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The Bayreuth bark

ERIC VAN TASSEL listens to Ludwig Weber

CD Review
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Ludwig Weber recital. Copyright (c) 1999 MytoLudwig Weber (29 July 1899 - 9 December 1974) had the kind of voice that Germans call a `black' bass, one with little or no baritonal colouring. In the past century, such voices have been particularly valued in the Wagner repertoire, and nearly two-thirds of this CD is taken up with Wagner extracts: Hagen in Götterdämmerung, Wotan in Die Walküre, the Landgrave in Tannhäuser, King Mark in Tristan, Daland in The Flying Dutchman.

Unfortunately, the passage chosen for Hagen (the summoning of the vassals) admits of little characterization; moreover, both in that passage and in a more promising excerpt - Wotan's farewell in the closing scene of Die Walküre - the recorded sound is shabby and uninviting. The other three extracts remind us that Weber's vocal instrument almost predestined him to portray some of opera's greatest bores.

However, the listener may find, as I did, that Weber endows these characters with a depth of personality and sympathy we usually overlook - perhaps simply because, for once, these supporting characters take centre stage rather than serving as mere foils to the more heroic protagonists. King Mark, in particular, I shall never again hear as a dreary cardboard cuckold, droning on about his affronted bourgeois dignity: Weber's Mark is sorrowful but never less than regal, when he asks his friend and protégé `What are honour and honesty, now that Tristan, the champion of all honour, has lost them?' (Click to listen.)

Weber is almost unrepresented in the copious reissue series from Pearl, Preiser, Nimbus or Myto; more's the pity, then, that Myto doesn't illustrate some of the bass's less ponderous roles here. Myto's own catalogue lists a 1941 complete Magic Flute with Weber, Peter Anders and Maria Reining under Karl Böhm, which must be quite a treat; Weber's Baron Ochs in a 1942 Munich Rosenkavalier under Clemens Krauss (available on CD from Preiser) shows that he was a genuine comic actor (and sported an authentic Viennese accent). The part for which Weber is probably best known on records - Gurnemanz in Parsifal, the role he sang in the classic 1951 Bayreuth recording conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch - is also missing here.

Weber's singing exhibits what was once known as `the Bayreuth bark', a declamatory style which values clear projection of the words above vocal beauty or lyrical smoothness. It can (as the nickname suggests) sound harsh; but it can also, as in Weber's singing, throw the words and their meaning into high relief as Wagner surely intended.

Listeners who aren't familiar with vocal recordings from the first half of the century may be surprised, and possibly put off, by Weber's near-ubiquitous portamento (`sliding' between notes), once a natural part of any singer's technique but utterly out of fashion nowadays.

Another mannerism seldom encountered today was taken for granted not only in Weber's time but, probably, throughout the 19th century: lengthening a dotted note and shortening the following note. Applied - as Weber does - with taste and judgement, such `overdotting' (to borrow a term from Baroque music) has great expressive potential, impelling the phrase forward like the release of a tightly coiled spring. (Click to listen.)

Along with the Wagner excerpts and a short aria from Gluck's comic opera The Pilgrims of Mecca (sung in German), the CD includes a half-dozen Lieder: one each by Schubert and Loewe, two by Richard Trunk (a composer new to me, somewhat in the vein of Mahler or early Strauss) and two by Wolf. Fischer-Dieskau and his generation have conditioned us to expect great clarity and lightness in this repertoire; but even in his own time Weber was not a very lyrical or intimate Lieder singer. However, in Wolf's Die Geister am Mummelsee Weber presents a distinctive and wholly convincing interpretation of the song's mysterious scenario, a mix of visionary illumination and genuine humour. No one could re-create this performance today: we have acquired too much respect for the printed page to take rhythmic liberties to the point of licence as Weber does. But such declamatory freedom is probably just what Hugo Wolf himself was used to hearing. (Click to listen.)

Myto's packaging leaves much to be desired. Texts are missing; conductors and pianists are named, but no dates are given, and studio takes aren't distinguished from live off-air recordings.

Copyright © Eric Van Tassel, August 21st 1999

Ludwig Weber recital

Myto 1CD 992.H029

Copyright © 1999 Myto

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