Reissue of the Year – the classic Die tote Stadt premiere recording still holds

Befittingly for its centennial, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s greatest hit, the three-act opera Die tote Stadt (1917-20), has gained a substantial entry in its way too sparse discography. Or rather, a re-entry, for it is the 1975 RCA premiere recording, which has resurfaced in its newly remastered guise on the Dutton Epoch catalogue.

In terms of recordings, the Korngold Renaissance began in the early seventies, with the releases of excerpts from the composer’s classic film scores of the thirties and forties, re-recorded for RCA by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Alongside the film scores album, released in 1972, recordings of Korngold’s String Quartets No. 1 (1920-23) and No. 3 (1944-45) with the Chilingirian Quartet also appeared on RCA in 1977. 

Yet the most ambition of these recordings was, without question, the complete studio rendition of Die tote Stadt, a three-LP set, recorded in quadrophonic sound at the Bavarian Radio Concert Hall in June 1975. 

Conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, Korngold’s score was recorded with the Munich Radio Orchestra and the singers of the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Tölz Boys Choir, featuring a young(ish) cast of some of the key talents of the era, including Carol Neblett and René Kollo as leads, alongside Hermann Prey, Benjamin Luxon, Rose Wagemann, Gabriele Fuchs, Patricia Clark, Anton de Ridder and Willi Brokmeier

Korngold’s extraordinary score sets a libretto conceived by the composer and his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, under the collective pseudonym Paul Schott, based on Georges Rodenbach’s symbolist novel Bruges-la-morte (1892) and its subsequent theatre play adaptation by the author. 

A fusion of dream and nightmare, Die tote Stadt is an opera of love, yearning, obsession and, above all, loss, clad in a proto-Hitchcock doppelgänger guise. The utmost tragedy of Rodenbach’s original text is softened by turning some of the narrative into a dream-sequence, thus paving the way for conclusion of resignation rather than despair. 

A huge success upon its 4 December 1920 premiere, in Hamburg and Cologne simultaneously, Die tote Stadt was an instant hit. One of the most widely performed operas of the era, the opera remained tremendously successful up until its abolishment from the repertoire by the nazi regime.

Despite some notable efforts to revive Die tote Stadt after the war, the opera was not reconsolidated into the repertoire. However, following the premiere recording, new stage productions began to take shape. Now, forty five years later, Die tote Stadt has become more and more re-established, with notable productions staged at the Salzburg Festival and at the Bayerische Staatsoper, to name but a few key events. 

On record, the 1975 premiere take still holds. While several live accounts have been released since, audio and video, the inaugural recording remains the only studio rendition of the score so far. None of the later recordings, some more successful than others, has provided a thoroughly viable alternative for the 1975 original, thus emphasizing the importance of the Dutton Epoch re-release.

The original quadrophonic RCA recording sessions captured a take on the score that is very studio, with all the ups and downs of the format. 

On the positive side, the recording is very detailed and focused throughout, providing a dazzling realization of the orchestral fabric and the vocal lines. The spatial disposition between onstage and offstage voices is well conceived, and the overall balance between the orchestra and the singers is well taken care of both in performance and in post-production. 

What is lacking, however, is the genuine feel of music theatre, at least to some degree. While the score is tackled with reverence and admirable care for detail, the dramatic impact is occasionally flattened by the matter-of-factness of the recording. On the other hand, this rids us of various mannerisms that tend to turn weary on repeated listenings.

However, whatever shortcomings there may be, at its best moments (and there’s a lot of those), this is an astounding recording. 

With Leinsdorf, the orchestra, a personification of Brugge, or the Dead City, delivers a compelling performance. Korngold’s astounding orchestration, with its plates and bells, keyboards (piano, celesta, harmonium and organ), wind machines, alongside a vast symphonic ensemble, in the pit, onstage and offstage, is peerless in its boundless sonic fantasy. 

From these huge resources, Korngold draws a cascade of orchestral colour, giving rise to a spellbinding sequence of nocturnal scenes, clad in fantasy, dream and nightmare. The complex harmonies, combined with incessant melodic flow, result in musical language of unique magnificence.

In terms of recording, the original RCA masters tend to favor clarity over warmth. Compared to the initial vinyl release and the first CD outing of 1989, the Dutton team has not only provided extra highlight on the detailed finesse of the orchestral performance, but they’ve been able to re-introduce some extra warmth to the fabric, to an alluring effect. 

The Bavarian Radio Chorus makes its first entry in the fabulous second act burlesque, Schach Brügge, followed by those soaring wordless lines accompanying Pierrot’s Tanzlied. 

Yet the veritable highlight comes in the delirious vision of the holy procession in the third act, with the chorus, joined by Tölz Boys Choir delivering phantasmal vistas par excellence. Here the massed vocal and instrumental forces are united in providing a vision of awe and downright horror to a stunning effect. 

René Kollo’s portrayal of a widower possessed with a young dancer’s likeness of his recently deceased wife, is empathic and engaged, especially in its newly remastered guise. Due his engagement in a production of Parsifal, a role he later sang to disc with Carlos Kleiber, no less, Kollo recorded some of his part in post-production overdubbing sessions. 

Carol Neblett’s contribution to his dual role as Marietta/Marie is ever admirable. Thanks to careful remastering, her vocal lines have gained some extra soar, to a gratifying effect. Sensitively nuanced, her performance benefits from extra insight gained with repeated listenings. 

In the supporting roles, Benjamin Luxon, Rose Wagemann, Hermann Prey et al. provide committed takes. The new remaster serves their contributions better than the previous album renditions, thanks to insightful engineering by the Dutton Epoch team. 

As a whole, the present SACD release endorses both Korngold’s masterstroke-of-a-score and the marvellous work done in the studio back in 1975 with love and reverence, yielding to a joyful rediscovery, thus making it an obvious choice for Reissue of the Year.     

Munich Radio Orchestra (Münchner Rundfunkorchester)

Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

Bavarian Radio Chorus (Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks)

Tölz Boys Choir (Tölzer Knabenchor)

René Kollo, tenor (Paul)

Carol Neblett, soprano (Marietta/Marie)

Benjamin Luxon, baritone (Frank)

Rose Wagemann, mezzo-soprano (Brigitta)

Hermann Prey, baritone (Fritz)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt, Op. 12 (1916-19) – Opera in three acts

Recorded at the Concert Hall of the Bavarian Radio, June 1975

Dutton Epoch 2CDLX7376 (2020), 2 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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