BRAHMS: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53. WAGNER: Wesendonck Lieder. MAHLER: Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde.
Stephanie Blythe, alto; Ensemble 'A Sei Voci,' Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson, cond.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 545702 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:08
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WEBER-MAHLER: Die drei Pintos - Opera in Three Acts
Robert Holzer (Don Pantaleone Roiz de Pacheco); Peter Furlong (Don Gomez de Freiros); Barbara Zechmeister (Clarissa); Sophie Marilley (Laura); Eric Shaw (Don Gaston Viratos); Alexxandro Svab (Don Pinto de Fonseca); Stewart Kempster (Inkeeper); Sinead Campbell (Inez); Ales Jenis (Ambrosio); Wexford Opera Chorus; National Philharmonic Orchestra of Belarus/Paolo Arrivabeni, cond.
NAXOS 8.660142/43 (2 CDs) (B) (DDD) TT: 39:07 & 75:15
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Anomalies, anomalies....

Here we have an operatic torso completed in 1886 by Gustav Mahler, before anything he’d written to date had been published, and a transcription for chamber players by Arnold Schoenberg “in the early 1920s” of the “Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde. The singer survives in this half-hour finale that Mahler never heard performed, and while some of his light scoring is virtually intact, there’s simply not enough to have the same impact as the composer’s own sublimely sad setting of Chinese verse in a German translation. In fact, some time before the final reiteration of “ewig...ewig...” u.s.w. this transcription has run out of ingenuity, which conductor John Nelson and his Parisian players cannot disguise, fine as they are. Add a soloist whose largish voice and musicianship I find respectively uningratiating and prosaic (although her German enunciation is perfect and her softer singing at least characterful) and Mahler is the loser. So is Brahms, because Stephanie Blythe for all the puffery that accompanies this release is, to borrow from the German, lumpen. Given that Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Christa Ludwig, to name just three, have sung the Alto Rhapsody mesmerizingly on past discs, Ms. Blythe sounds like a second-team replacement called from the bench to pinch-hit who only manages a pop-fly to the infield. On the other hand, she does sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Gedichte in Felix Mottl’s 1890 orchestration with feeling as well as perfect diction and some variegated vocal colors. But even with Nelson’s admirable conducting throughout, complete texts, and a solid French chorus in the Brahms – excellently recorded in Paris’ Notre Dame du Liban – you have to regard Stephanie Blythe as someone special to want to add this to your collection. I don’t and won't.

As for Die drei Pintos, some of which Carl Maria von Weber composed in 1821 but more often that not just the vocal line before setting it aside very much unfinished, it is exclusively notable for 26-year-old Mahler’s uncanny ability to inhabit Weber’s artistic skin. But the plot is feeble even as German operettas go, and a single memorable tune is used over and over in various permutations so that it sticks in the ear – for about 30 minutes. After an initial success in the late 1880s, The Three Pintos dropped out of the repertory until RCA found it languishing in some provincial library at least three decades ago and made an admirable recording at Munich under Gary Bertini’s direction, with a cast that included Lucia Popp, Jeanette Scovotti, Werner Hollweg, Hermann Prey and Kurt Moll. But rejoicing over that rediscovery was short-lived, and by 1980 a listing could be found only in Bielefelder, the German counterpart of Schwann.

Now, from Ireland’s Wexford Opera Festival, we have a “new” version recorded during four late October performances in 2003, complete with stage noises and a baritone servant who must sing falsetto. It is efficiently conducted except for a speed-up at the end, and well enough played by the National Philharmonic of Belarus from Minsk, which has replaced the Irish National Symphony from Dublin at Wexford. The chorus, whose roster is listed along with the orchestra’s – but no libretto, only a synopsis – seems to have more Czech (or Slovakian) names than Irish, as well as a Czech chorus master. But the singers are a provincial lot, even Barbara Zechmeister from the Frankfurt Opera as the heroine of this silliness (I should not have wanted to hear her Queen of the Night at Novosibirsk or Mainz), while the two tenors are simply an ordeal to hear. The recording is mediocre by 21st-century standards – hell, even by 1982 standards – which does nothing for a work already enfeebled by its text and this presentation.

R.D. (November 2004)