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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (K.527 1787)
Cesare Siepi (bass) - Don Giovanni; Otto Edelmann (bass) – Leporello; Raffaele Arié - Il Commendatore ; Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano) – Donna Anna; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Anton Dermota (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Walter Berry (bass) – Masetto; Erna Berger (soprano) – Zerlina
Salzburg Festival Orchestra and Chorus/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, 27 July 1953, Salzburg Festival.
MUSIC & ARTS CD1129 [3 CDs: 59.13 + 57:23 + 62.41]




Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (K.527 1787)
Cesare Siepi (bass) - Don Giovanni; Fernando Corena (bass) – Leporello; Giorgio Tozzi - Il Commendatore ; Eleanor Steber (soprano) – Donna Anna; Lisa Della Casa  (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Jan Peerce (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Theodor Uppmann (bass) – Masetto; Roberta Peters (soprano) – Zerlina
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Karl Böhm
rec. matinée broadcast, 14 December 1957, Metropolitan Opera House, New York.
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA6011 [3 CDs: 75:37 + 79:03 + 20:46]

Experience Classicsonline

Comparison between these two sets is illuminating as both of these 1950s live recordings feature Cesare Siepi in probably his most celebrated role. Each production is representative of a golden age for their respective houses.

It is initially tempting to fall into glib generalisations about each conductor: Fürtwängler will be grand, magisterial, monolithic; Böhm, fleet, alert, more alive to dramatic nuance. Comparison of the overtures seems to reinforce that impression: a timing of 6:54 for Fürtwängler confirms his preference for “grandiose solemnity”, while Böhm, at 5:35, opts for a lither, more sprung pace, the strings scampering breathlessly. Yet ultimately Fürtwängler’s apparent slowness results in a performance a mere three minutes slower than Böhm overall, so that first impression is clearly deceptive. Nonetheless, Böhm’s interpretation conforms to what might be termed an American stereotype: direct, immediate, and unpretentious, whereas Fürtwängler’s prevailing tone is essentially that of an epic morality play: stern and Germanic. Neither is especially redolent of the “drama giocoso” Mozart and Da Ponte apparently had in mind, but perhaps that was just an ironic false trail.  In any case, both interpretations are successful, convincing and balanced. Despite his essential seriousness, Fürtwängler achieves considerable lightness of touch in more comical scenes, such as the Don’s serenade and his exchanges with Leporello, and conversely there is no lack of weight in Böhm’s handling of the darker moments. Böhm creates more of the sense of an integrated musical drama; Fürtwängler is more authoritative but also a little enervated; his “Don Giovanni” has more of the mood of “Fidelio” about it and is more static in quality.

Sound might be an issue for the collector but both sets have been expertly restored and are eminently listenable. The Salzburg performance conveys more sense of the stage; the voices have much more space around them than those at the Metropolitan, and are more often distant, a little muffled and off-mike. This ambience accords with Fürtwängler’s darker, more mysterious interpretation but the echo blurs individual lines in ensembles. The Metropolitan radio broadcast features clearer, brighter, slightly edgier sound which, again, suits the conductor’s approach but is marginally less atmospheric and theatrical, with the singers more immediate and present.

If you can accept a bass in the eponymous role, Siepi is without equal; smooth, dangerous and burnished of tone. He reproduces the same striking portrayal in both performances and is as seductive as one could wish: predatory yet oleaginously charming in his scenes with Zerlina; saturnine and violent when he despatches the Commendatore with a blood-curdling snarl. He is interpretation remains remarkably consistent between 1953 and 1957 and just as Fürtwängler’s conducting is closer to that of Klemperer, Siepi’s Don most resembles that of Nicolai Ghiaurov. If you prefer a baritone Don, look elsewhere; otherwise this assumption approaches the ideal.

Both casts are as fine as could be mustered at that time – and that, it has to be said is very fine. The delight of the Metropolitan recording is Eleanor Steber in her prime: febrile, vibrant, and gloriously unhinged as Donna Anna. Elisabeth Grümmer shares those qualities with Steber but is marginally over-parted and the top of her voice can be a little shrill. Both are infinitely touching upon discovering their murdered father, but Steber exhibits a fundamentally richer, fuller tone than Grümmer can muster - and a hint of the Germanic “v” occasionally creeps in to Grümmer’s Italian in lines such as “Quello sangue”. Conversely, Della Casa’s beautifully vocalised but placid Elvira is wholly outclassed by Schwarzkopf’s febrile “grande dame”; Schwarzkopf brings real temperament to the role. Both Zerlinas are lovely little minxes, Berger being especially pleasing and sounding quite the faux-ingénue even at 53 years old. The Masettos are as pointedly characterised as one would wish (the young Walter Berry already shining) and there is little to choose between Corena and Edelmann as Leporello; both are splendid vocal actors although Edelmann is a little dour and has pitch problems in his “Madamina”. Both Commendatores are suitably terrifying and redoubtable, Tozzi more cutting and focused of tone, Arie providing a louder, coarser wall of sound. As for the Don Ottavio – a relatively small but crucial role, especially as he so often comes across as a real stuffed shirt – reactions to both tenors will be mixed. Dermota sings elegantly, if a little nasally, deploying his mezza voce tastefully but clearly lacking the breath to “do a McCormack” with his arias, whereas the under-rated and prodigiously versatile Jan Peerce demonstrates that he has the diaphragmatic control to tackle those fiendish runs in one long breath. The voice itself is a little large and effortful for Mozart but he has all the notes - including the low ones that Dermota lacks – and manages to infuse the milksop Ottavio with real virility. I find his characterisation to be a refreshing change – and clearly the audience loved it, too. However, it is only fair to point out that the applause of the Salzburg audience equally demonstrates its approval of Dermota’s refinement.

If you want Fürtwängler’s “Don”, this is, by all accounts, the best of his three live recordings both in terms of sound and performance; otherwise, for me, the Metropolitan performance just has the edge - although I regret the absence of Schwarzkopf’s Elvira, despite my not usually being an admirer. There are so many recordings of this masterpiece that to make an outright recommendation would be foolhardy. My favourite studio recording remains the 1973 Colin Davis set on Philips, which has a wonderful sense of ensemble – and a beautifully vocalised, baritone Don in Ingvar Wixell - but I am equally drawn to the live 1970 Karajan performance in Vienna. If you are tolerant of mono sound, you cannot go wrong with either of the versions reviewed here.

Ralph Moore

see also Review of the West Hill discs by Robert Hugill



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