Wunderlich Sings 20th-Century Music

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FRITZ WUNDERLICH: MUSIC OF THE 20th CENTURY / RAPHAEL: Palmström-Sonate / Walter Triebskorn, cl; Roman Schimmer, vln; Karl Schad, dm; Alfred Kretzschmar, bs; Rolf Reinhardt, pno / NEUMEYER: Studentenlieder / Radio Orch. of the Saar; Karl Ristenpart, cond / VON BAUSZNERN: Jacqueline Putputput: Einerlel ob arm oder reich / Katherina von Mikulicz-Radecki, sop; State High School for Musik, Freiburg Orch.; Günther Wich, cond / HELM: Die Belagerung von Tottenberg: excerpts / Hetty Plümacher, sop (Agnes); Ingeborg Lasser, alto (The Widow Abt); Günther Abbrosius, bar (Feldwabel, Feldoberst); Rudolf Gonszar, bs (Bürgermeister); Südfunk-Chor & Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart; Hans Müller-Kray, cond / FEISCHNER: Zirkus Carambas: Ach Bumbo, mein gutter Alter; Herrlich ist dieses Plätzchen / Lore Paul, sop (Arabella); same orch. & cond. as Helm / PFITZNER: Von Deutscher Seele: excerpts from Acts I & II / Annelies Kupper, sop; Margarethe Bence, alto; Ernst Denger, bs; Stuttgart Philharmonic Chorus; South German Radio Symphony Orch.; Heinz Mende, cond / REUTTER: Triptychon / same orch. & cond. as Helm / STRAVINSKY: Oedipus Rex: Non reperlas vetus scelus / same orch. & cond. as Helm / ORFF: Antigonae: Aber jetzt kommt aus dem Thor Ismene; Der Geibst der Liebe. Oedipus der Tyrann: Ach, wie schwer ist Wissen; Bist du noch eigenmächtig / Gerhard Stolze, ten (Oedipus); Württemberg State Opera Chorus & State Orch.; Ferdinand Leitner, cond. / EGK: Der Revisor: Ganz ungewöhnlich, ganz unverhofft; Die Anstalt gefällt mir / Gerhard Stolze, ten (Chlestakow); Gustav Grefe, bar (Dobtschinsky); Frithjof Sentpaul, bar (Curator); Fritz Ollendorf, bs-bar (Stadthauptmann); Huber Buchta, ten (Mischka); Stüttgart Radio Symphony Orch.; Werner Egk, cond / BERG: Wozzeck: Du der Platz ist verflucht; Ich hab ein Hemdlein an / Toni Blankenheim, bar (Wozzeck); Gerhard Stolze, ten (Hauptmann); Fritz Linke, bar (Doctor); August Seider, ten (Drum Major); Maria Kinas, sop (Marie); Hetty Plümacher, mezzo (Margret); same chorus, orch. & cond. as Orff / SWR Music 19075CD

In his brief 35 years on this planet, tenor Fritz Wunderlich left an amazingly large number of commercial recordings, live opera performances and radio broadcasts, especially considering that he was not the leading German tenor of his day. That honor, for better or worse, went to the dry-voiced, leather-toned Rudolf Schock, who was a superior stage actor (watch his televised Lulu performance to see what I mean) and had both a larger voice and a wider repertoire.

Yet in a sense, “wider repertoire” in Schock’s case meant operatic roles by Weber, Wagner and Verdi, many of which were beyond Wunderlich’s small but extremely pretty voice. Wunderlich eventually became a Mozart specialist not so much by choice as by natural proclivity; despite occasionally singing such roles as Alfredo in La Traviata (opposite Teresa Stratas and Hermann Prey), Lensky in Eugene Onegin and the occasional forays into Monteverdi (he made the first “historically informed” recording of that composer’s L’Orfeo in 1954) and modern music that could use his small but sweet voice, it was what provided his steadiest income.

The present collection, drawn entirely from radio broadcasts, presents Wunderlich in the music of 20th-century composers, but as we all know, 20th-century composers are not all created equal—nor did they all write music that was modern in harmony and/or structure. Technically speaking, Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss were 20th-century composers, and although Strauss went much further harmonically than Puccini only a very few of his operas are complex structures. And then there were reactionaries like Gian-Carlo Menotti and his ilk, writing fairly trashy tonal music that made Puccini sound like Stravinsky. But Wunderlich was trying to make a living, so he sang it all. Quite a bit of it is collected here in this new compilation from SWR Music.

As it turns out, the Palmström-Sonate of Günter Raphael (1903-1960) is an excellent piece of music, sounding like a cross between Klezmer music and Poulenc. The harmonies are spicy enough to brand it as modern music, but the rhythms are lively (the second piece sounds like an off-center German cabaret waltz from the 1920s) and the music somewhat challenging as the vocal line does not always coincide with what the instruments are playing. A wonderful piece!

By contrast, Fritz Neumeyer’s Studentenlieder is resolutely tonal, almost neo-Romantic except for occasional oddities in the harmonic progression, which sometimes moves sideways away from the home key. In this respect, it almost sounds like early Britten, but at least it’s interesting music and not overly Romantic. It probably also helps that the conductor here is the excellent Karl Ristenpart, better known for his involvement in Baroque music. The one thing you note about Wunderlich as the set goes on—and, indeed, in his oeuvre as a whole—was that he sang gloriously and with energy but was never really a great interpreter. It was all about the sound of the voice, although to his credit he was a first-rate musician who never distorted anything he sang. (The surviving film clips show that he wasn’t much of a stage actor, either.)

Next up is a duet from an opera unknown to me, Dietrich von Bausznern’s Jacqueline Putputput. Whatever the plot is, this duet is lively and attractive even if I have absolutely no idea what on earth they’re singing about. This is followed by four excerpts from Everett Helm’s 1956 opera, The Siege of Totenberg, which was issued complete on Gala GL 100.679. The oddity of this work is that it was only performed on the radio and never in an opera house. The music is typical impressionist German style of the 1950s, leaning towards both lyricism in the vocal lines and modern harmonies in the accompaniment. Aside from Wunderlich, the most notable singer in this performance is soprano Hetty Plümacheur, who recorded a great many Grosser Querschnitt (operatic highlights) during the late 1950s/early ‘60s, several of them with Wunderlich. The music is somewhat interesting but, without knowing what the libretto is or the plot is about, it doesn’t really hold the listener’s attention and the music sounds contrived.

The two excerpts from Heinrich Feischner’s “opera giocosa” Zirkus Carambas don’t sound very comic at all; in fact they, like the previous opera, sound plodding and uninteresting. Feischner was one of those composers who apparently tried to combine bitonal harmonies with lively rhythms, some in 6/8 time, but none of it sounds the least bit inspired or interesting except in a technical sense. Carl Orff he was not. Wunderlich sings well as usual, but even he doesn’t seem to have his heart in it—and why should he? The music was ephemeral junk and he probably knew it.

By contrast to this piece of junk, Hans Pfitzner’s cantata Von Deutscher Seele sounds absolutely terrific, despite it being one of his lesser-known works, although contralto Margarethe Bence had a pretty ugly voice. The biggest problem in this performance is that the orchestra is too thick and muddy-sounding, and it’s not just the radio sonics. In fact, the second excerpt here (“Herz, in deinen sonnenhellen Tagen”) has terrific natural reverb around singers, orchestra and chorus, and here you can tell that although Wunderlich’s voice was small it had good “ping” which made it carry well. It’s just that Heinz Mende was a fairly plodding, unimaginative conductor with little concept of orchestral color or timbre. The singers almost make up for it with their enthusiasm and verve, but the problem is the music itself, turgid and repetitive. After a while you just wish it would stop.

Hermann Reutter’s Stravinsky-like Triptychon has its abrasive moments but is much more interesting and better written. Interestingly for an album devoted to Wunderlich, however, there is as much if not more choral singing here than solos for the tenor. The second part opens with a long, slow orchestral prelude of haunting beauty. Wunderlich’s legato in this section is also quite spectacular, showing off his breath control. The third piece, “Das Punschlied,” may be the most Stravinsky-like of all, sounding for all the world like a missing part of Oedipus Rex. Wunderlich, the chorus and conductor Hans Muller-Kray all do an excellent job on it.

The brief excerpt from Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex is sung very well and there is good reverb around Wunderlich’s voice. Of the two Orff operas excerpted here, Antigonae was one of his best late operas, Oedipus der Tyrann one of his most dirge-like, with a bit too much spoken dialogue. Both the tenor and conductor (Ferdinand Leitner) do a nice job in both, however, and in Oedipus we are blessed to have the great character tenor Gerhard Stolze in the title role. The excerpts from the latter opera are considerably livelier and more interesting than the complete commercial recording issued by Deutsche Grammophon.

Werner Egk’s Der Revisor is a black comedy based on Nikolai Gogol’s play The Government Inspector (which bears only a superficial resemblance to the Danny Kaye movie of the same name). This is really excellent and interesting music, a bit in the Orff vein (repeated note sequences) and a bit in the Stravinsky mold (oddly Russian-sounding melodic lines and harmony), although the lover of arias will hate it because it is mostly sung recitative and has no arias (even the ensemble singing tends more towards sung recits than real “tunes,” for all you tune freaks). FYI, the entire performance, mislabeled as 1960 (it was actually May 1957), is uploaded on YouTube in five sections. The composer himself is the conductor.

The album ends with two excerpts from an undated live performance of Berg’s Wozzeck with Toni Blankenheim in the title role, Gerhard Stolze as Hauptmann, Maria Kinas as Marie and August Seider as the Drum Major. These are superfluous, since Wunderlich’s performance of Andres is already preserved on the superb studio recording of the opera with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and conducted by Karl Böhm, and annoying because the sound quality of these live excerpts is simply awful. Not only are they muddy, but the voices are recessed and the whole thing sounds like a botch job.

So there you have it. The best music/performance combinations are the Raphael, Neumeyer, von Bauznern, Reutter, Stravinsky, Orff and Egk. These are superb and treasurable, but as for the rest of it, caveat emptor.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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