Wilhelm Kienzl (1857-1941) was a German composer who is remembered now almost exclusively for his opera "Der Evangelimann", premiered in Berlin in 1895. It was enormously successful and enabled its composer to retire from regular employment and devote himself to composition. Of his later operas the most successful was "Der Kuhreigen" but this has not had a modern recording. An operatic version of the "Don Quixote" story has been recorded by CPO and is well worth investigating.
"Der Evangelimann" is based on true events which happened in the Austrian Benedictine monastery of Gottweig. Two brothers, Matthias and Johannes, are courting Martha, the niece of the monastery administrator. Martha favours the younger brother, Matthias. Johannes takes his revenge by setting a fire. Matthias is blamed and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Upon his release he learns that Martha, in her despair, drowned herself. Matthias becomes an evangelist and arrives at his brother's house. Johannes, on his death bed, is consumed with guilt. He hears Matthias's voice through the window and confesses his crime to his brother. After a great inner struggle, Matthias forgives him.
"Der Evangelimann" was written in the wake of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci". Its straightforward plot is taken from real life, as was often the case in Italian verismo. Kienzl takes great care not to allow the orchestra to submerge the voices and, as a result, the story is easily followed. The music is largely in the German tradition although, at climactic moments such as the passage when Matthias is banished form the monastery (end of Track 5), an Italianate passion and lyricism is apparent. Wagner's influence is, of course, evident, especially in the monologues, but Kienzl's harmonic language is usually simpler. Another prominent influence is that of popular folk music. The bowling scene in Act 1, full of dance rhythms, is most enjoyable and acts as a splendid foil to the drama of the preceding scene. This First Act is, then, intensely dramatic and, if you don't know German, with libretto in hand, it is a compelling listen. The main problem is that Kienzl's lyrical invention is simply not strong enough to be truly striking. There is an almost Wagnerian passion to the music of the love duet, for instance, but it is the dance tunes from the bowling scene which will lodge themselves in your memory.
Act 2 is less compelling since, by now, the story is largely over. With the arrival of Matthias, now an evangelist, the music often adopts a sanctimonious tone and its main melodic interest lies in diatonic chorale-like tunes. The most famous of these is "Selig sind, die Verfolgung leiden", a setting of part of the Beatitudes, which Matthias sings and then teaches to the boys' choir. (Massenet must have had this passage in mind when he wrote a similar scene in the second act of his 1902 opera "Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame".) It is a good tune of its type but of no more interest than the average hymn. Another important recurring idea is the long-breathed melody first heard on the strings near the beginning of the opera and, above all, the dotted note theme from the first scene between Johannes and the administrator, Martha's father, first heard in its full form at Track 3, 3 mins 10 secs (Disc 1). It is Matthias's famous aria which has the last word, however. "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake", sing the children, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Compare this with the ending of Massenet's opera. Kienzl got there first!
"Der Evangelimann" is not always a compelling listen, then. Kienzl's melodic material can be plain and he is inclined to rely on bluster when screwing up tension. There is, though, enough good music, especially in Act 1, to warrant a recommendation. I cannot imagine a finer performance than this one. Everyone is fully inside their roles. The recording is full and well balanced.Read more ›