BLOCH: Macbeth

BLOCH: Macbeth · Alexander Rumpf (cond); Hannu Niemelä (Macbeth); Sonja Borowski-Tudor (Lady Macbeth); Karl-Heinz Lehner (Macduff); Thomas de Vries (Banquo); Norbert Schmittberg (Duncan); Dortmund Theater Ch, PO · CAPRICCIO 10 889/90 (2 CDs: 2:13; Live Perf: 12/5/98)

Yes, it is amazing, isn’t it? Bloch’s Macbeth was completed in 1909, and premiered in 1910. Though well received at the time, it never entered the repertoire, and had to wait ninety years, until 2000, for the first release of a complete recording (Actes Sud AT-34100). Now, barely two years later, we are confronted with the second complete recording! And I am supposed to undertake the Solomonian task of picking one over the other?! 

Having written fairly recently at some length about the opera’s history and background, as well as my own reaction to it, I will refer the interested reader to that review in Fanfare 24:4 (or on my website at, adding only that the more familiar I become with the work, the more compelling I find it. In brief, the work pursues a musico-dramatic course that is unrelenting in its power and intensity. The only impediment to an immediate embracing of it is its primarily dramatic focus, with few autonomous musical episodes, aside from two wonderful orchestral interludes. A number of commentators have deemed it one of opera’s most successful Shakespeare adaptations, while others describe it as an immature work, preceding the coalescence of the composer’s musical identity. The second of these points is clearly untrue: no one familiar with Bloch’s best-known works would have trouble identifying the composer of this music after a minute’s listening. For this reason alone the opera-or the orchestral interludes, at least-must be heard by everyone with an interest in Bloch.

As for a comparison of the two recordings: The Actes Sud release, documenting a live performance in Montpellier in 1997, was presented in a handsome package, but with extensive notes and libretto in French only. The newer release offers a live performance that took place in Dortmund, Germany, a year and a half later. This Capriccio set includes brief (and unsigned) notes and synopsis in German, English, and French, but no libretto! Although both recordings document live performances, and include sounds (applause, stage noise, etc.) extraneous to the music, I must say that this Capriccio release is the more compromised by its provenance: i.e., voices move in and out from overly close to somewhat muffled, and the orchestral ambiance often lacks presence. The orchestral performance is quite good on both recordings, as is the overall interpretation, but the soloists on the French recording seem decisively better to me. In fact, they are excellent, while several of the major roles in the German performance are strident, and/or have wide, woolly vibrati. I also should mention that although the total duration of the two recordings differs by only ten minutes, their are considerable discrepancies between the texts of the two versions. The absence of libretto from the Capriccio set, the absence of translation from the Actes Sud production, and my own quite limited fluency in French make precise tracking of these discrepancies too laborious, but I can state fairly confidently that they are not inconsiderable. 

In conclusion, I would recommend that Bloch devotees acquire the Actes Sud release for this document of the composer’s first reasonably mature major work; however if this set proves inaccessible, the Capriccio release is adequate. Less omnivorous aficionados, or those less enthusiastic about opera, are urged to sample the two magnificent orchestral interludes, available on a fine ASV recording (CD DCA 1019), reviewed enthusiastically by both Martin Anderson and me in Fanfare 21:5 (and included on my 1998 Five Picks of the Year).