While Weber is widely acknowledged as being of historic importance as the link in the German operatic tradition between Beethoven and Wagner, his operas are rarely staged in England, and even in concert remain a relative novelty. Curious because this is music of the utmost vitality and beauty and at times he surely borders on genius. Not the same level of genius as those two masters that flank him, but an extraordinary ear for sonority, a very pleasing classical sense of form, and an unquestionable gift for vocal writing make him a very interesting and likeable composer. The plots of the operas are often thin in dramatic substance, confused and unconsummated, and certainly the scores contain moments of perfunctory working out, but they also contain countless felicities, and just when we feel inspiration beginning to flag, Weber will twist the rules, pull the rug from under us and leave us awed at the fertility and boldness of his musical imagination. At times, the originality of Weber's orchestration and harmonic palette puts one in mind of Berlioz, though the actual timbre is always very different: Weber favours clarity, freshness, piquancy and warm wit combined with an adamantine solidity redolent of Beethoven.
Colin Davis has a faultless pedigree in German operatic repertoire and he was on very fine form here, slower certainly than in the past, but his unswerving feel for forward momentum is never for a moment in doubt and everywhere orchestral textures gleamed as Davis revealed them with clarity and uncluttered impact. Eschewing any hint of period performance, his deluxe, romantic orchestra had a very satisfying depth while delightful orchestral details were brought out with wit and charm.
Ensemble was not always perfect, though this didn't grate as much as it might on a recording. Der Freischütz is notable for its extensive and ingenious use of folk song, and the enjoyably agricultural playing of the LSO principal strings in the opening dance tableau was something to cherish as well as gorgeous solos from principal cellist Rebecca Gilliver in Agathe's aria. Extraordinarily fine too were the London Symphony Chorus, who sang at full intensity and with obvious relish throughout, and with a much cleaner, livelier and more varied sound than we would get from an operatic chorus in an opera house.
Davis' choice of singers reflected his grand approach. Christine Brewer is a larger voice than we are used to for the heroine Agathe which is a role that tends to be the remit of full lyric voices going into spinto territory. The voice is in general extremely well preserved, but at this age one must admit that some of the tonal lustre has gone and there is occasional stridency bordering on nasality in the upper reaches of the voice. Fundamentally though, this is still a gorgeous voice, capable of superb dynamic and timbral control, and Brewer's phrasing and sense of line made it a joy to hear her arias. The largeness of the voice meant there wasn't quite the required flexibility for the more florid passages, but this was a radiant performance.
As Ännchen Sally Matthews was extremely strong, perhaps too strong for this cutesy soubrette role - in fact she might have been ideal for the role of Agathe. Matthews is a superb talent, the voice even across all three registers, with a very appealingly bright and beautiful sound, accompanied by excellent coloratura facility. Occasionally her fastidious care for the words got in the way of the longer line, but this was top class singing.
More problematic and perplexing was tenor Simon O'Neill in the role of Max. Problematic because the voice is tight, reedy, nasal and short of timbral variation. Perplexing because the usually attendant vocal faults that would accompany such a vocal timbre are conspicuously absent - he is always perfectly in tune, and there is never the slightest doubt that he won't be rock solid in absolutely every phrase he sings, however difficult.
The other men were all excellent. Last minute stand in Lars Woldt as Kaspar almost stole the show - a huge voice, cavernously rounded, with wonderful textual pointing and the best attempt at creating a character on stage - the tremendous physicality of his presence and sound was fantastic to witness. Martin Snell was also very fine in the smaller bass role of Kuno, Agathe's father, as was the gifted young baritone Marcus Farnsworth as Kilian. Instead of the work's extended spoken dialogue we got an English narration of the action by Amanda Holden read very effectively by Malcolm Sinclair, which served to delineate the drama effectively despite grumbles from certain portions of the audience.
Despite my quibbles I have to confess I was absolutely enraptured throughout, watching in a state of gleeful wonder at the beauties unfolding before me. I cannot help but award it five stars.