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 Recording of the Week  Weber's Der Freischütz from Sir Colin Davis and the LSO

When I reported on the sad death of Sir Colin Davis three weeks ago, I mentioned that his final opera recording of Weber’s Der Freischütz was soon to be released on LSO Live. That disc is now available, and I’m pleased to say that it’s everything I hoped it would be!

Christine Brewer and Sir Colin Davis
Christine Brewer and Sir Colin Davis

The work is often considered to be one of the first great German Romantic operas, and with its use of recurring thematic material was certainly an influence on the way that Richard Wagner came to compose his music dramas. I won’t get too bogged down in the intricacies of the plot here, but suffice it to say that the fantastical tale of a shooting competition involving magic bullets, forests, spirits and demons affords Weber enormous scope for imaginative orchestration and plenty of rousing drinking songs and boisterous huntsmen’s choruses.

Like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the opera is a Singspiel, which means that instead of recitative, the musical numbers are linked by spoken dialogue. However, while that is fine in the theatre, including such lengthy dialogue in a concert performance and on disc can easily become somewhat tedious, and so this live recording presents only the musical numbers, which may disappoint some but I have to say works perfectly for me.

Something that I mentioned in my previous tribute was the way that Davis always managed to make the music seem somehow fresh, and this is certainly the case here. His use of rubato to highlight a particular phrase or accent is quite extraordinary, nowhere more so than in the Act One Waltz and Aria (impressively sung by the steely-voiced Simon O’Neill), where Davis’s extremely delayed quaver upbeats, combined with an unusually slow tempo, create a delightful, rustic swagger that seems to anticipate a Mahlerian Ländler. Speaking of tempos, if you’re used to the classic 1973 Carlos Kleiber recording then some of Davis's speeds might seem somewhat broad, especially in this waltz and the opening chorus, but personally I liked the clarity and precision that Davis was able to achieve because of this, especially in the choral writing.

It seems that more or less every time I review an LSO disc, I talk about how outstanding the horns are. Well, guess what: they’re splendid! The plot allows for all manner of hunting calls and fanfares, and there’s playing of real character here, not least in the Entre-Acte that precedes Act Three, where the bass trombone and four horns have a pleasingly raucous rasp to their sound.

Perhaps the best-known part of the opera is the Act Two Finale (the so-called Wolf’s Glen scene), in which the nefarious gamekeeper Caspar calls upon the spirit of Samiel, The Black Huntsman, for assistance in forging the magic bullets. It’s an incredibly vivid scene with some thrilling orchestral effects, and Stephan Loges is truly terrifying in the spoken role of Samiel, as he barks his instructions to Caspar. Also, I must say that I can’t remember when I heard the London Symphony Chorus on such fine form, from the repeated ghoulish cries of “Uhui! Uhui!” in this scene, to the joyfully spirited Hunting Chorus just before the Act Three Finale, where the tenors especially seem to relish the opportunity to give us some properly strident, full-bodied singing!

It’s certainly not all about loud men and brass, though: Christine Brewer is simply sublime in her Act Three cavatina (“Und ob die Wolke”), which she floats ravishingly, accompanied by a beautiful cello solo from Rebecca Gilliver. This is immediately followed by the always-wonderful Sally Matthews as Ännchen in her aria (“Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base”), also with an obbligato instrument, this time a fiendish viola solo, dispatched with great panache by Edward Vanderspar.

All in all, then, this is a first-class recording of Weber’s most popular opera. Not only is the singing and playing of the highest order, it also demonstrates perfectly the qualities of Sir Colin Davis’s conducting, and is a fitting valedictory tribute to a great man.

Weber: Der Freischütz

Christine Brewer (Agathe), Sally Matthews (Ännchen), Simon O’Neill (Max), Lars Woldt (Caspar), Stephan Loges (Samiel/Ottokar), Gidon Saks (Hermit), London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Colin Davis

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC