Classic Album Review: The “Specter Bridegroom” Flies Again – Accompanied by Powerful Music


By Ralph P. Locke

Newly recorded in the German original, Anton Reicha’s Lenore offers a lively response to Bürger’s famous “Gothic” ballad of 1774.

Anton Reicha: Lenore (“Large musical table” for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra)

Martina Janková (Lenore), Pavla Vykopalová (Mother), Wojciech Parchem (Narrator), Jiří Brückler (Wilhelm).

Czech Philharmonic and Brno Philharmonic Choir, dir. Dennis Russell Davies.
Filharmonie Brno 001-2 [2 CDs] 83 minutes.

Anton (or Antoine) Reicha (1770-1836) lived most of his adult life in Paris, teaching counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatoire. The works by him that we hear most often are his many beautifully crafted wind quintets. The history of music mentions that he taught composers of styles as diverse as Berlioz, Onslow, Gounod, Franck and Louise Farrenc. His published treatises on harmony and other aspects of composition remain valuable sources. His piano works often use experimental devices (for the time), such as polytonality and unusual meters; beautiful recordings of Ivan Ilić have been praised in journals such as Guide to American Records.

Reicha made his debut in Bohemia, under the name Antonin Rejcha. He received his musical training and his first experiences as a performer in Wallerstein and then in Bonn (side by side with Beethoven). He found Beethoven when he moved to Vienna in 1801. It was there, in 1805-6, that he wrote Lenore, which today we could qualify as a secular cantata or oratorio. He called it a “Great musical picture with soloists, choir and orchestra”. The work, despite Beethoven’s strong support, was not performed in Austria, apparently because the poem, with the heretical delusions of its heroine, had been banned by the censors. Indeed, Reicha never managed to get it to play anywhere, nor did he release it. (The story of the work, moreover, has nothing to do with Leonore, the heroine of Fidelio, nor with any of Verdi’s Leonoras.)

Fortunately for us, the Czechs have a kind of patriotic interest in Reicha. A Czech scholar has prepared an edition of Lenore in 1979, and Czech performers gave the piece its world premiere in 1984. The three existing recordings (including this new one) were made on Czech lands, mainly with Czech performers (although all are sung in the language original: German). On this recording, the four soloists, the choir and the orchestra are Czech. The conductor is the famous American-born Dennis Russell Davies, who has been the Music Director of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra since 2018. His previous positions include many years as head of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and of the the American Composers Orchestra. (He co-founded the latter.)

Lenore here lasts 83 minutes and spans two CDs. Each of the previous two recordings were a few minutes shorter and therefore fit easily on a single CD.

The work is a staging of a famous, long and frightening narrative poem by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-94; the poem was first published in 1774). Such poems were often called ballads back then and are sometimes described as “Gothic” today because many of them are set in vaguely medieval times. The adjective is also applied to novels dealing with similar subjects, such as Lewis The monk. I expressed my admiration for the world premiere of Edward Loder’s recording Monk-Inspired by opera Raymond and Agnès in the September / October 2021 issue of Guide to American Records. that of Lewis The monk has been adapted for the cinema three times: in English in 1995; and in French in 1972, with Franco Nero, and in 2011, with Vincent Cassel.

Bürger’s poem, a version of the ‘ghost groom’ type of folk tale, was so widely appreciated that other prominent composers would use it as the basis for works, including Liszt (a melodrama: spoken narration with piano), Joachim Raff (Symphony no. 5), and Henri Duparc (symphonic poem, adding a sharp accent: Lenore).

William Blake, “Lenore” (c. 1796), illustration for “Leonora, A Tale”, translation by JT Stanley. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Beloved Wilhelm de Lenore did not return from the war. His mother urges him, ever more forcefully, to trust God. Lenore is delirious and threatens to kill herself, to the dismay of her pious mother. A character who looks like Wilhelm shows up and demands that Lenore get on his horse. The couple ride furiously and without stopping, surrounded by the howling ghosts of the dead. They pass a crowd dancing around the gallows under the misty moonlight, and finally reach the cemetery, where Wilhelm’s corpse rests. The mysterious horseman’s clothes fall, revealing a skeleton with an hourglass and a scythe: the Grim Reaper. Lenore dies and the choir prays that God will receive her soul. The work ends with an orchestral storm, analogous to the purely instrumental earthquake that closes the remarkable Seven Last Words of Christ (for orchestra, or string quartet, without singers, 1796). The poem contains verses which have become world famous, notably “The dead travel fast” (which Wilhelm / Death speaks at three different points in the story).

Much of the story is sung to us by a tenor narrator, like the evangelist in a passionate Lutheran oratorio. But Bürger also gave Lenore and Wilhelm many stanzas to sing along to and Lenore’s mother a few passages in which she begged God to forgive her daughter’s fits of despair. Reicha turns Lenore and her mother into sopranos; Wilhelm, a gruff bass-baritone.

The first recording was conducted by Lubomír Mátl, the second by Frieder Bernius. Both were reviewed in Guide to American Records, the Bernius twice (because he was reissued a few years later, coupled with that of Beethoven Egmont music). An ARG reviewer (Charles Parsons) complained about the vocal soloists in Matl’s recording. Another, Carl Bauman, reviewing the Bernius, disliked Camilla Nylund (the Leonore) but liked the two male singers, while Gil French (reviewing the reissue) liked Nylund in this recording (like me). In recent years, Nylund, a vibrant and clearly intelligent soprano, has become a major Wagnerian, as in Mark Elder Lohengrin recording (see My opinion).

All three ARG reviewers unanimously praised the work. Parsons: “The music has a breadth and a grandeur of symphonic proportions which are not unworthy of Beethoven. The often pleasant and sunny airs are a delight. The long, slow crescendo of musical excitement is carefully constructed, leading to a violent finale. Bauman: “Anyone who likes Beethoven’s early middle ground will be captivated by this unknown work. “French:” There is such a strong orchestral thrust that I listened to it as a continuous story, not as a simple collection of arias and recitatives. “

Reicha offers engaging and accomplished music in a variety of styles, including an intriguing overture that could be used on its own as a concert piece. The duet for Lenore and her mother is powerful, as is the one where Wilhelm / Death first shows up and orders Lenore to join him on his horse. In either case, the characters sing against the grain, creating a palpable tension instead of (as often in opera duets) a heartwarming sense of compatibility.

The choir sings a magnificent motet in a contrapuntal style as Wilhelm and Lenore, perched together on his galloping steed, witness a funeral procession for an unknown deceased (the real Wilhelm, as we will discover). An ironically joyful funeral march in the orchestra (under explanatory sung lines from the Narrator) leads to mysterious and flighty figures of strings and wind as unknown spirits whirl around the gallows. I particularly appreciated a “pantomime and dance of the spirits” for solo orchestra (n ° 25). Several orchestral passages in the work reminded me of Berlioz. Reicha, I wonder, did he ever show the handwritten score (or other equally imaginative works) to his pupil?

Louis Boulanger, “Le sabbat de la sorcière”, (1832). Photo: The Athenaeum.

Gil French complained that he got a little bored of the creepy music in the last half hour of work, but he admits not having access to the poetic text. (The reissue of Bernius’ recording provided only a summary of the plot.) I found the various passages of the “horror” music equally involving, and some of them similar to , what Weber would write for the scene at Wolf’s Glen in Der Freischütz fifteen years later.

Throughout the new recording, the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra performs cleanly and with good intonation, but without the incisive character of the Virtuosi di Praga (under Bernius). Davies also pauses briefly between certain numbers, emphasizing the work’s roots in oratorio rather than opera. The choir sings with a rich sonority and perfect intonation.

The four soloists are technically fine, except that the tenor’s coloratura is sometimes smeared. They all seem to be aware of the meaning of the texts, but they could have improved their pronunciation. The tenor-narrator over articulates some weak final syllables as in “Adern”, and the baritone (playing the bad guy, or the non-guy) struggles with ch, as in “Liebchen”. The soloists on the Bernius recording are as good or better at every point.

Yet, overall, this is a high performance, style-conscious recording of an important work, beautifully edited from a live performance in February 2020 (with some touch-ups made during the pandemic: June 2020). It can be streamed on Spotify and other sites. The 2-CD box set can be purchased from Brno Philharmonic Orchestra website. The CD version is well presented, with full texts in German, Czech, English and French. I noticed a few quirks in the English and French translations; maybe the anonymous translator (s) based these two on the Czech translation rather than the German original.

By the way, the German poem and a colorful rendering in English verse by 16-year-old poet (and painter) Dante Gabriel Rossetti are now available. online at WikiSource. The wonders of the Internet!

Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Writing to Music. His two most recent books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and the exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both from Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in pocket size; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to Guide to American Records and online art magazines New York arts, Opera today, and of course The fuse of the arts. His articles have been published in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the programs of major opera houses, for example Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, Bilbao and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich).

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