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The Narrator – Vladimir Dolezal (tenor); Lenore – Magdalena Hajossyova (soprano); Her Mother – Venceslava Hruba-Freiberger (soprano); William – Pavel Kamas (bass);
Czech Philharmonic Chorus
Prague Chamber Orchestra
Conductor – Lubomir Mati
Supraphon SU 3522-2 231

TPT: 77'13

The Czech composer Antonin Reicha was born in the same year as Beethoven; two men met and became friends when Reicha moved to Bonn. That said, Reicha's Lenore has nothing at all to do with Beethoven's heroine in Fidelio. Far from being a paean to the ideals of connubial devotion, Lenore is based on a macabre ballad by Gottfried August Bürger. Lenore is waiting for her beloved William to return from the wars. She is perturbed at how long she is kept in expectation and fears the worst. Eventually William does turn up and whisks his intended away on horseback to ride 100 miles (!) in the middle of the night to their wedding feast. Lenore doesn't have time to disagree and they're off! Horrid portents attend them on this whirlwind ride – a funeral procession, a gallows scene and a final lurch into a graveyard. A dance of death follows, William transmogrifies into the Grim Reaper and Lenore senses her death approaching.

All this is cast in a unique musical form, not an opera and not quite a cantata. Reicha calls it a 'Grand Musical Tableau' for soloists, chorus and orchestra. If one were to attend a live performance, there should also be a mime group and a corps de ballet. To those people who know Reicha from his wind ensemble music, Lenore is a vivid revelation of its composer's early Romantic leanings. Written in Vienna between 1805 and 1806 it anticipates the Weber style as found in Der Freischütz, in particular those moments of an agitated or supernatural kind – there's a lot of string tremolando and diminished-seventh harmony. The chorus act as a supplementary narrator, pushing the story on and occasionally becoming characters in the drama e.g. as members of the funeral procession (no. XVIII) singing a sombre fugue reminiscent of the opening of Mozart's Requiem. Both women's parts include attractive music to sing, but the lengthy duet between Mother and Daughter (no. VI) is especially well-wrought: Lenore is understandably agitated at William's non-appearance, her mother comforts her and advocates prayer. At the end both voices sing together, their quasi-Pergolesian suspensions well conveying the tensions in the situation.

There are many opportunities for pictorialism in the music – for example galloping hooves, a clock striking eleven – but this is most evident in the dance round the gallows (no. XVII) which clearly looks forward to Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre; there's even a solo violin part!

In spite of Reicha's attempts to bind the work together (for instance, motifs in the overture reappear later, a choral refrain is stated three times at various points) Lenore overstays its welcome by about half an hour. There's simply too much of the same type of early Romantic Sturm so that by the time the final thunderstorm comes, it feels utterly redundant. Lenore has many beautiful and surprising moments and is worth buying to hear these. The performance is convincing with the Czech Philharmonic Chorus producing a well-focused and committed sound, supported by neat playing by the Prague Chamber Orchestra under Lubomir Mati An elderly sounding but secure Vladimir Dolezal sings the Narrator. Magdalena Hajossyova has an unattractive cutting edge to her voice at the top of her range and, rather curiously, sounds a more mature singer than Venceslava Hruba-Freibergerova as her mother. Pavel Kamas is a forceful William. The recording is well balanced and true.

Alisdair Jamieson  

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