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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow)
(1905)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Hanna Glawari; Erich Kunz (baritone) – Count Danilo Danilowitsch; Nicolaï Gedda (tenor) – Camille de Rosillon; Emmy Loose (soprano) – Valencienne; Anton Niessner (baritone) – Baron Mirko Zeta; Josef Schmidinger (bass) – Raoul de Saint-Brioche; Otakar Kraus (baritone) – Vicomte Cascada
Speaking parts: Hella Kurty – Valencienne; André Mattoni – Vicomte Cascada
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Otto Ackermann
Recorded 16th – 18th and 21st April 1953 in Kingsway Hall, London.
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1051 and 1052
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.111007 [79:06]


 

It is a century since Die lustige Witwe had its premiere but it still feels fresh as paint. The same cannot be said of many another operetta much younger than that. It is a fitting tribute both to Lehár and to his first great success, that Naxos release this recording, now seemingly out of copyright. It was not the first complete recording; as early as 1907, two years after the premiere, a recording was made on 32 single sides, the booklet tells us. But it was, as far as I know, the first LP version. There haven’t been too many recordings since then. In 1958 Decca recorded the work with the original conductor, Robert Stolz, at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic, the lovely Hilde Güden as Hanna and the Swedish tenor Per Grundén, who was a great favourite with the Viennese in the 1950s, as Danilo. In the early 1960s EMI recorded it again, with Schwarzkopf and Gedda resuming their parts from the present recording, the young Eberhard Wächterm the best ever Danilo and Lovro von Matacic conducting. I bought that set when it was new and it is still my benchmark. Karajan, who was producer, Walter Legge’s first choice for the present recording, did it for DG in the 1970s. I haven’t heard that recording; it is the only one, besides Stolz’s, with a tenor Danilo. In the 1990s DG went to Vienna and set down the operetta with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. He had a starry cast with Cheryl Studer and Bo Skovhus as Hanna and Danilo. It was a version that was hailed, and rightly so, as a serious contender to the Matacic recording. EMI recorded it live, without spoken dialogue, from a concert performance with Franz Welser-Möst conducting and Felicity Lott and Thomas Hampson taking the leading parts. All of these are, in their own rights, valid interpretations of the score. There may be others but I have no recollections of them, if they exist.

The first few minutes of the overture tell us that Mark Obert-Thorn has done it again. The original EMI tapes were, of course, very good and the transfers here show the Philharmonia Orchestra in tremendous shape with glowing string tone, captured with a fullness and brilliance that belies the age of the recording. All through the performance the playing of the orchestra is a wonder of precision and beauty. The overture, which is the long and elaborate medley that Lehár wrote in 1940 for the Vienne Philharmonic to be performed at his 70th birthday concert in April that year, is a virtuoso piece better suited to the concert hall. However it is good to have it and especially when played so well. Otto Ackermann was a really good conductor of the Viennese repertoire and here he ensures playing that is both refined and bouncy. He may be more or less forgotten today but he recorded quite extensively in the 1950s, collaborating with Schwarzkopf in several other operettas and also in her first recording of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. Time and again during this performance he shows his obvious affection for the music.

The singers could hardly be bettered – with one exception, which I will come back to in a moment. The very first voice we hear, that of Otakar Kraus in the small but important role of Cascada, at once makes you prick up your ears: light, clear and beautiful. Also Anton Niessner as Baron Zeta sings well with some deft decorations added to the written music. As an actor he is more reticent, less involved than his counterpart in the Matacic recording and over all there is less theatricality here than in the remake. The secondary couple, Valencienne and Camille, are ideally sung and acted by Emmy Loose, the loveliest of Viennese soubrettes, and the young Nicolaï Gedda, here recorded just a year after his sensational debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. He is in marvellous voice with shining top notes and his legendary half voice employed to perfection. The two Valencienne–Camille duets included here are always highlights in any performance of The Merry Widow, but here they stand out even more than usual. And I wonder if Camille’s Wie eine Rosenknospe in the second act has been more gloriously sung. Maybe by Gedda himself in the stereo remake ten years later, but there is a youthful freshness here that the older Gedda couldn’t quite equal. It is a pity that their second duet, Zauber der Häuslichkeit was omitted.

As Hanna Glawari, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is at her most seductive, caressing every phrase with obvious delight and she is in marvellous voice from her entrance song and all the way through. The Vilja-Song is wonderfully sung and here the Philharmonia Chorus also contributes gloriously. Schwarzkopf is also an excellent speaking actress.

What sets The Merry Widow apart from most operettas is that the personages are real people and not just cardboard characters. Therefore it comes as a disappointment when Danilo appears and does not for one second sound like the young hot-head from the Balkans - eager, aggressive, proud. Instead we hear a Danilo decidedly elderly and radiating Viennese “Gemütlichkeit”. I have always admired Erich Kunz in this kind of repertoire (and I wrote an enthusiastic review of Preiser disc with him not long ago) but Danilo is a part he is not suited to. Being a bass-baritone he also has problems with the high-lying tessitura and so has to take lower options quite often. This becomes very obvious in the monologue Es waren zwei Königskinder, which is more or less rewritten. Still, in his own inimitable way, Kunz sings well and he certainly knows how to make the words “tell”. His articulation is really admirable and he shows real anger in the Königskinder soliloquy.

The spoken dialogue is, as always on records, foreshortened, but there is enough left to make the listener understand what is going on. Too much dialogue can be tiring for repeated listening. Here Naxos have sensibly give the spoken parts separate tracks to make it possible to exclude them at will.

There are more omissions than the afore-mentioned Valencienne–Camille duet, which also was left out in the stereo remake. The second act play-scene and Dance Duet of Hanna and Danilo (with the Merry Widow Waltz) has gone, so has the opening Entr’acte and Maxim music of act 3. Moreover the famous act 3 duet for Hanna and Danilo (The Merry Widow Waltz again) is devoid of the beginning Lippen schweigen and starts with Hanna’s Bei jedem Walzerschritt.

There is a good synopsis by Keith Anderson and a very informative note by Malcolm Walker about the work, this specific recording and the lead singers. It should be noted though, that the name of Nicolaï Gedda’s teacher was Carl Martin Öhman, not Carl Maria. Öhman had his career mainly in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s, not least as a Wagner tenor, but he also sang Prince Sou-Chong in Lehár’s The Land of Smiles no less than 700 times in Sweden in the 1930s and 1940s, so he obviously could teach Gedda a thing or two about operetta singing.

Even if I marginally prefer EMI’s stereo remake with von Matacic, Schwarzkopf, Wächter and Gedda, now at mid-price in the Great Recordings of the Century series, this is indeed a recommendable version. Good sound, excellent playing and glorious singing. I can’t believe anyone will regret buying it.

Göran Forsling

 

 



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