STRAVINSKY: Œdipus Rex / Georges Wilson, narrator; Jessye Norman, soprano (Jocasta); Peter Schreier, tenor (Œdipus); Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone (Creon); Harry Peeters, bass (Tiresias); Robert Swensen, tenor (Shepherd); Michio Tatara, bass (Messenger); Shinyukai Choir; Saito Kinen Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, conductor. SCHOENBERG: Erwartung / Jessye Norman, soprano; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; James Levine, conductor. Brettl-Lieder (8)/Jessye Norman, soprano; James Levine, piano; Mary Ann Archer, piccolo; Mark Gould, trumpet; Greg Zuber, snare drum / Deutsche Grammophon 0289 475 6395 2 DDD DM2
This is a recent re-release of a 2005 duo-CD compilation by DG of two Philips albums originally issued singly back in the early 1990s. How early? Well, consider this: Bryn Terfel, who sings Creon on this performance of Œdipus Rex, isn’t even mentioned on the original front cover, whereas two years later his name might even have been bigger than Jessye Norman’s.
The problems with this reissue packaging are essentially two. One, despite a certified platinum cast of singers, all in exceptional voice, this performance of Œdipus Rex never gets off the ground. Mostly this is due to Ozawa’s surprisingly sluggish conducting: not only in tempos, although they are on the slow side, but in lack of forward momentum, In addition, the recording is engineered oddly, so that every loud passage hurts one’s eardrums while every soft passage is almost inaudible. (I’m wondering if they used Herbert von Karajan’s engineers on this recording). As a result, a performance never really happens, despite the fact that the singers all give their best. It’s just a limp noodle. And two, this time around there are no texts or even physical CDs, just downloads.
So why am I writing this review? Because of Jessye Norman’s Erwartung. I still vividly remember seeing her singing both this Schoenberg “monodrama” and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with Samuel Ramey as the protagonist, on a Met telecast in January 1989. It was one of the supreme artistic highlights of my life. Never before had I been so riveted by a singer, particularly in music that I had heard previously (Erwartung) but had not been particularly impressed by (the Helga Pilarczyk recording with Robert Craft conducting on Columbia). Norman got so deeply under the skin of the words and music that it almost sent chills up my spine, and Levine’s conducting was equally perfect. I’m happy to say that the studio recording recaptures this magic fully. This is THE recording of Erwartung to own, no matter if you have other verisons of it. From moment to moment, Norman and Levine keep you on the edge of your seat, and her singing is as perfect technically as it is theatrically.
As for what happened to Norman’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the unfortunate answer is that she recorded it with the ice-cold conductor Pierre Boulez. Although she and baritone László Polgar sing well and expressively, Boulez keeps the temperature right around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. What a pity that she and Levine never did a record of it!
On both the original Philips issue and this DG reissue, Erwartung is coupled with Schoenberg’s eight Brettl-Lieder, cabaret songs he was paid to write in 1901. To say his heart wasn’t in them is putting it mildly. Only the first three have any melodic ingenuity or musical interest, the third, in fact, being the liveliest as Schoenberg added a piccolo, trumpet and snare drum to the piano accompaniment (Nachtwändler). The remaining five are not only uninteresting in melodic construction but repetitive to the point of annoyance. Norman does her level best to liven them up, but no matter how you slice it these last five songs are not the kind of things you’ll want to listen to more than once in your life.
So that brings us to the million-dollar question: is this reissue worth the money? If you don’t already own Norman’s Erwartung, the answer is hell yes! If you even remotely like early Schoenberg, you absolutely HAVE to have this recording. It’s that good. It’s an absolute miracle, and miracles in the recording world simply do not happen that often.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley