14 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Ferdinand Ries – DIE RÄUBERBRAUT (R. Ziesak, T. Blondelle, J. Borchert, Y.F. Speer; cpo 777 655-2)

Ferdinand Ries - DIE RÄUBERBRAUT (cpo 777 655-2)

FERDINAND RIES (1784 – 1837): Die Räuberbraut, Op. 156—R. Ziesak (Laura), J. Borchert (Gianettina), T. Blondelle (Fernando), J. Kupfer (Graf Viterbo), C. Immler (Anselmo), K. Wolff (Carlo), Y.F. Speer (Räuberhauptmann Roberto), D. Schmitz (Pietro); WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Howard Griffiths [Recorded in the Philharmonie Köln, Germany, 21 – 25 November 2011; cpo 777 655-2; 2CD, 124:53 (including Ballet Music); Available from ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers]

Looking beyond the boundaries of standard repertoires, the inquisitive decision-makers at cpo have rediscovered and reintroduced to the public countless works of merit spanning five centuries of musical creativity. Joining the label’s extensive discography of excellent recordings of neglected scores, this recording of Ferdinand Ries’s Die Räuberbraut—a studio production by Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln—is among cpo’s greatest achievements. Remembered almost solely for his association with Beethoven, who supervised the younger man’s musical education with great interest, Ries was a gifted composer in his own right. Ries’s surviving body of work is small, but Die Räuberbraut reveals that there was nothing diminutive about his talent. Originality is deemed invaluable in music, especially in forgotten works, but there is much to be said for a composer who absorbs the influences of his own and previous generations, learns from the successes and failures of his artistic milieu, and adapts the styles of his contemporaries to his own specifications. There are in Die Räuberbraut, which premièred in Frankfurt am Main in 1828, unmistakable echoes of Beethoven’s Fidelio, particularly in the choruses, as well as passages that evoke thoughts of Paër’s Leonora, Spontini’s La vestale and Weber’s Oberon. Ries’s Laura is a cousin of Mozart’s Fiordiligi, and Fernando’s coloratura-laden vocal lines are reminiscent of Rossini’s and Auber’s music for their tenor heroes. Die Räuberbraut never sounds like a musical jigsaw puzzle assembled from pieces borrowed from other composers, however: such was Ries’s level of accomplishment that the diverse elements of French, German, and Italian opera—and perhaps also the English oratorios that he surely heard during his time in London—were dismantled, studied from the inside out, and employed as the dramatic situations in Die Räuberbraut required. What emerges in the imposing performance on this recording is not a curiosity but an exemplary opera that confirms that Beethoven’s mentoring of the young Ries was a reaction to recognition of genuine promise rather than nostalgia for shared roots in their native Bonn.

With three concerted numbers—the Robbers’ and Soldiers’ Choruses in Act One and Robbers’ Song in Act Three—and important contributions to the concerted finales of all three acts, Die Räuberbraut places mighty responsibilities upon the shoulders of the choristers. This music would challenge the choruses of the world’s best opera houses, but the impeccably-trained ladies and gentlemen of the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, prepared by David Marlow, deliver a ripping performance, singing powerfully but stylishly. The boisterous spirit of the brigands is superbly conveyed, and the ramrod rhythmic accuracy in the Soldiers’ Chorus is aptly suggestive of military discipline. Die Räuberbraut is a German composer’s German opera for a German theatre, but its setting is Italy, and Ries responded with a rich, credibly Italianate vein of melodic fertility. Even when they are not tremendously distinguished musically, the choruses in Die Räuberbraut—like those in Verdi’s early operas—are winningly tuneful, and the WDR Rundfunkchor personnel sing them with tenacity and near-perfect intonation. Their efforts are supported by the unwavering excellence of the playing of the WDR Sinfonieorchester. Conducted with a flawless mastery of the score by British-born Maestro Howard Griffiths, the Orchestra’s performance leaves no stylistic component of Ries’s score unexplored, giving the arias an inviting infusion of bel canto and approaching the choruses and overtly dramatic scenes with muscularity that leaves no doubt that, at the time of Die Räuberbraut’s première, the first performance of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer was only fifteen years in future. Maestro Griffiths conducts with sweep, refusing either to linger over lyrical episodes or to whip extroverted passages into frenzies that his cast cannot sustain, and his support of the principals is generally instinctive and managed with finesse. Maestro Griffiths and the Orchestra also play the opera’s Ouvertüre and the fizzy ballet music, the latter appended to the end of the second disc, with exuberance.

Tenor Dirk Schmitz sings vehemently as Pietro, the scheming foster son of the Count of Viterbo, making the most of the limited opportunities the character offers him before he is killed in the Act One Finale. He contends with one of the finest quartets of low-voiced soloists heard in a recent recording of any repertory. As the Count of Viterbo, betrayed by the man he has taken in and honored as his own son, baritone Jochen Kupfer sings magisterially, his performance in the duet with his daughter Laura in Act One—‘O Vater, nein!’—expressing with equal force the Count’s indignation at being forced into exile by his adopted son’s treachery and his sadness at being separated from his beloved daughter. The palpable affection with which Mr. Kupfer shapes his more tender lines is touching, and his refined, steady tones are produced with ease. The superb baritone Christian Immler and bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff possess voices of quality that seem slightly wasted on their respective rôles, Anselmo and Carlo. It is to the former that the Count entrusts Laura when he flees Viterbo, and Mr. Immler’s singing takes on a warmly paternal quality that complements Mr. Kupfer’s work. In the Act Three Finale, Carlo is essentially a deus ex machina in the manner of Don Fernando in Fidelio, and Mr. Wolff voices his critical pronouncement of justice, ‘Frohe Siegeskunde,’ with appropriate gravitas. The voice is a rock-solid, burly-toned instrument, and its owner uses it with skill and urgency. As Roberto, the ultimately noble-hearted leader of the band of brigands, bass Yorck Felix Speer sings excitingly, displaying unexpected nimbleness in bravura passages. When Mr. Speer sings ‘Ja, er soll sterben!’ (‘Yes, he must die!’) in the Robbers’ Chorus, his is a quest for vengeance that cannot be underestimated or ignored. It is the sly humor and innate dignity of Mr. Speer’s singing that prove most rewarding, however; these traits, that is, and the lush quality of the voice.

There is no better music in the opera than the trio for Laura, Fernando, and Gianettina in Act Two, ‘Dem Mann von Ehr’ und Pflicht,’ in which Ries set colortura traps for all three singers. Hearing the deftness with which soprano Julia Borchert dispatches Gianettina’s roulades, it comes as no surprise that she has enjoyed great successes as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. In Gianettina’s music, Ms. Borchert’s voice gleams, her upper register approached without the slightest hint of hesitation. Like several of her male colleagues in Die Räuberbraut, she regrettably has few chances to show the real spectrum of her gifts, but every note that she sings is produced beautifully and spiritedly. The same can be said of tenor Thomas Blondelle, who copes outstandingly with music of daunting range and difficulty. Mr. Blondelle voices the most fearsome of Fernando’s divisions unflinchingly and unerringly, his fidelity to both pitches and rhythms an example of the highest standard of coloratura singing. In ‘O Freund,’ Fernando’s duet with Carlo that frames the Soldiers’ Chorus, Mr. Blondelle sings with the growing determination—and something of the high-flying pluck—of Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, and he matches the ladies in bringing off exhilarating feats of bravura and ringing flights on high in the Act Two trio. This is followed by a debonair account of Fernando’s aria, a piece that would not sound out of place in La Cenerentola, the voice rounded, lovely, and irreproachably secure. Mr. Blondelle sings imaginatively in ensembles, and his lines in the duet with Laura in Act Three, ‘Hier ist’s,’ are gracefully delivered whether in coloratura fireworks or at the very top of his range. It would be interesting to hear several of today’s best bel canto tenors in Fernando’s music, but not one of them could possibly sing the rôle more engagingly than Mr. Blondelle.

It is perhaps slightly indelicate to designate soprano Ruth Ziesak a veteran singer, but she deserves great respect for having graced performances of a wide repertoire with assured, delicate singing for more than two decades. A part with frequent outbursts of coloratura and no shyness about ascending to top C might seem an unlikely assignment for a great Pamina, but for Ms. Ziesak not even Laura’s most taxing music requires anything beyond her capabilities. From the start, Ms. Ziesak sings superbly, the voice sounding as fresh and pliant as when she recorded Pamina with Sir Georg Solti in 1990. The heartbreak in the duet with her father, ‘O Vater, nein,’ is biting, and the exhibition of sheer technique in Laura’s aria, ‘Du, im Himmel, Herr der Welten,’ is magical. Then, in the Romance with which Laura launches Act Two, ‘Ach! dieses Hoffen,’ Ms. Ziesak again rises to dazzling heights of artful phrasing, and her singing in the trio with Fernando and Gianettina is a lesson in the inspired use of coloratura as a dramatic device. The duet with Fernando in Act Three draws from Ms. Ziesak singing of radiant intensity, matched by the growing warmth of her timbre in the opera’s finale. She sings her lines in ensembles with conviction and silvery tone, giving every word its due with the intelligence of a paragon of Lieder singing, and her ascents to top C are accomplished with laudable freedom. Sounding both softly feminine and toughened by impending tragedy, she is both the spine and the soul of the performance.

Though it is especially important for the first recording of an unfamiliar opera by a composer whose name is essentially a footnote in histories of more celebrated artists, any composer from Monteverdi to Menotti might hope for any of his operas to receive a recording of the quality of this WDR Köln performance of Die Räuberbraut. Sadly, a Trovatore or Tosca of this caliber seems all but impossible now, but an aspect of the success of this recording of Die Räuberbraut is derived from the avoidance of the academic equivocation with which many long-unheard scores are treated. There are no hints in this performance that anyone involved in it regards Die Räuberbraut as an unaccountably-maligned masterpiece in need of rehabilitation. It is not a great opera, in fact, not like Così fan tutte and Tristan und Isolde are great operas, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one, a credit to its composer and to the fellow artists from whom he learned his craft. Even the listener to whom the music of Ferdinand Ries is completely unknown cannot fail to find much to appreciate in the consistent distinction of the singing on this recording. Die Räuberblaut is not a perfect score, but a performance such as this one could hardly have been inspired by poor music.