Frank Martin’s Der Sturm [Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Hyperion]

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Frank Martin
Der Sturm – Opera in three acts to a libretto by August Wilhelm von Schlegel after William Shakespeare [sung in German]

Alonso – Ethan Herschenfeld
Sebastian – Josef Wagner
Prospero – Robert Holl
Antonio – James Gilchrist
Ferdinand – Simon O’Neill
Gonzalo / Master – Andreas Macco
Adrian – Marcel Beekman
Caliban – Dennis Wilgenhof
Trinculo – Roman Sadnik
Stephano – André Morsch
Boatswain – Thomas Oliemans
Miranda – Christine Buffle

Netherlands Radio Choir

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Thierry Fischer

Recorded 11 October 2008 in Concertgebouw, Amsterdam


Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: May 2011
CD No: HYPERION
CDA67821/3 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 33 minutes

Frank Martin’s “Der Sturm”, a setting of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is a revelation. By turns ethereal and richly textured, melodic and atonal, mysterious and literal, it is indeed such stuff as dreams are made on. Why it is not better known? We probably have Martin’s unfashionable status to thank for the chronic absence from our stages of an opera that strikes me as a major work. Since his death in 1974 the Swiss composer has been stuck in a kind of critical limbo, considered old-fashioned by the avant-garde and melodically stingy by traditionalists; yet nothing could be further from the truth, and a reappraisal of his work is long overdue. This stirring performance, taken from a single concert (albeit topped, tailed and patched), ought to set the ball rolling as the opera’s first complete recording and follows the composer’s own 1963 taping for Deutsche Grammophon of excerpts with the Berlin Philharmonic and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

“Der Sturm” (completed late in 1954) is surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s text, and unlike Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (with which it is almost contemporaneous) the action unfolds in the playwright’s intended order. Martin’s decision to use August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s translation rather than Shakespeare’s English adds a layer of alienation that enhances the other-worldliness of life on Prospero’s island; moreover, Martin composed music that cries out to be sung in German, for as with the scores of Kurt Weill or Alban Berg, Teutonic inflections are integral to the work’s musical language.

It is a male-heavy opera. There is only one female role, that of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and since she is offstage for long periods it rests with the men to provide vocal colour and variety. The performance has been well cast in this respect: Simon O’Neill’s plangent tenor as Miranda’s suitor Ferdinand is a far cry from the snappy sound of James Gilchrist’s treacherous Antonio, while among the lower voices Dennis Wilgenhof contributes an almost soulfully characterful Caliban. Duke Alonso is unattractively sung by Ethan Herschenfeld in a voice of cloud and debris; Shakespeare’s drunken clowns, Trinculo and Stephano, are brought to life with comic verve by Roman Sadnik and André Morsch.

Robert Holl is a commanding Prospero, his resonant voice laden with authority, wisdom and all the cares of the world. At the end of a long opera his massive central role closes with an extended Epilogue that would test fainter hearts, but Holl never falters. Miranda is more problematic: even by operatic standards, Christine Buffle’s ripe soprano cannot pass muster as an innocent fifteen-year-old. Martin’s most original creation is also his most striking: as Ariel, the airy sprite who serves Prospero, he casts an entire chorus, the excellent Netherlands Radio Choir given physical life by a slithering harpsichord accompaniment.

Like a musical scout, Thierry Fischer plots a confident path through an unfamiliar score. The orchestra is very much to the fore, and it may be that in a staged performance such dense writing would overwhelm some of the voices; but for this recording the veteran producer Chris Hazell creates an exemplary balance as part of a limpid sound picture. Whooping brass instruments roar like the sea in the opening storm, and elsewhere passages of near-Bernstein jazz alternate with moments of near-Schoenberg asceticism. When Arial weaves a spell he does so with a spiky solo fiddle, yet the Elizabethan pastiche that accompanies the masque of Iris, Ceres and Juno could have fallen straight from the pages of Britten’s “Gloriana”. Martin’s aural tapestry is a fine achievement: rich and strange indeed, and enchanting in every sense.

Hyperion’s 3-CD presentation allows the similar-length acts (roughly 50 minutes each) to play without interruption, and the booklet includes the complete libretto in German and English.

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