WEBER: Der Freischütz (complete opera) – Christine Brewer (Agathe)/ Sally Matthews (Annchen)/ Simon O’Neill (Max)/ Lars Woldt (Kaspar)/ London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Colin Davis – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0726 (2 SACDs), 122:43 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
With the death of Colin Davis on April 14th of this year the world lost one of the towering conductors of this and the last century. Davis was maverick in so many ways, especially towards the musical establishment, yet fended off criticism with some of the most glowing and innovative recordings ever. His Berlioz, Sibelius, and Tippet recordings are legendary and are likely to remain so for some time. With Mozart he simply had few equals, and revered the composer as “life itself”. So it should hardly come as a surprise that he had a natural affinity for Weber as well, whose Der Freischütz constitutes the beginning of true German romantic opera, its lyrical propensities unequalled and perfect fodder for a conductor so inclined to linger in the roses.
But one thing should be made clear—you simply can’t beat Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording on DGG from the 1970s, now available on their “Originals” series for about fourteen bucks. Kleiber had it all, a primed Dresden Philharmonic at his disposal, top-of-the-line singers, and sound that still packs one heck of a wallop, with hunting horns that jump out of the speakers right at you and an energy level never exceeded in this work. So how can Davis compete? Strangely enough, with his singers. As good as Gundula Janowitz is in the role of Agathe, Christine Brewer is sensational, bringing a creaminess to the part than Janowitz simply never possessed, and a magnificent floating line that has to be the envy of every singer in the world. She owns this role now in my book. Sally Matthews is nearly as sturdy as Brewer in the role of Annchen, though Edith Mathis was formidable for Kleiber. Simon O’Neill easily outdoes Peter Schreier’s somewhat airy Max with an extremely intelligent presentation (though some people do not like his upper register it is just fine here—don’t believe the negatives), and Lars Woldt is up to the challenge of Theo Adam’s Kaspar. Davis is supremely lyrical in this work, though I feel he misses a number of chances for some real orchestra fireworks that never got by Kleiber—this is a relaxed performance and that will disturb some folks. It should be noted that Davis conducted his opera with Dresden for Decca a few years back, but that recording, decent enough, never really got off the ground.
LSO Live has been slowly learning how to tame the boxy acoustics of the Barbican, and this release has some very nice surround effects and a much more spacious feel to it than others at this venue. This is a credit to a great conductor then, his last considerable thoughts on a work that he loved dearly.