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Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, May 2009

Are you tired of Rossini’s Barber? Try this German Barber for a most rewarding change. This is a reissue of the 1956 EMI recording. It’s a complete charmer—not so funny as Rossini’s, but the music, and especially the performance, are first-rate. There are lots of long-lined melodies with plenty of grace, and the humor is jocular but not heavy-handed.

For just sheer beauty of voice Gedda is the one. His long appearance in the first act—he’s on stage the entire act, some 43 minutes—is a showcase for stylish, beautiful singing. And the others are right up there with him. Czerwenka is not the best-known of German basses, but he demonstrates here why he should have been better-known. Leinsdorf is the perfect conductor for this music, a compromise between German seriousness and romantic comedy. Cornelius composed an alternate overture, orchestrated by Franz Liszt, and it is included too.

The Weber Abu Hassan is a historical trifle from a December 19, 1944 Berlin Radio broadcast…This is a very young Schwarzkopf, but the voice is instantly recognizable. Witte was a well-known lyric tenor of the day. Big bad basso Bohnen is the star here, singing grandly.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, November 2008

Recordings of Der Barbier von Bagdad haven’t been visible for ages, it seems. Then, some months ago there appeared an early 1970s production, dug out from German radio archives and issued by Hänssler. Hardly had I posted the review when a preview on the Naxos website announced a forthcoming release of this rather famous old Columbia recording. I mentioned it in my review of the Hänssler set, but I didn’t have a copy available then, not even an old LP pressing, so I couldn’t make any comparisons. Now that it is back in circulation, restored by Mark Obert-Thorn, I have to confess that the Hänssler, for all its merits, comes out second best.

On sonic grounds Hänssler scores. Not that the recording is particularly spectacular but German radio recordings of the 1970s maintained high standards. Even though I have heard recordings of the period with fuller sound and more pinpoint clarity it is still more than just acceptable. The Columbia set, unfortunately recorded in mono since there was no stereo equipment available in mid-May 1956, isn’t actually bad. The bass is full and resonant and dynamics are quite impressive but the strings are rather thin and lack the warmth of the Hänssler. There is no lack of clarity, however, and we are able to enjoy the skilful orchestration. Good though Ferdinand Leitner is on the Hänssler, Erich Leinsdorf is that much more alert, more forward-moving and more rhythmically acute. He also has the Philharmonia in superb mid-fifties form and the Philharmonia Chorus was also a force to reckon with even in those days.

I need not go into the plot, since I gave an outline of it in the previous review. The story is taken from the Arabian Nights but there is little attempt at orientalism in the music, apart from the atmospheric entr’acte opening act two, thematically built on the muezzin’s proclamation of prayer.

A look at the cast-list above shows that the producer Walter Legge spared no pains when he gathered this ensemble in the studio, even for the minor roles. The young Eberhard Wächter is the 1st Muezzin in company with two internationally acclaimed tenors and Hermann Prey, born the same year as Wächter (1929), is a characteristically expressive Caliph. As the Cadi we hear the legendary character-tenor Gerhard Unger, who never had a very attractive voice but creates a vivid personality from his role. Grace Hoffman, another relative youngster and later to become a mainstay at Bayreuth, out-sings the still very good Marga Schiml on the Hänssler set. Her duet with Nureddin in the first act is a truly high-spirited tour-de-force. Nureddin was obviously a role that inspired Nicolai Gedda. There is not a bland portrait in his vast gallery of operatic roles on records but here he is in his element: as smooth in the lyrical moments as Laubenthal on the Hänssler but a much more visible character. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is delicate and alluring as Margiana and her creamy tone is a delight. Helen Donath on the Hänssler set was uncharacteristically acidulous and tremulous.

The real winner I have left for the final paragraph. Linz-born Oskar Czerwenka had an important career in Europe for almost forty years and also sang at the Met, but his recorded legacy is, to my knowledge, fairly thin. He sang standard German bass roles as well as appearing in a couple of world premieres, but his true forte was the buffo roles: Ochs, Kecal, Osmin and van Bett (in Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann). Abul Hassan belongs in that category and his reading here gives a hint of what he would have sounded like in these aforementioned roles. His voice is lighter, less monumental and less sonorous than Hans Sotin’s on the Hänssler set, but he sings all the deep notes with assurance, which Sotin doesn’t. Where they most obviously differ is in the singing style. Czerwenka sometimes shuns legato and resorts to speech-song. He sometimes slides between notes, for comical reasons, which has the effect, on this listener at least, of being slightly off pitch. His technical accomplishment is never in doubt and his patter singing is immaculate. Everything considered he is the more theatrical and sings with much more face, where Sotin is rather straight. The long scenes with Gedda’s Nureddin in the first act are possibly the highlights of the whole recording (CD 1 tr. 7-13).

As a bonus we get the overture in D major that Cornelius wrote in 1873 on Liszt’s advice. It is a charming enough piece in the traditional potpourri format. It is good to have it, even though most listeners would no doubt prefer the more artful original overture in ¾ time. Cornelius never orchestrated that new overture, which Liszt did after Cornelius’s death.

The rest of this 2 CD set is occupied by the little one act opera Abu Hassan, written in 1811 by the then 24-year-old Carl Maria von Weber. The librettist Franz Karl Hiemer drew on the  Arabian Nights, as did Cornelius for his work, so the two have a common denominator. It is an inspired piece with a lot of attractive music and there are few such scintillating overtures in the whole opera literature as this one. It is skilfully orchestrated and needs a fine modern recording to make its mark, which it doesn’t get here. Recorded by German radio on a Magnetophon tape recorder during the war the sound is rather primitive with overload and distortion. Anyone who knows this overture will feel frustration when hearing it. The vocal numbers also suffer from the sound quality, not least the chorus, but it is still interesting and valuable to have this recording as a document of the young Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Both she and the today largely forgotten tenor Erich Witte are lyrical and youthful. Schwarzkopf is already a fully fledged artist who phrases sensitively. The third character, Omar, is again a part for an experienced buffo bass and with veteran Michael Bohnen, born in 1887, the role is in safe hands. He sounds his age, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and he is a good actor and sings impressive low notes. The whole performance is vivid but the sound is a liability. Moreover this is a truncated version of the opera. All the music is there but since this is a Singspiel there is also substantial spoken dialogue and this is missing.

As a filler to the wholly admirable Barbier von Bagdad it is worth having but readers who want the whole thing are advised to search out a 35-year-old recording on EMI, made in Munich under Wolfgang Sawallisch and with Edda Moser, Nicolai Gedda and the magnificent Kurt Moll. Gedda isn’t as youthful as he was almost twenty years earlier but it is still a wonderful reading and the dialogue adds considerably to the experience.

Those who have already bought the Hänssler set of Der Barbier von Bagdad need not feel short-changed – it is a valid reading of a highly accomplished work – but there is an extra frisson to the Leinsdorf set and it now has to be my prime recommendation.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

Once popular in German opera houses, Cornelius’s sparkling comedy, Der Barbier von Bagdad, is now rarely staged, this 1956 recording being its premiere appearance on disc.

Sadly the composer never lived to see the work successfully presented, the first performance ruined by a feud between the conductor and the theatre manager. Born in Mainz in 1824, Peter Cornelius’s early interest in literature eventually leading to his writing of a libretto for The Barber of Bagdad based on a story from Arabian Nights. WithNureddin dying of love for the Cadi’s daughter, Margiana, an in-between arranges for the two to meet in secret, and calls upon the barber, Abul Hassan, to make him presentable for the assignation. The self-opinionated Abul provides much of the ensuing comedy before the lovers are united, and the barber is locked away so that the Cadi can explore his many supposed skills. Having engaged a star-studded cast, EMI made the bizarre mistake of having no studio available that contained the newly available stereo equipment. Headed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf using her pert voice for the pretty young Margiana, the performance revolves around the fruity bass voice of Oskar Czerwenka as Abul, a wonderful character singer and stalwart of the Vienna State Opera for over thirty-five years. The elegant Nicolai Gedda is a superb Nureddin, with Grace Hoffman, Hermann Prey, Gerard Unger and Eberhard Wachter the fabulous line-up for the lesser roles. After a rather scrappily played overture from the Philharmonia, the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, produces a virile and urgent performance. Using Schwarzkopf as the linking factor, a 1944 Berlin recording of Weber’s Abu Hassan completes the second disc. Then singing as a soubrette, she is partnered by the lyric tenor, Erich Witte, and bass, Michael Bohnen, names long forgotten, but famous at the time. Previously available on different labels, it is here taken from an American LP released by Urania. A splendid piece of restoration work gives a most pleasing sound, some distortion only appearing from the inner groves of the LP. The Berlin Radio Symphony play well for Leopold Ludwig, and you can buy happily in the thought that both performances are unlikely to be surpassed.

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