Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is one of the better known "second-rate" composers from turn of the century Vienna. Whilst Mahler, Richard Strauss and the Second Viennese School have better withstood the test of time, there were plenty of others (notably Zemlinsky, Korngold, Pfitzner, Schillings, Boehe and Schmidt, as well as Schreker) who produced polished, lyrical works that have only recently re-emerged. Schreker was primarily a composer of operas, seven of which have made it to disc over the past dozen years or so. His style is very much what one would expect of the period; loud, lush, romantic and with a hint of expressionism. His harmonies have an attractive bitter-sweet quality and his orchestration, whilst sometimes a bit heavy, is well-crafted and effective.
"Flammen" was Shreker's first opera, finished in 1901/2 and which only received a concert performance in the composer's lifetime. Its 80 minutes tells the story of Irmgard, awaiting the return of her husband the Prince, who has been on crusade. Held to a vow never to love another while the Prince is away, Irmgard find herself drawn to the mysterious Minstrel. Needless to say, tragedy ensues. This is an extremely assured work for a 24 year old. The pacing is good and the music rises to the emotional and dramatic challenges of the libretto. The "flames" of the title reflect the ardour of Irmgard's and the Minstrel's love as well as the destruction of those who are torn apart by it. Schreker's music is by turns suitably ecstatic and violent; it's starting points are Wagner's "Parsifal" and Mahler, with hints of Debussy and anticipatory nods towards the Schoenberg of "Gurrelieder" (the orchestral premiere of which Schreker conducted in 1913).
This recording is of a live performance by Kiel Opera in 2001. Stage noises be heard, principally the cast running up and down the set (Irmgard's and the Prince's castle). The small cast, particularly Manuela Uhl as Irmgard, acquit themselves very well. The orchestra can at times sound a little recessed, but under the guidance of Ulrich Windfuhr it had the full measure of Schreker's complex score. This is wonderful music, radiantly performed.