RAYMOND VERY, IRIS VERMILLION, STEPHANIE FRIEDE
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG CHOR
ORF VIENNA RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
BERTRAND DE BILLY
There is more than a little daring in many of the works of Erwin Schulhoff, much of which arguably contributed to his downfall. A Jewish communist jazz musician, who, among other pieces, composed a sonata explicitly depicting a female orgasm and a musical setting of the Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, it could be argued that the composer didn’t really have a prayer in Nazi Austria, which is where he found himself, having emigrated from Czechoslovakia. His sole opera Flammen is an interpretation of the Don Juan story with something of a fresh spin. In Schulhoff’s version (with a libretto by Karel Joseph Beneš, which here is presented, as is the only other available recording of this work, in its German translation by Max Brod), Don Juan is a repentant sinner, who longs for death after a lifetime of bad deeds, but finds himself instead cursed to eternal life, in which all of his affairs are doomed to failure and relapsing into his murderous and libertine ways.
Musically, it is about as eclectic as one can get: jazz influences abound in the midst of a lushly romantic large orchestra with occasional Debussian extensions of traditional tonality (though it does reject atonality completely). Rather daringly, only about a third of the piece is sung and it is the orchestra that does the majority of the work. The text is somewhat aphoristic and straightforward, while the orchestra characterises the drama on an emotional level.
As mentioned earlier, there is one other recording of this piece, which was released by Decca on their Entartete Musik label. This recording features one common singer with the previously released set: Iris Vermillion in the role of Death. Vermillion brings a wonderful complexity to the role in her interpretation, both a figure of fear and of desire for the conflicted main character and responsible for his ultimate fate.
A repeat performance of the work is surely to be welcomed, as it really is worth performing by companies willing to explore its depths and complexities, both musical and thematic. Similarly, multiple recordings of the work (this one restoring some material cut from the Decca CD recording) should be a cause for celebration, as it could introduce more potential audiences to this unusual opera. It should be a cause for celebration. There is sadly precious little to celebrate in this release, however.
Some good aspects: for one, the orchestra sounds as full as it ought to given the nature of the palette the composer uses. I’d like to say a few nice things about the singers, but unfortunately I can’t. This is not because they do a bad job, but because I literally can’t hear them and therein lie almost all of the problems with this recording. There are times when I can hear the singers a little better, for the primary reason that the orchestra is more subdued, but the whole recording is so imbalanced that when the orchestra has anything above a piano dynamic, the voices just cannot be heard. Furthermore, despite having heard (and closely listened to) the piece before and having a fair smattering of German myself, I couldn’t make out a single word from any member of the cast for the vast majority of the recording and in addition, there is a huge amount of audience noise (from a live recording) as well as creaks and extremely loud footsteps from the performers clomping around what I can only assume is a stage with at least one poorly placed microphone. Similar noises abound through all of the orchestral music. A simple comparison of the two available recording reveals Iris Vermillion as an excellent performer, who is more than up to the challenges of the piece and if only I could hear everyone else anything like as adequately, I’m sure I’d say the same of the rest of the cast.
All I can say is I wish the myriad balancing and engineering issues were resolved, which might leave me feeling I could adequately review this release on the basis of the performances. Additionally, the libretto is not translated in the booklet, so I really can’t imagine anyone new in this country approaching this work. The bottom line is that this set should never have been released in its current state. Curious listeners would be far better served by the Decca Mauceri conducted release.