Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

Die Zauberflöte
Gedda - Janowitz - Berry - Unger - Popp - Frick - Schwarzkopf - Ludwig - Pütz - Höffgen - Crass
Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra, Otto Klemperer
EMI Great Recordings of the Century, CMS5 67388 2 2 Discs [63'20 & 70'34], Mid Price.

Otto Klemperer's 1964 recording of the Magic Flute has always been a magical performance of a work Klemperer was somewhat in awe of. Like its two predecessors on EMI - Beecham's 1938 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan's with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1950 - the conception is laid out on the grandest of scales. There is no dialogue and a broadening of tempi where others, particularly period performers, take the work more fluidly. In other words, it is almost anathema to modern day tastes.

Incomplete and old-fashioned it may be, but this performance stands head and shoulders above virtually all others. In part this is due to the singing, which is superlative. Walter Legge had boasted that the cast would be near perfect. In casting Schwarzkopf, Ludwig and Höffgen as the Three Ladies - luxury casting it would be impossible to achieve today - he did indeed create a performance that is vocally unrivalled, underpinned as it is by the unmatched Sarastro of Gottlob Frick and the glorious Queen of the Night of Lucia Popp.

From the very opening of the Overture, with divided violins etching their notes like angels, this is first and foremost a classically poised performance. There is weight of tone, but it is balanced by a natural lightness of touch. Klemperer's great gift in this opera is his ability to unify the contrasting elements of Mozart's scoring whether it be in the exalted seria in the Sarastro and Queen of the Night arias, or the pantomime buffoonery of Papageno's arias. Klemperer, often the most high-minded of conductors, is here a master of the burlesque.

There is so much glorious singing in this recording it is difficult to point out singular highlights for the whole performance is one unending highlight. Lucia Popp's singing of 'Der Hölle Rache....' is an obvious choice the high, murderous tessitura writing holding no fears for a voice which was then young and at its most ecstatic. The Papagena and Papageno duet, near the opera's close, has Ruth-Margret Pütz and Walter Berry knocking spots off each other with the fleetest woodwind and strings joining in the fun. Gottlob Frick achieves near impossibly low notes in his Isis and Osiris aria.

The Philharmonia (at a difficult time for the orchestra) are sublime to a man, with Gareth Morris' flute perhaps taking the winner's prize for most characterful playing. Klemperer himself was surely more vibrant than in any other recording he made in studio post-war.

The stereo recording was always a success, with the balance between voices and orchestra more natural than in some other issues from the time (Giulini's Verdi Requiem, for example). EMI's remastering is well focused, if a little dry, and there is some distortion in the choral section that ends the opera. There is, however, more ambience than in previous issues of this recording on CD and at mid-price cannot be missed.

Unlike some of EMI's recordings in this series this is truly a Great Recording of the Century.

Marc Bridle



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