy stage movement or singers being off-mike for entrances and exits are so minor as to be negligible. Holl is authoritative in the central role of Prospero, composed with Fischer-Dieskau in mind, who recorded two excerpts for DG with the composer conducting. O’Neill copes manfully with Ferdinand’s tessitura, and tenor James Gilchrist brings luxury casting to the small role of Antonio (one of those Shakespearean characters who simply disappear from the scene for no apparent reason). Christine Buffle is a strong presence but sounds more mature than she appears to be, and certainly more so than the teenaged character she is playing. Thierry Fischer leads a lively and sensitive performance, and most of the orchestra’s subtle colors are caught by Hyperion’s engineers in the spacious Concertgebouw acoustic. In sum, this is a fine operatic version of a great play, containing some exciting and beautiful music, expertly performed and recorded.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Trust Hyperion when essaying their first full-on operatic recording to choose something muscular in virtue and vibrant in interest. This recording is a landmark in the company’s career. Not only is Frank Martin’s three-acter
Der Sturm their first full-length live opera, it is also a rarely staged twentieth century masterwork.
That things are done in style is a given. Hyperion are often an exemplar to the industry and a delight to music-lovers and collectors - overlapping constituencies but by no means identical.
Martin is one of those composers whose seriousness of purpose, integrity and tonal glossary dictated a place out of the glow of international acclaim. His music - or much of it – is reputed to have a matte protestant quality which turns its back on glamour or the high places of drama.
As for this opera we may well know
of it because of the extracts once on a DGG LP. Martin himself conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the overture and Prospero’s two monologues, sung by the artist for whom the role was originally intended, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There it was harnessed to the music of the even more obscure Werner Egk. You can now hear it on Brilliant Classics. Those extracts were also taken on board in luxurious sound by Bamert and Chandos for his 1990s Martin series.
Der Stürm was premiered by the VSO in 1955 with Anton Dermota, Christa Ludwig and Eberhard Wächter. It was typical of the idealistic BBC of the 1950s that they broadcast a concert version conducted by Ansermet. He it was who in 1967 in Geneva revived the piece with Ramon Vinay, Eric Tappy and Jose Van Damm.
The opera’s prelude is a work of dreaminess though with the pallor of slate - very attractive but not glimmering in Ravel- like diaphony. Ariel's conjured storm can be heard in act I scene 1 with brisk flighty woodwind suggestive of the airborne sprite and crashing thunder and flashing lightning in the timps. That said the onomatopoeia of the Tempest Preludes by Sibelius and Nystroem is not resorted to. The human or superhuman intervention element is kept to the fore.
Entrusted to Christine Buffle, Miranda sounds rather matronly though passionate indeed. There's a slight sense of Berg but little that is resolutely dissonant. There is however some subtle threat in this extremely inventive music. A silvery-sounding harpsichord invokes Ariel who is voiced by a distanced offstage choir. The writing for choir recalls the gentler stretches of Schmidt's choral writing in the
Book of The Seven Seals. Robert Holl, well known for his Wagner and Schmidt assumptions, is oaken stern and well attuned to the declamatory writing.
The start of act II has a jazzy Weill-like propulsion with barking saxophones and insistent piano rhythms. There’s more of the roughhouse Weimar republic in act 4, scene 2. The sax is again to the fore at the start of act 2 sc 2. The Caliban here is at first lightly characterised but things improve as Dennis Wilgenhof warms to his task. The interaction with the howling Trinculo of Roman Sadnik is a delight with plenty more sleaze and vapid ‘shtick’ in act 2 sc 2. Buffle, in her dealings with Ferdinand, now sounds more callow and girlish. Its still pretty declamatory singing but gentler emotions now float free with greater ease. It's intriguing that a smoothly pulsed sympathy for the plight of Gonzalo arises in Sc. 5 of act 2 even though Ariel is about to put them to fear and panic for the injustices to Prospero perpetrated long ago by Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian.
Act III on CD 3 (it’s one act per disc and one track per scene) starts with a sincere and even-paced ostinato and simple and effective lyric work from the middle strings. It sometimes sounds baroque – like Rameau. This is surely evocative of Prospero's courtly life before the island.
There are some fine gutsy fanfares and cries of ‘Freiheit!’ The music rises to mercurial fantasy with waspish zephyrs flying and careering. By contrast we have a resolute and sternly soliloquising Prospero who yet suggests the tender tendrils of emotion mixed with a sense of being bereft of his long cherished magical powers. We end with words to the audience: “As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free.”
This is a live concert recording with the odd isolated cough here and there. The Concertgebouw and the control desk deliver plenty of detail though without the unnatural if flattering close-up balance of a Decca team.
The booklet includes an excellent essay encompassing a summary of the plot and a biographical and musical study by Martin biographer Alain Perroux. The libretto is in the sung German with side-by-side English translation.
This music is magically imagined by Martin and brought to harvest by Hyperion, Fischer, his players and singers and engineers. Now let Hyperion surprise us with some other seemingly doomed grand operas of the last century: Nystroem’s
Herr Arnes Penningar, Atterberg’s
Le Mas, Lazzari’s
La Lépreuse, Sessions’
Montezuma and Ginastera’s
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Der Sturm by Frank Martin
Robert Holl (Bass),
Ethan Herschenfeld (Bass),
Josef Wagner (Bass Baritone),
Christine Buffle (Soprano),
James Gilchrist (Tenor),
Andreas Macco (Bass),
Marcel Beekman (Tenor),
Dennis Wilgenhof (Bass)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
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