Wunderlich in Beethoven’s “Christus am Ölberge”

509- Beethoven wund booklet.indd

BEETHOVEN: Christus am Ölberge. Fidelio: O welche lust* / Erna Spoorenberg, sop (Seraph); Fritz Wunderlich, ten (Jesus); Hermann Schey, bs-bar (Peter/*1st prisoner); *Hans Günter Nöcker,  bs-bar (2nd prisoner); Groot Omroepchor; Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Henk Spruit, cond; *Herrenchor des Süddeutschen Rundfunks Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Alfons Rischner, cond / Archipel ARPCD 0609 (Christus am Ölberge live: Hilversum, March 8, 1957)

Sometimes the machinations of record companies confuses the heck out of me. This recording was presented in the Naxos New Music Catalog as a brand-new issue for August 24 of this year, but by checking on Amazon I learned that it had already been released eight years ago; and, moreover, there was apparently a previous issue on another small label called Bella Voce which contained different filler material. The Bella Voce CD included excerpts from Johannes Rosenmüller’s Lamentationes Jeremiah Prophetae performed by Wunderlich with cellist Fred Buck from March 24, 1957 and four Beethoven songs—Adelaide, Resignation, Maigesang and Der Kuss—with pianist Hubert Giesen from March 24, 1966 (the cover of this release is reproduced here). So this isn’t really a “new” Wunderlich release.

cover 2

The biggest drawback in this performance is the recorded sound. Being a mono radio broadcast from the 1950s, there was apparently a great deal of surface noise in the original tape that had to be minimized. In doing so, the engineers managed to keep the voices clear but the soft lower string and brass playing in the orchestra comes across rather muddy. I know this problem well, having processed a great many older recordings with the same problem myself, and frankly not much else can be done about it. You either accept the surface noise, which I don’t, or you get some muddy lower string sound. The trick is to brighten up the lower passages that come out muddy by boosting treble to compensate for the noise reduction, and this Archipel did not do.

As for the actual performance, however, it is excellent. The little-known conductor Henk Spruit, who was also an organist, was evidently a live wire and a man who knew his business. There is tensile strength and that undercurrent of energy that all good Beethoven performances need to possess, and for that alone I liked it in spite of the sound problems. (In the orchestral introduction, there’s also a moment where a bit of crossed-wire interference from another radio station creeps in, but only for two or three seconds.) Aside from boosting the treble in the soft lower orchestral passages, I would also have added a judicious amount of echo or reverb to the sound to compensate for its boxiness. But that’s just me talking. You may prefer the extreme dryness of the sound to having some reverb.

The tenor’s big recitative and aria follows immediately after the prelude. I have often said that no one has ever sung this music as well as John McCormack did on his unissued 1930 recording with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting the “Victor Orchestra,” but here young Wunderlich, still in his prime and possessing superb breath control which he later lost after 1962, is the next best thing. He shapes each phrase and word perfectly, giving dramatic emphasis to the text as required. This is surely the finest German-language version of the aria I’ve heard (McCormack sang it in English).

Erna Spoorenberg (1925-2004) was a famous high soubrette Dutch soprano famous for singing Pamina, Mélisande, Gilda and Norina, though for some bizarre reason she was once cast as Elektra. Like her compatriots Gré Brouwenstijn and Cristina Deutekom, she had a strong flicker-vibrato, in fact a bit more noticeable than those of Brouwenstijn and Deutekom because they had much bigger and heavier voices. For this reason, I wasn’t very much attracted to her during her singing career, but listening in retrospect to this performance she was quite fine. The comparison to Deutekom is particularly apt because the latter also left us a performance of this work, a commercial recording from the mid-1970s with Nicolai Gedda as Jesus (unfortunately, Gedda was in terrible voice for that recording). Since Deutekom had a much larger voice with a spinto soprano thrust, she obviously sang it more strongly than Spoorenberg, but Spoorenberg’s lighter timbre is actually better suited to the music, and in this specific performance her command of the upper range—which is where the Seraph either lives or perishes—is better than I’ve ever heard it on commercial recordings, and the Dutch chorus is superb. Perhaps the fact that she was only 32 years old at the time had much to do with this: high soubrette voices have a much shorter shelf life than lyric, spinto or dramatic sopranos. But there’s no arguing the point that Spoorenberg is the best Seraph on records just as Wunderlich is the best Jesus in a complete recording.

A side note on the piece itself. It has always struck me as odd that Beethoven, who was a Deist (meaning that he believed in the God of nature and not in the Biblical myths) and not a Christian wrote so much “religious” music, and very good religious music at that. Perhaps it was because he saw in this particular story the struggle of all mankind to come to terms with the sufferings of life, and simply transferred Jesus’ story to that of mankind. Certainly, he made it clear that his Missa Solemnis was not a Christian “mass” in the strict sense but, rather, his all-encompassing love for mankind brought to fruition in musical terms. (Beethoven was a bit odd in this respect; except for his nephew Karl, who he loved very much, and a few close friends, he had no feeling for mankind individually, but had deep feeling for the well-being of people of all races and nationalities to get along in love and harmony. You might call him an early Globalist.)

Hermann Schey

Hermann Schey

Spruit holds things together very well despite taking somewhat slower tempi than I prefer. As for Schey, he was a Jewish-German bass-baritone born in 1895. From 1922 onwards he worked primarily in Berlin as an oratorio and concert singer, noted as much for his Mahler as for his Bach, and gave the first performances of several lieder by Othmar Schöck. In 1930, he also sang the bass part in the first performance of Pfitzner’s cantata Das dunkle Reich. He emigrated to Holland in 1934, becoming a Dutch citizen, in order to escape Nazi persecution. Judging from this performance, he had a big, bright, biting voice albeit, at age 62, with some unsteadiness, yet one greatly admires his commanding presence and interpretation. Few, if any, of the singers I’ve heard in other recordings make as strong an impression in this brief and rather ungrateful music. The final portion of the work is just terrific: Spruit really knows how to “build” the music, and does so perfectly.

On this CD, the filler is the scene of the prisoners from the Act I finale of Fidelio, another 1957 performance in which Wunderlich sang the first prisoner. It ends in the middle of nowhere since its only reason for existence is to allow you to hear Fritzie sing a small role that he never performed later.

Well worth getting for the oratorio, however. A splendid performance all round despite the sound problems.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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