Notes and Editorial Reviews
A rather rough but exciting complete historic opera performance by Beecham.
Smetana’s The Bartered Bride was by far the most popular Czech opera for so long that it is surprising that it is represented in the catalogue relatively poorly, with no modern version, three of the six versions ancient historic recordings and three in German not Czech. This new offering, drawn from Sir Thomas Beecham’s private archive, makes a welcome alternative, inevitably flawed as it is. It was originally recorded live at the Royal Opera House using the Philips Miller film system, and later transferred privately to 78 discs, here used for Gary Moore’s excellent CD transfer.
Though there are many oddities of balance from having
a live recording of a stage production, and signs that this was a performance less well rehearsed than usual with Beecham, the flavour and atmosphere of a great occasion come over vividly. At the start of the Overture the violins almost disappear to nothing for a few bars, but the weight and body of sound, particularly from brass and timpani, has a satisfying impact, and with voices generally well caught one can readily forget the limitations and relish the sparkle and flair of a vintage Beecham performance, with rhythms infectiously lifted.
Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 frustrated Beecham’s plan to present Vaclav Talich and the Prague National Theatre company at Covent Garden in May of that year. The Bartered Bride was the only Czech opera well enough known at the time to be presented at short notice, and Beecham relished the idea of defying the Germans, not just by starting the season with a Czech opera after all, but by having a Jewish singer, Richard Tauber, in the central role. Though such British stalwarts as Mary Jarred and Arnold Matters were brought in, the rest of the cast was German-speaking, which dictated the choice of language. Confusingly, that brings changes of name for virtually every character, with Jeník becoming Hans, Marenka becoming Marie and Vasek becoming Wenzel.
What matters is the vigour of the performance. In that same summer season Beecham was also due to conduct Verdi’s Aida, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Wagner’s Tristan and the Ring cycle, which meant that his preparation was curtailed. Even so, as the opening event, it inspired him to an exuberant performance full of fun. There are idiosyncrasies: for some reason he always resisted performing the Furiant from Act 2, in concert as here, and it is cut, together with the Quartet from Act 3 and some recitative.
Standing out is Tauber, highly distinctive as Hans, with his unmistakeable glowing timbre and squeezed Viennese vowel-sounds. At times he might almost be singing Lehár, but the character is larger than life, and his performance is matched by that of the young Hilde Konetzni as Marie, charming and fresh with tone consistently sweet.
Vocally, the blot on the casting is the Wenzel of Heinrich Tessmer, who carries the buffo tradition to extremes, with his stuttering song in Act 2 hardly vocalised at all. One has to go to a singer like Heinz Zednik on the Krombholc version to appreciate that the comedy can be very effective with the notes well sung. In Beecham’s cast, Fritz Krenn as the marriage broker, Kezal, does find a happy balance between buffo characterisation and a clean vocal style, even if he is not as memorable as Gottlob Frick on the Kempe version. The others make up an excellent team.
Since Beecham made relatively few commercial recordings of complete operas, it is good to have it brought home so vividly that the Beecham Covent Garden legend is firmly founded. For all the oddities of sound, the recording brings you very close to a great event. Among historic versions, the 1933 Prague recording, now on Naxos, made in the studio, may be clearer on detail, but the dryness allows little feeling of atmosphere.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [1/2003]
Works on This Recording
Bartered Bride, B 143/T 93 by Bedrich Smetana
Richard Tauber (Tenor),
Fritz Krenn (Bass),
Heinrich Tessmer (Tenor),
Mary Jarred (Mezzo Soprano),
Arnold Matters (Bass),
Marko Rothmüller (Baritone),
Sabine Kalter (Mezzo Soprano),
Hilde Konetzni (Soprano),
Stella Andreva (Soprano)
Sir Thomas Beecham
London Philharmonic Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Written: 1863/1870; Czech Republic
Date of Recording: 05/01/1939
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