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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Col legno
WORKS: Der Meister und Margarita
PERFORMER: Richard Salter, Marilyn Schmiege, Franz Masura, Barry Ryan, Elke Niedhardt, William Pell, Ulrich Hielscher; Chorus & Orchestra of Cologne City Opera/Lothar Zagrosek


The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s allegory of Stalinism in which the devil rampages through Thirties Moscow, is one of the great novels of the 20th century, with magical set pieces that seem to cry out for operatic treatment. At least three composers have been tempted to encapsulate its teeming surrealism on stage, and the most successful version to date has been by the German York Höller, which was first performed in Paris in 1989; this recording comes from the German premiere, in Cologne two years later, vividly conducted by Zagrosek with a first-rate cast. Höller’s libretto skilfully manages to preserve all the elements of Bulgakov’s text – both the central story of the Master, a writer incarcerated for writing a novel about Pontius Pilate, and his mistress Margarita, and their resistance to the blandishments of Woland, the incarnation of the devil, and the scenes from that book about Pilate – as well as the great set pieces. Margarita’s flight over the rooftops of Moscow, and the Satanic Ball at which she is crowned queen of the underworld, as well as the lovers’ final escape into eternity, are the focuses of Höller’s score, and the points at which his virtuoso deployment of electronics with the orchestra come into their own. With its harmonies and vocal writing looking back to Berg’s Lulu, and stylistic collages that range from the Renaissance to the Rolling Stones, it’s a rich, attractive score, well worth exploring.


Andrew Clements