07 August 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – INTERMEZZO (S. Schneider, M. Eiche, M. Homrich, M. Welschenbach, M. Dries, B. Fassbaender; cpo 777 901-2)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - INTERMEZZO (cpo 777 901-2)

RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Intermezzo, Opus 72Simone Schneider (Christine), Markus Eiche (Robert Storch), Martina Welschenbach (Anna), Martin Homrich (Baron Lummer), Michael Dries (Notar), Maria Bulgakova (Notary’s Wife), Brenden Gunnell (Kapellmeister Stroh), Marc Kugel (ein Kommerzienrat), Peter Schöne (ein Justizrat), Günter Missenhardt (ein Kammersänger), Sophie Mitterhuber (Resi), Brigitte Fassbaender (Speaker); Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Ulf Schirmer, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Festsaal Werdenfals, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, at the Richard-Strauss-Festival 2011, 7 – 8 June 2011; cpo 777 901-2; 2CD, 135:37; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Premièred in 1924 in Dresden, the composer’s artistic Olympus, with the legendary Lotte Lehmann in the rôle of Christine, Intermezzo is Richard Strauss’s piquant but affectionate musical homage to his tempestuously loving marriage. Three decades of domestic cohabitation with his wife, the famously feisty soprano Pauline de Ahna, from their marriage in 1894 until the composition of Intermezzo in 1923 likely led to the testing of every conjugal vow, but in the two hours of this idiosyncratic, sometimes cantankerous opera Strauss gave as poignant and ultimately heartening a portrait of a modern marriage between artists as has ever been enacted on the operatic stage. Compelled to write his own text by the refusals of his longtime collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other librettists, Strauss produced a verbose, occasionally overwrought libretto that is almost certainly a more faithful representation of the tribulations of his marriage than any spouse would want subjected to public scrutiny. It is the opera’s celebrated ‘symphonic interludes’ that do the real talking in Intermezzo, however: after every insult, the quarrels, the frivolity, and the fragility expressed in the text, Strauss’s music throbs with fear, loneliness, and uncertainty resolved by a scarred but abiding love. Christine and Robert Storch—the stand-ins for Pauline and Richard Strauss—are not unlike the Färberin and Barak or Arabella and Mandryka in the ways in which they misconstrue their partners’ thoughts and actions, but they are unique in that their wrangling involves a child, the couple’s son, whose defense of his father to his mother in the final scene of Act One is one of the most wrenchingly ‘real’ episodes in opera. A successful performance of Intermezzo can replicate interpersonal situations so intimate that witnessing them seems a gross intrusion. Ironically and perhaps apocryphally, Pauline Strauss is said to have replied to Lotte Lehmann’s comment about the remarkable gift that Strauss gave to his wife with Intermezzo by saying, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ One can imagine the same sentiment being uttered by Christine Storch, but anything less vituperous would be out of character for either Frau Strauss or her operatic counterpart. Invective is their native tongue, and there are hidden troves of adoration in the translation. Fortunately, there is no doubt that everyone who took part in this recording of Intermezzo gave a damn both about crafting a satisfying performance and about honoring this most private outpouring of Strauss’s singular artistry. Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s least-performed operas, but this recording reaffirms that it is anything but the least of his creations.

Musically, the score of Intermezzo is an anthology of the styles that bore fruit in Strauss’s operas from the time of his freshman effort, Guntram, to Intermezzo’s immediate predecessors, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. The alternation of sung scenes with symphonic interludes, similar to Britten’s use of musical intervals in Peter Grimes, is unique in Strauss’s work though reminiscent of the concerted scene changes in Die Frau ohne Schatten. With the prevalence of the piano and chamber music-like textures in the orchestra, the sonic environment of Internezzo most closely resembles that of Ariadne auf Naxos, but the transfer of the action to Robert’s musical playground in Vienna also inspires the expected flow of waltzes in the vein of Der Rosenkavalier. In general, the music sounds airy and appropriately conversational, with the spectrum of Strauss’s colorful genius for orchestration revealing itself primarily in the interludes. A close examination of the score discloses many of Strauss’s most trusted hallmarks, however. The violent dissonance of the early operas is largely absent, but Christine has her Elektra-like moments, and Strauss wittily gives her suitably untamed music to match. It is not the composer’s most daunting music, but it presents a plethora of challenges—challenges that are met unflinchingly by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. The Munich players respond to the music of their Bavarian countryman with unstoppable virtuosity, and every section of the orchestra proves as insightful in emotionally-charged passages and as light on its musical feet in the waltzes as colleagues in Dresden and Vienna. Conductor Ulf Schirmer is a practiced Straussian whose prior recorded accomplishments include a pair of lovely Capriccios with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (DECCA CD) and Renée Fleming (TDK DVD). His pacing of this recording, expertly compiled by cpo from two concert performances during the 2011 Richard-Strauss-Festival, exhibits absolute comfort with both the compendium of musical styles and the episodic, almost cinematic nature of the drama. Rhythmic tautness is maintained even in spoken passages, and the interludes supplement rather than interrupting the opera’s dramatic development. Maestro Schirmer has no fear of setting expansive tempi, but he never extends a phrase beyond a singer’s—or the music’s—capacity to sustain it. He also takes care to avoid overwhelming the singers, and the resulting clarity and precision of ensemble are immensely beneficial in this most loquacious of operas.

Headed by the clarion-voiced Brigitte Fassbaender, a noted interpreter of several of Strauss’s emblematic mezzo-soprano rôles who in this performance lends her still-sharp theatrical instincts to Intermezzo’s spoken parts, the artists in supporting rôles form an unusually reliable team. An especially cherishable performance is given by veteran bass Günter Missenhardt as a Kammersänger, his snarky delivery of ‘Am Anfang jeder Spielzeit haben Sie immer einen kolossalen Probeneifer, so gegen den März zu legt er sich’ during the game of Skat in the first scene of Act Two leaving no doubt about the character’s cynicism. His companions at the card table—the very promising tenor Brenden Gunnell as Kapellmeister Stroh, bass-baritone Marc Kugel as the Commercial Counselor (ein Kommerzienrat), and baritone Paul Schöne as the Legal Counselor (ein Justizrat)—add their own jaded observations to the scene in sturdy tones. Bass Michael Dries and soprano Maria Bulgakova sing delightfully as the Notary and his wife, and soprano Sophie Mitterhuber is all purring and prettiness as the tart Resi. Soprano Martina Welschenbach gives a charming but spirited performance as Anna, Christine’s chambermaid: she delivers Strauss’s ‘plebeian’ dialogue without a hint of affectation, and she sashays through her music adroitly. 

As in most of Strauss’s operas, however, the weight of performing Intermezzo effectively falls on the shoulders of the principal characters, and this recording is fortunate to have in those rôles three very fine singers. As Baron Lummer, the down-on-his-luck playboy who attempts to prey on Christine’s loneliness, tenor Martin Homrich is a fast-talking but never truly threatening trickster. Virtually from the time of the skiing Baron’s collision with the tobogganing Christine, it is obvious that his interest in the protesting wife is more financial than adulterous in nature. Still, when the fiscal consummation of their money-lending relationship is upset by Christine’s receipt of the misaddressed telegram that unwittingly implicates her husband in an illicit liaison, the sincerity of Mr. Homrich’s singing suggests that the Baron’s willingness to rush to Vienna to gather evidence for the prosecution, as it were, is motivated by a burgeoning affection for Christine as well as the understandable anticipation of his improving fortunes. The hint of wistfulness in his delivery of the Baron’s final line, ‘Ja, ja, dann empfehl’ ich mich für heute,’ is unexpected: there is in his taking leave of Christine an element of the tenderness with which the Marschallin cedes Octavian to Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Mr. Homrich encounters a few problems when Strauss’s music requires him to cover a lot of vocal ground quickly, his slender, healthy tone sometimes thinning at the top of his range. He is nevertheless always credible as a virile suitor for Christine and rival for her husband: that she almost certainly never feels a truly amorous pang for him is not as important as the fact that, offering such handsomely-voiced flattery, he might well have wheedled his way into her heart.

The rôle of Robert was created by Joseph Correck, a gifted Hannoverian baritone who sang Wotan at Bayreuth to considerable acclaim. It is interesting to ponder how a Wotan voice would sound in Robert’s music, which is sung with full-throated lyricism in this performance by baritone Markus Eiche. In terms of basic vocal endowment, Mr. Eiche resembles the two great interpreters of Robert in the second half of the Twentieth Century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey, and his singing in this performance allies a Fischer-Dieskau-like shaping of text with a Prey-like loveliness of tone. Occasionally slightly pressed at the top of the range, a few of Robert’s climactic top notes are just beyond the upper limit of Mr. Eiche’s vocal comfort zone, but he copes manfully. He avoids putting excessive pressure on the voice when under duress on high, and he maintains surety of intonation throughout his part’s tessitura. Native German does not ensure perfect German in song, but the unexaggerated excellence of his diction—an attribute that he shares with nearly all of his colleagues in this performance—enhances the effectiveness of his singing. In the opening scene, as Robert prepares to depart on a conducting tour, Mr. Eiche first conveys frustration with Christine’s querulousness, then indignation, and finally barely-concealed hurt. Robert is prone to sulking and sullenness, long identified as aspects of an artistic personality, but he loves Christine and the unconventional life that he shares with her. Mr. Eiche movingly conveys both the peevishness and the regret of his farewell to his wife in Act One, ‘Dann also, zum Teufel! Laß es bleiben du unausstehliche Kratzbürste du! Adieu!’ The core of Robert’s artistic soul is disclosed in the unlikely company of his card-playing cronies, and Mr. Eiche’s enraptured singing leaves no doubt that Christine is both Robert’s muse and, as Beethoven put it, his ‘other self.’ This thoughtful singer seems incapable of going wrong, musically or dramatically, but he exceeds the standard that he has set throughout the performance with his heartfelt singing in the opera’s final scene. It is impossible to question the sincerity of this Robert’s reconciliation with his wife: when he responds to her plea for forgiveness by saying that there is nothing to forgive, it is not rhetoric. It might seem too self-evident to state that an operatically-impersonated composer ought to sing beautifully, but the legions of singers who overlook the logical requirements of the parts that they sing teach that nothing can be taken for granted. Mr. Eiche sings as attractively as the man he portrays is assumed to compose.

As much in Intermezzo as in any of Strauss’s operas, what is the point of such prepossessing tempting from the Baron and plaintive tribute from Robert if there is not a soprano at the heart of the matter who merits all this attention? It is fascinating to imagine how Lotte Lehmann might have sounded in Christine’s music. Her versatility was little short of miraculous: just in the Strauss repertory, in addition to creating the rôles of Christine in Intermezzo and the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Lehmann sang both the Composer and the title rôle in Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella, and Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Judging the evidence presented by her singing of Christine in this recording of Intermezzo, Simone Schneider seems a viable successor to Lehmann’s wide-ranging musical empire. Though Ms. Schneider summons impressive power whenever the score requires it, there is no heaviness in her singing of Christine’s music. In the opening scene, she harangues without resorting to tonal ugliness, and her character’s oscillations from hectoring to fretting over ensuring that every possible comfort is packed for her husband’s journey are depicted without reliance upon shrillness and silly effects. Ms. Schneider manages to portray Christine as a woman who is both imperious and vulnerable, and the youthfulness of her exchanges with the Baron heightens the element of danger in their acquaintance. The way in which she deadens the luster of her tone in the final scene of Act One, as Christine denounces Robert to their son and reacts to the boy’s defense of his father, reveals that the boy is only saying what the crestfallen wife inwardly believes. There is substantial authority in Ms. Schneider’s voicing of Christine’s lines in the scene in Act Two in which she appears before the Notary to demand a divorce, but her spitfire accusations are halfhearted at best. The parallels between Christine’s sparring with Anna before Robert’s return from Vienna and the Contessa’s confiding in Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro are not lost on Ms. Schneider, whose singing throughout the performance has the poise of a great Mozartean even when Strauss’s music takes her into the vocal arenas of Salome and Ariadne. With the sure instincts of a true Strauss soprano, she pours her whole being into her singing of Christine’s final line, ‘Gelt, mein lieber Robert, das nennt man doch wahrhaftig eine glückliche Ehe?’ Theirs is what one might call an ideal marriage, Christine says to Robert. No greater praise could be given to Ms. Schneider than saying that she proves an ideal heir to the legacies of Lehmann and the radiant Lucia Popp in this most personal of Strauss’s operatic heroines.

It can be argued that none of the principal characters in Intermezzo is easy to love—or, indeed, even to like. It can be argued that the libretto of Intermezzo, the work of the composer himself, is among the weakest texts that he set to music. It can be argued that the score itself is a self-indulgent bagatelle in comparison to the uncontested masterpieces of its creator’s genius. The overreaching analyst can argue that all of the lovers in Strauss’s mature operas—Octavian and Sophie, Ariadne and Bacchus, the Kaiser and Kaiserin, Barak and his wife, Arabella and Mandryka, Helena and Menelaus, Henry Morosus and Aminta, Danae and Jupiter—are symbolic to some degree of the composer and his wife. What this recording argues most persuasively on behalf of Intermezzo is that ordinary people can and do experience love worthy of gods and heroes. Love is a delicate thing that can be wounded by ski-slope crashes and misinterpreted telegrams, but it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Lotte Lehmann thought Intermezzo the most perfect gift that Strauss could have given his wife. The performances given by the singers in this recording assert that the opera is also a precious gift to Music. Ninety years after the opera’s première, Richard Strauss continues to whisper in the ears of every listener that each failure among loving spouses is but an intermezzo in the majestic opera of married life.