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Handel: Xerxes

Handel: Xerxes

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This shouldn’t be your only recording of this fine work, but if you do without Wunderlich, you are missing a great deal.

This 1962 production of Xerxes was based on Rudolf Steglich’s 1958 version, which is distinguished by close reference to the autograph, preserved in the British Museum, and by a new German translation; the roles of Xerxes and Arsamenes, originally written for castrato sopranos, are here set for tenor. As regards the orchestra, Kubelik favors a rather objective string sound, completely avoiding the monumental, with discreet vibrato, and adopts Baroque terraced dynamics and tempo relationships that avoid extremes. In today’s view his interpretation turns out to be, therefore, midway between those productions based on Oskar Hagen’s arrangement, which was frequently committed to a romantically-colored understanding of the Baroque, and the modern original-sonority versions. The cast starring Fritz Wunderlich, Naan Pöld, Hertha Töpper, Jean Cook, Ingeborg Hallstein, Carl Christian Kohn und Max Pröbstl makes clear how high a level an opera production could attain at that time.


Maestro Rafael Kubelik’s rendering of Xerxes–albeit auf Deutsch – is practically “enlightened”. No lengthy ritards at the close of arias, very little vibrato from the strings, some embellishments from the singers. No, we cannot unhear the remarkable “HIP” readings by McGegan, Bolton, Mackerras, and others, but Kubelik’s is entirely valid–sort of.

The roles of Xerxes and his brother Arsamene were written for a castrato and female contralto, and here we get two tenors, the first of whom, I’d guess, was part of the raison d’être for the recording. Fritz Wunderlich, just into his 30s, had taken the German opera houses by storm. With Frankfurt, Freiburg, and Stuttgart already under his belt, he sang Strauss’ Die Schweigsame Frau at the Salzburg Festival in 1959 and scored a brilliant success.

He had never sung Xerxes prior to this recording, although he was familiar with “early” music and had sung in Bach’s Passions. Kubelik immediately found him astonishing–the voice utterly beautiful, diction perfect, mastery of both legato and coloratura. Please, hear for yourself: this is such stunning singing that the vague antediluvian-ness of it all is not bothersome.

The rest of the cast is better than we have any reason to hope for as well: Unknowns to me are American soprano Jean Cook, a sweet Romilda, but nothing to write home about, and Naan Pöld, a fine German oratorio tenor as Arsamene. Ingeborg Hallenstein’s Atalanta has plenty of passion, and her flights into the vocal stratosphere–a high-F at one point–dazzle. Amastre is mezzo Hertha Töpper, so familiar and so routine from endless German recordings from the ‘60s. Karl Christian Kohn and Max Proebstl are fine as General and Comic Servant to Xerxes.

Sound is remarkable for its time. No, this shouldn’t be your only recording of this fine work, but if you do without Wunderlich, you are missing a great deal.

-- (Robert Levine)

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  • Release Specifications

    • Number of Discs: 3
    • Release Date:
    • Label:
    • UPC/Barcode: 4011790476032
    • Item Number: ORF-C230063