"It seems as if this text became a part of my life", wrote Swiss composer Frank Martin about Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous prose poem "The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke", on which he based his composition for alto singer and orchestra. Rilke’s short text describes the fate of a young soldier in a powerful way, who pointlessly rode o into his death during the Ottoman wars in the 17th century. Frank Martin devoted himself to this poem during Second World War and created a highly expressive and thrilling setting. Philharmonia Records releases a live recording of Frank Martin’s Cornet at the Zurich Opera House with the Philharmonia Zurich under the direction of Fabio Luisi. The solo part is sung by German alto singer Okka von der Damerau, who is particularly known for her interpretations of major Wagner and Verdi roles as well as her vast concert repertoire.
What was it like listening to 23 songs in 60 minutes without a word of text? For me it was pure heaven. Martin links them together so well, both tonally and often without breaks, that I felt them as a whole, not as 23 songs (but there are 23 tracks on the album). Okka von der Damerau is a true contralto with a deep lower timbre. Her voice is a dead ringer for the great Janet Baker: rich with nuance and expression and so natural that I was unconscious of her vibrato except as a point of emphasis.
The Zurich Philharmonia is the orchestra of the Zurich Opera, of which Fabio Luisi has been music director since 2012, and it sounds as richly nuanced and expressive as Damerau, from whisper soft to battle- and ecstasy-driven powerful. In fact, I’ve never heard Luisi sound as all-consumed in any of his broadcasts from the Met as he is here. Soloist and conductor are hand-in-glove.
The engineering couldn’t be better. Yes, the sound, recorded in concert, is opera-house dry but still fully present whether quiet or loud; and the balances are superb, both in the orchestra and between soloist and orchestra. But then I’m a sucker for Frank Martin’s music, which edges toward Alban Berg’s moodiness but is tonally based and here at its most spiritual and atmospheric, with his special gift for propelling the music forward often with a waltzing grace as the substratum.
– American Record Guide