Although this reviewer is not averse to modern operas, Aribert Reimann's LEAR will probably never be too close to his heart. Part of the reason perhaps lies in this reviewer's inability to appreciate music that are too percussive (it is overwhelmingly so in this opera, and in particular during Part One where the monotonous and repetitive clamour can become rather tiresome after a while). But more importantly, there seems to be a paucity of themetic material which can readily be discerned by the listener. While it is perhaps not fair to describe the music here as tantamount to the sound effects in radio plays (as mentioned by Fischer-Dieskau in his vigorous defence of the opera in the CD booklet), and that there exists certain tender moments to counter-balance the hugely brassy and percussive writing, one does feel a bit musically short-changed after listening to the complete opera, which lasts for over 2 hours.
Nevertheless, Reimann generally did a better job with the vocal parts, which are powerfully written (and difficult to sing) and these have helped in enhancing the dramatic impact of the work as well as delineating the various characters involved in the morbid tragedy. As in all operatic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, the story is invariably simplified and some of the minor characters are cut out. Nevertheless, the adaptation is generally a convincing one and the story unfolds naturally at a sure pace with considerable dramatic build-up from time to time.
The chief glory of this live recording from Munich in 1978 lies in the magnificent performance of the entire cast. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in excellent voice and at the height of his dramatic and interpretative powers, gives a shattering portrayal of the betrayed monarch. The sense of helplessness and loneliness of a king driven mad by his cruel daughters are heart-rendingly and delicately expressed. This recording will always serve as an excellent reminder of the great artistry of this legendary singer. Helga Dernesh, her Wagnerian voice gleaming and rock steady, gives a magisterial performance as the scheming Goneril, while Colette Lorand, grandly pompous though a bit shrill at time in some of Regan's coloratura outbursts, is perfectly in character. On the other hand, the good Cordelia is sung with great sensitivity by Julia Varady, and she is particularly fine in the moving duet with her father in Part Two. The men are also uniformly outstanding, with Hans Gunter Nocker's sonorous Gloucester, David Knutson's finely sung Edmund (with lots of difficult falsetto singing in the scenes which he feigns madness) , Werner Gotz's darkly treacherous Edmund and Rolf Boysen's sarcastic Fool providing a formidable counter-weight to the more flamboyant female roles. The orchestra and chorus at the Bayerischer Staatsoper provide excellent support under the baton of Gerd Albrecht.
Despite the fact that this is a live recording, the sound quality is fine (with the voices very clearly and forwardly captured). And other than the article by Fischer-Dieskau mentioned earlier on, there is also a chronology of the process of composition penned by Reimann himself in the booklet, which may be of considerable interest to students who study composition. All in all, despite whatever reservations as regards the music, given the lofty standards achieved in the performance, this set can still be recommended with great enthusiasm.