On record: Soloists, Wiener Konzertchor, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Friedrich Cerha – Wellesz: Die Opferung des Gefangenen (Capriccio)


Wolfgang Koch (bass-baritone) Field Commander, Robert Brooks (tenor) Prince’s Shield Bearer, Ivan Urbas (bass) Head of the Council, Hae-Sang Hwang (soprano), Patricia Dewey (contralto), Wiener Konzertchor, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Friedrich Cerha

Egon Wellesz
Die Opferung des Gefangenen Op.40 (The Sacrifice of the Prisoner) (1924-5)

Capriccio C5423 [56’01”]

Producer Kurt Kindl
Engineer Hans Moralt

Recorded 24 March 1995 at Konzerthaus, Vienna (live peformance)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Capriccio continues its coverage of Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) with this live recording of the stage-work Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Sacrifice of the Prisoner), one of his most striking large-scale dramatic pieces from the inter-war era when he was established among Austria’s leading composers.

What’s the music like?

Although now most highly regarded for the orchestral and chamber works written while in exile after 1938 (settling in Oxford, he was made a fellow of Lincoln College and became a leading authority on Byzantine music and opera of the early Baroque), Wellesz was earlier best known for his theatrical works (four ballets and five operas) as were heard throughout German-speaking territories. Not least The Sacrifice of the Prisoner, first staged in Cologne on 2nd April 1926 and whose designation ‘opera-ballet’ indicates a hybrid conception that was very much in vogue during this period – composers as distinct as Stravinsky, Martinů, Milhaud and Weill all attempting something similar, whatever the differences in aesthetic.

With a scenario by Eduard Stucken, the work concerns the territorial (and, moreover, tribal) conflict between those peoples of Quiché and Rabinal – in what is present-day Guatemala – during the early 15th century. The action is unfolded in starkly ceremonial terms (Capriccio has not included an English translation of the libretto, but Hannes Heher’s detailed booklet provides more than sufficient context) such as leave little room for exploration of character or scenic evocation, yet this does not preclude (indeed, might have encouraged) a musical response as is both personal and affecting. Sample any of the five ‘Dances’ (tracks 6, 8, 11, 13 and 15) to hear Wellesz opening out its expressive ambit in striking and evocative ways.

After the Cologne premiere, there were stagings at Magdeburg in 1927 and Berlin in 1930, before the advent of the Third Reich made further performances impossible. This account, still the only one from the post-war era, was of a concert presentation given in Vienna just over a quarter-century ago and conveys this work’s hieratic power as well as its emotional pathos in gratifying measure. Perhaps a future DVD release of a full staging will yet reveal even more of its dramatic potency, but no-one with even a passing interest in the theatrical possibilities of what was arguably the most innovative decade from the last century should pass up the opportunity to encounter what is much more than just a fascinating period piece.

Does it all work?

It does, and not least for reasons such as might have irked its composer – Wellesz’s invoking of a highly stylized and ritualistic theatre being not that far removed from what his younger German contemporary Carl Orff was working towards at around this time. There are fervent contributions by Wolfgang Koch and Robert Brooks among the vocalists, while chorus and orchestra respond with comparable dedication to Friedrich Cerha who, whether as composer, conductor, or administrator, has left an indelible mark on post-war Austrian musical culture.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, allowing this music will not appeal to all tastes. Those new to Wellesz may prefer to start with the earlier of his nine symphonies (CPO) or Capriccio’s release of his concertos for violin and piano (C67181), but no-one hearing the present piece will likely be left unmoved.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Capriccio website. For more on Egon Wellesz, the composer’s website is a helpful resource.

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