PERFORMER: Ernst Gutstein, Fritz Wunderlich, Lia Montoya, Rolf Boysen, Romuald Pekny; Bavarian RSO & Chorus/Werner Egk
CATALOGUE NO: C 549 012 I ADD mono
While Germany has celebrated the centenary of the birth of Werner Egk with the issuing of a specially designed postage stamp as well as various anniversary performances, his output remains neglected elsewhere. Part of the problem, I suspect, was Egk’s dubious role during the Nazi era, when he accepted the position of the director of the Composer’s Section of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1941 and composed a few politically compliant works. At the same time, Egk seemed more responsive to Stravinskian modernism than many of his contemporaries, and survived into the postwar era to play a leading role in the rebuilding of musical life in West Germany.
The two dramatic works, presented here in extensively documented historic performances, conveniently avoid the most controversial period of Egk’s life and demonstrate both his strengths and his weaknesses. In the radio opera Columbus (1932), Egk follows Kurt Weill in writing music of admirable directness and simplicity, but the style, which is heavily indebted to his teacher Carl Orff, lacks Weill’s cutting edge. Irische Legende (1955), loosely based on a play by WB Yeats, offers far greater intensity, especially in its depiction of the demonic spirits that haunt the opera. Yet for all the superb singing of the star-studded Salzburg Festival cast, the urgent conducting of George Szell and Egk’s strong sense of theatre, the music remains largely unmemorable, supporting rather than elevating the narrative. Erik Levi