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CLASSICAL  April 2008

CLASSICAL April 2008

Subject:

Where Do We Come From?

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 7 Apr 2008 18:55:32 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (72 lines)

Rudi Stephan
Die ersten Menschen.

Nancy Gustafson (Chawa, soprano),
Franz Hawlata (Adahm, bass),
Wolfgang Millgramm (Chabel, tenor),
Donnie Ray Albert (Kajin, baritone),
Orchestre National de France/Mikko Franck
Nayve V 5028  Total time: 44:03 + 48:55

History, as they say, is written by the victors.  When I think of
the dead of World War I, I think of Britain and France -- the promising
lives of George Butterworth and Wilfred Owen, among others.  But,
of course, Germans, Austrians, and Turks died too -- among them the
twenty-eight-year-old Rudi Stephan, shot and killed at the front in 1915.

Stephan's music fits comfortably into the post-Wagnerian Austro-German
milieu from roughly the turn of the century.  Nevertheless, Stephan works
the style better than most.  His music moves with purpose, rather than
flailing about in the Wagnerian high seas.  In that way, he reminds me
of Wagner himself, particularly something like Die Walkure.  He doesn't
work at Wagner's level, but then again, very few composers do.  Nevertheless,
he does have some of Wagner's musical drive.

Die erste Menschen, a "mystere erotique" by one Otto Borngraeber,
belongs to the late Nineteenth-Century genre of Biblical rewrites, like
Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, d'Annunzio's Le martyre de Saint Sebastien, and
Wilde's Salome.  Time has treated these works badly.  We tend to regard
them as little more than kitschfests.  Die erste Menschen (literally
translated, "the first men"; better translated, "the first people." It's
not easy to convey the sense of Menschen) retells the story of Cain and
Abel, as you can discover by the clever variations on the Biblical names
-- about as clever as "Schmitney Schmears." It tries to come up with a
reason why Cain slew Abel.  When I hit puberty, I wondered, if the Bible
were literally true, where humanity came from, since Eve is the only
woman around and she has only sons.  That's right!  Cain and Abel fight
over who gets to sleep with mom.  Racy stuff, eh?  All bellowed with
enough hot air to fly the Goodyear blimp.  There's also some blather
about how man invented or discovered God, which shows the same amount
of religious and psychological acuity in the same over-inflated knock-off
of Nietzsche.

Stephan has set all this twaddle to some very good music.  Indeed,
the only reason to endure the play is to listen to the music.  Stephan
supplies the depth of emotion and of psychology.  He succeeds to such
an extent that you probably won't laugh outright at Borngraber's ciphers
while they cavort onstage, but wait until the music ends and read the
libretto all on its lonesome.  No one set piece stands out, but that's
because Stephan constructs scenes rather than individual numbers.  Each
scene rushes inexorably to its climax.

As with most non-repertory operas, the CD records a live performance.
Mikko Franck delivers a dynamic account.  The orchestra responds to the
shifts of mood alertly and together.  Stephan demands a set of Wagnerian
voices, and so we have Nancy Gustafson, a good Elisabeth, Franz Hawlata,
a Wotan and Sachs in the making, and Donnie Ray Albert, a baritone who
can shatter stone.  The only disappointment is Heldentenor Wolfgang
Millgramm, who forces his voice sharp and into bleat, reminding me, oddly
enough, of Jerry Lewis.  Nevertheless, he doesn't sink the ship, and the
love duet with Chawa rises almost to the heights of Siegmund and Sieglinde.

In all, Stephan lacks the genius of Strauss, but in his own way seems
the equal of Korngold.  Die erste Menschen remains a curiosity, but a
curiosity well worth the occasional listen.

Steve Schwartz

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