Gurlitt: Nana – review

Papandreou/Schone/Carlucci/Batukov/Erfurt PO/Calesso (Crystal, three CDs)

Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972) was the unlucky composer whose Wozzeck was first performed in 1926, a few months after the premiere of Alban Berg's version. He followed it with an opera based upon Lenz's Die Soldaten and lived to see that, too, totally eclipsed in the 1960s by Bernd Alois Zimmermann's multidimensional treatment of the same subject. Nana, based upon Emile Zola's novel, with a libretto by Kafka's biographer Max Brod, was Gurlitt's next project. It has fared little better. Gurlitt completed the score in 1933, but was unable to perform it in Nazi Germany; the premiere of Nana eventually took place in Dortmund in 1958. This is its first commercial recording, taken from a production in Erfurt last year.

While Gurlitt was composing Nana, Berg was working on his second opera, Lulu, and there are striking parallels between the two: their central characters are women who destroy every man attracted to them, and are eventually destroyed themselves. That's where the similarities end, though. Gurlitt's music is well made but disconcertingly eclectic: the conversational passages recall Richard Strauss; some of the lighter set-pieces reference the world of Léhar's Merry Widow; occasionally, a dissonance or flash of bitonality suggests Gurlitt was more aware of the musical world around him than his score lets on.

But it's hard to believe that the recording is recent; even making allowances for the fact that it is taken from the stage, it often sounds as if it were made 50 years ago. The voices are constricted, the orchestra recessed and the stereo definition minimal, while the performances are rarely more than adequate. Collectors of operatic rarities will snap up this set, but only for its curiosity value.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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