SCHREKER: Prelude to a Drama. Der Geburstag der Infantin. Romantic Suite / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; JoAnn Falletta, cond / Naxos 8.573821
Franz Schreker, fêted in Germanic countries but not particularly well-known here in America, had an odd career and left an unusual legacy. A musical stepchild of both Wagner and Strauss, he wrote similar music in the years between 1903 and 1929, building up a solid reputation in Germany as an interesting composer. Taking his cue in part from both Strauss’ Elektra and Debussy’s Pelleas, he wrote intense psychological dramas about the dark side of human nature, of which his famous opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized, 1915) was a typical example. It is the story of the Genoan nobleman Alviano Salvago, an ugly dwarf with a heart of gold who only wants to be loved but knows he can never have a woman, so he donates his island paradise Elysium to the people—but Elysium is already being used by normal but debauched noblemen for their revels, and they resent it. Carlotta, the daughter of the Podestà, loves Alviano for his noble soul and tells him she wants to paint a picture of him as she views him. They fall in love but everything goes wrong. Count Tamare abducts and rapes Carlotta, Alviano rescues her, but when she comes to she keeps calling out Tamare’s name before she dies of her wounds and Alviano goes mad.
It was a forerunner of Berg’s even more lurid dramas and brought him both acclaim from artistic intellectuals and the scorn and hatred of the burgeoning Nazi Party. Once Hitler took over, Schreker was removed from his position as director of the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin and then thrown out of the country. It was a shock his system could not take, and he died of a series of two strokes in March 1934.
The Prelude to a Drama (Vorspiel zu einem Drama) is an expanded version of the prelude to Die Gezeichneten. Like most of Schreker’s music, it is tonal and late-Romantic in feeling but with Scriabin-like chord positions and an undercurrent of menace. Falletta does a stupendous job with it, producing a performance nearly as great as that of Michael Gielen.
Interestingly, Der Geburstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta), dating from 1923, is a surprisingly cheery and even more tonal piece of music, more like the sort of thing you’d hear on your local classical music radio station. Needless to say, the Romantic Suite from 1903 also lives up to its title, being even less harmonically daring than the previous suite.
A bit disappointing, then, to those of us who admire the later, more adventurous Schreker, if a good introduction to his prodigious talents for those who like their music romantic. Falletta, as usual, does a great job with the music. About a dozen years or so ago, both she and Marin Alsop were good up-and-coming women conductors, but over the years Alsop, though apparently having a high-powered agent who thinks she’s great, has declined precipitously in the quality of her performances while Falletta has, if anything, become even better and more interesting over the years.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge