Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
Helge Roswaenge, Tiana Lemnitz,
Erna Berger, Wilhelm Strienz, Favres Solisten Vereinigung,
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded in 1937 & 1938.
Production and audio restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS Historical 8.110127-28
This is one from the heart of darkness. In late 1937 and early 1938 Sir Thomas
Beecham travelled to Hitler's Berlin to record what would be the fourth in
a series of Mozart operas to appear on the HMV label. The previous three
had been recorded at Glyndebourne and conducted by Fritz Busch so you can
imagine the feelings of Sir John Christie, the owner of Glyndebourne, when
he realised what was happening. The thinking behind the decision by ace producer
Walter Legge to record with Beecham in Berlin probably had to do with the
cast available to him there, as well as the chance to record the Berlin
Philharmonic and with a conductor unlikely to get within an ego's waft of
Christie's festival. Legge, like Beecham, was also a showman so how could
he resist all that? Also Furtwängler had just conducted Beecham's London
Philharmonic in the pit at Covent Garden for a Ring cycle as part
of the Coronation Season so maybe a compliment was being returned? Even then
the fact that this was Nazi Germany meant that singers like Richard Tauber
and Alexander Kipnis, surely in line for casting, were persona non grata
in Germany so unavailable to Legge. Irrespective of that, Legge's decision
to go to Berlin was vindicated in every way by the 19-disc set that resulted.
Gerhard Hüsch is the star of the cast. His Papageno brings buoyancy
and exuberance in equal measure. He was a supreme lieder singer away from
the stage and that directness is a pleasure right through. I may be in the
minority liking Erna Berger's Queen of the Night quite a lot, especially
in the way her voice contrasts so much with Tiana Lemnitz's Pamina. True,
she has slight moments of imprecision in her two big arias, but her strength
and uniqueness, especially to modern ears, gives her the slightly sinister
quality this part really needs. Tiana Lemnitz herself is smooth and sweet
with her first act duet with Hüsch utterly charming. Richard Tauber
would have been the ideal Tamino since Helge Roswaenge perhaps lacks delicacy
when he needs to make us care about what happens to his Tamino in the way
we do about Hüsch's Papageno, but he is dependable and no great trial.
Which is more than can be said for Wilhem Strienz's Sarastro who in low registers
is particularly unappealing. However, the real star of the production is
Beecham himself. From the overture onwards there is precision, wit and grandeur
in his conducting. There is also a wonderful sense of pace and faultless
accompaniment for his cast. All of that before you even start to consider
the magic he brings which no amount of analysis could adequately describe.
No wonder most of this cast were onstage at Covent Garden in 1938 with TB
in the pit. But time was running out by then. The clock on the wall of old
Europe was already ticking louder.
This was the first complete recording of the music from "The Magic Flute".
An important distinction to make since the decision was taken to record none
of the all-important dialogue. That would have meant too many records for
even the most avid of collectors in 1938. However, for this Naxos release
Keith Anderson's detailed synopsis includes a summary of what you are missing
from the story, so that's something. Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers from spotless
commercial pressings are also his usual models of restraint in that there
are no fancy tricks employed to take you away from what is on the discs.
He allows the voices especially to ride brightly over the gentle surfaces
with no distortion at all and very little in the way of confinement. The
orchestra is slightly behind them in the sound picture and, whilst betraying
the age of the recording somewhat, there is more than enough detail from
the players for us to take pleasure in their contribution too. Again no actual
distortion I could hear and those familiar with transfers from 78s will take
all that in their strides.
But before I close let's return to where I began. It is still hard for me
to separate the time and place of this recording from the excellence of the
performance. Maybe it adds a level of interest to it because music making
sometimes cannot be divorced from the world around it and when the world
around it is so extraordinary this becomes a certainty. There is a moment
midway through Act I where Tamino has received the Magic Flute from the Three
Ladies. They tell him and Papageno that three boys will appear to help them
on their journey after which the ladies bid them farewell. This passage (from
4.34 on CD 1 Track 6) has always seemed an exemplar of this recording's finest
qualities and one you might care to sample first. The accompaniment is a
model of phrasing, the singing uniquely together and the atmosphere simply
magical. Perhaps I'm letting my imagination run too far but it has also always
seemed to me a farewell from another period of European history and from
within the very black heart that would in the end destroy it. Such beauty
and such elegance surely shining brighter coming as they do from amidst such
evil which at that time was merely brooding. Or is that just an illusion
granted by hindsight? Nevertheless, for me it is the kind of added quality
brought to music by recordings such as this over and above any musical values.
I will always maintain their importance to those who call into question the
very idea of ever listening to recordings made before the kind of quality
in sound we started to take for granted in more recent times.
There are a number of CD versions of this recording available. I see no reason
why this one should not be first choice. In terms of price and availability
it couldn't be bettered.