Inge Borkh (Cathleen); Kurt B–hme (Aleel); Walter Berry (Der Tiger); László Szemere (Der Geier); Chloe Owen (Erste Eule); Lilian Benningsen (Zweite Eule); Max Lorenz (Erster Kaufmann); Oskar Czerwenka (Zweiter Kaufmann); Waldemar Kmentt (Erster Hirte); Theo BaylÈ (Zweiter Hirte); Gottlob Frick (Erscheinung des verdammten Faust, Stimme hinter der Szene); Margarete Klose (Oona, Amme); Franz Bierbach (Verwalter); Maria Litto (Die Schlange); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orch/George Szell, cond.
ORFEO C 5640121 (MONO) (2 CDs) (ADD) (F) TT: 58:21 & 54:35
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For about ten years after World War II, the Salzburg Festival stood as one of the most intellectually lively musical loci in the world. Now, of course, it has become a self-congratulatory musical mall of conspicuous consumption, a mere appendage to tourism. In those years, for example, the Festival premiered or revived at least eight modern operas, including a crucial revival of Wozzeck. Egk's Irish Legend premiered in 1955. The CDs here record that production.
The opera (with a very fine text by the composer) retells the story of Countess Cathleen, with elements of Balinese theater thrown in. The Tiger conceives a plan to gather souls for hell. He visits plague and famine on Ireland, hoards all the food, and trades food for souls. He knows that the Countess Cathleen is so good, she will need extra work, so he persuades her lover, the poet Aleel, to leave her so that he can follow his calling as a poet. He then makes the standard deal of happiness to Cathleen. She agrees to sell him her soul, but only for the price of releasing all the other souls he has gotten. The Tiger agrees, but when he comes to take her soul to hell, heavenly agents intervene and carry Cathleen to heaven, since such a sacrificial act cannot justly lead to evil consequences. Aleel returns, sees what has happened, and repenting, determines to live the rest of his life according to Cathleen's example.
It's no sillier than most opera plots, and the Balinese elements go a long way to spice up the proceedings and take the curse off the naive sentimentality. The music will remind some of Carl Orff, although it doesn't repeat itself nearly so much -- heavy on the percussion, elemental rhythms, stark harmonies. Egk (who jokingly fleshed out the anagram "ein guter Komponist" -- a good composer -- from his name) uses an idiom fairly close to the "Young Classicism" of Germany's Twenties and early Thirties. He bows a bit in the direction of dodecaphony, in that the opera is based on four triads encompassing all twelve tones, but it's not serial or twelve-tone music. In his own words, while he may have "greeted the system," he didn't "join the party." The music shows great strength, and although dissonant, it should pose no problems for those who can get into Orff's Catulli carmina or Weill's Mahagonny. If the opera has a fault, it may be that it's too intense, with very few points of rhetorical relaxation.
George Szell, not especially known for his interpretations of contemporary music, leads a terrifying, powerful performance with a stellar cast, wringing out every ounce of drama from the orchestra, at least, and from most of the cast. Those listeners who think of Szell as a High Priest of precision only should listen to this. While very precise for a live performance of the time, it's still a live performance, with ragged ends here and there. More than anything else, Szell impresses the listener with his intensity and concern for the stage drama. He can turn the screws as tightly as anyone, but he also shows as much range as the score will give him. A mock-lament by demon owls is bleak, sultry, and sarcastic. His musical handling of the temptation of Aleel -- three different dramatic planes interweave -- is not only distinct, but serves the drama as well. Szell is one of the great opera conductors of the last century. His career in opera in the United States was cut short by a feud with Rudolf Bing, head of the Met and purveyor of the middle-brow and second-rate. The Met went downhill under Bing's direction, not only as far as drama went but the quality of voices and general musicianship. The hype and snob appeal, however, rose, so naturally it was a success. It became a showcase for costumes, scenery, and the latest Golden Throat (or Golden Headline). Add to this the shortening of rehearsal time and you've got the Met today, pretty much irrelevant to serious opera. Basically, the only losers in these petty transactions have been Americans bound to their continent.
The singers can all sing, and some of them can even act. Inge Borkh (Cathleen) leaps over the top in a stiff, monochromatic turn of scenery chewing. Kurt B–hme as Aleel, suffers from pretty much the same problem, although he manages to deliver an affecting final aria, as Aleel mourns the loss of Cathleen and resolves to follow her example. However, Walter Berry stands out as the demon Tiger, as do Chloe Owen and Lillian Benningsen as the demon owls. All of them sing with great subtlety and appropriateness of expression. In short, whenever they're singing, interest in the dramatic situation itself picks up.
The sound is pretty good for a live performance and pretty good for the time, although mono, of course, and a little boxy. Still, Egk came up with a distinguished something above the usual run of contemporary opera. I warn anybody interested, however, that the libretto comes only in German.
S.G.S. (Feb. 2002)