CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: Phantom of the operetta

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LEHAR: The Merry Widow

Lott, Hampson, Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic / Franz Welser-Most

(EMI 5 55152 2; two CDs)

'HOW is your German, by the way?' Our host is Dirk Bogarde, or rather Njegus, a minor official at the Pontevedrian Embassy. And in Tom Stoppard's witty and erudite narration (no dialogue, more laughs), this is his story. The Widow - merry or otherwise - is but a minor distraction. 'It's amazing what you can get away with,' says Njegus, 'if you put enough music around it.' He knows a thing or two about operetta. And this, surely, is the mother of them all - sharp, sophisticated, enduring. When Lehar isn't high-stepping it to and from Maxim's, he spins out the bitter-sweet nothings like they're going out of fashion. The Merry Widow waltz is one of the world's great tunes, Vilja one of its best- loved, served up against a wickedly seductive backdrop of whispering string glissandi and tinkling guitars (what a useful orchestrator he was). Felicity Lott sings it here on a long, deep sigh of appreciation. She and the impossibly suave Thomas Hampson - indeed, this entire cast - sound like they've been treading the boards of the Theater an der Wien all their lives. Franz Welser- Most, the conductor, is not afraid of a little vulgarity in the mix - and that's only fitting. The Widow, after all, made it big on Broadway. The phantom of the operetta was there to stay.

Edward Seckerson

SOME pieces are so bound up in the fantasies and fashions of their times that one wonders if they can ever fully live again. When The Merry Widow first flounced on to the stage, a Habsburg ruled in Vienna, German was the language of operetta and economies could wobble when rich widows fell for paupers. With hindsight - and a little help from Mahler and Berg (not to mention La Valse) - all this echt-Viennese Tanzen and Springen can sound hollow, even sinister. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow . . .

But it's odd the way Lehar's tunes can still charm. My resistance finally wilted when Felicity Lott soared into the parlour classic Vilja, O Vilja - not a trace of cuteness or parody in her singing, just pure, unabashed enjoyment. Thomas Hampson makes a wonderful Danilo to her Hanna, again seductively at ease with the idiom, his breadth of experience, from Bernstein to Bach, no doubt counting here. Elzbieta Szmytka, ethereally beautiful on Simon Rattle's recent Szymanowski disc, is hardly less convincing as the worldly coquette Valencienne. The biggest surprise is Franz Welser- Most. Who'd have thought that there was so much feeling for the old, wicked Vienna behind that severe young face? Who knows, he may have more surprises for us one day. Tom Stoppard's narration, delivered with stylish weariness by Dirk Bogarde, is more than wrapping - fascinating to hear a full Festival Hall chortling nostalgically at lines like 'In my experience, domestic happiness without domestic staff is a dangerous fantasy'. England a classless society? Vienna will ban waltzing first. Stephen Johnson

SCHUBERT: Winterreise

Peter Schreier, Andras Schiff

(Decca 436 122-2)

YOU KNOW you're in the grip of a great Winterreise when each song seems to grow inexorably out of what has gone before. Schreier's whole vocal demeanour is audibly changed with this long, painful voyage of self- discovery. With the very first song, you can hear the voice settling: the manner almost matter-of-fact, the air of world-weariness as yet understated. Not that Schreier - or Schiff, his inspiring fellow-journeyman - ever over-reads the text. Their special moments (and there are many) are subtle moments, a change of colour or emphasis suddenly bringing a thought, an idea, a song into focus. In the last stanza of 'Irrlicht', the notion that every dried-up mountain stream must ultimately reach the sea is conveyed by Schreier in a telling shift from flat, parched tone to a wholesome head-voice. His lyric tenor is now sufficiently well-marinated to probe the darker, secretive corners of these songs, but he has lost none of his finesse in turning the elegant appoggiaturas of songs like 'Der Lindenbaum' and 'Fruhlingstraum'. By the time we encounter the mysterious organ-grinder, it is as if Schreier and Schiff have already passed over to the other side. ES

IT IS nearly 10 years since Schreier last made the winter journey on record. Those who look hungrily for signs of ageing in the voice will no doubt find crumbs of comfort here or there, but the combination of deep musicality and precise feeling for words can still be devastating. On paper, the monotonal phrases at the end of 'Die Wegweiser' may not look quite riveting, but for Schreier they're a moment of dark revelation. Andras Schiff, his current accompanist, doesn't have Sviatoslav Richter's electric touch - some will find his approach too laidback - but in a simple solo introduction such as that of 'Das Wirtshaus' his absorption in the music draws one surprisingly close. What I'm not sure of yet is whether this Winterreise works as a whole - as a journey. The older recording was made in concert - plenty of coughing, but a true sense of live experience. Here the recording is as clear, intimate and noise- free as you could wish, but my first impression was of scattered insights, not the continuous slow unfolding of an inner drama. I'll happily try it again, though - Schreier usually rewards repeated listening. SJ

(Photograph omitted)