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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)
Così fan tutte.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) Fiordiligi; Nan Merriman (mezzo) Dorabella; Lisa Otto (soprano) Despina; Léopold Simoneau (tenor) Ferrando; Rolando Panerai (baritone) Guglielmo; Sesto Bruscantini (baritone) Don Alfonso; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan.
Notes, text and translation included
Recorded on July 13th 1954 in Kingsway Hall, London and July 14th-16th and 19th-21st, 1954 in No. 1 and No. 3 Studios, Abbey Road. [ADD] Mono
EMI GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY CMS5 67064-2 [161.00]


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Now here is a recording that really deserves the label ‘Great’. Originally issued on Columbia 33CX1262-4 in 1955, it seems for some reason to have been overshadowed by Böhm’s 1963 version, also with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra and also produced by Walter Legge (HMV SLS5028: Schwarzkopf again took the role of Fiordiligi). The present reissue, therefore, comes as a reminder of the strengths of the early Karajan, who was yet to descend into self-indulgence. Richard Osborne’s informed and perceptive notes inform the reader that the répetiteur for these sessions was none other than Reginald Goodall.

Do not let the mono recording put you off: it is warm and detailed and lets through a multitude of delights. Karajan had under him a superb instrument, the Philharmonia, boasting soloists of the calibre of Sidney Sutcliffe (oboe), Bernard Walton (clarinet) and, of course, the inimitable Dennis Brain on horn. Mention of Sutcliffe is particularly poignant at this time: this superb oboist sadly passed away on July 5th, 2001.

The vocal soloists are perfectly chosen and every word of the libretto is given its rightful place. They really work together as a team, and the pacing is such that once one starts listening, it is difficult to stop. For once, the recitatives on disc are a constant pleasure rather than a chore to sit through as one waits for the next aria or ensemble to begin. They positively sparkle and are integral to the experience (the idea of a highlights disc stemming from this account seems positively sacrilegious!). It is probably the sense of fun, and a real impression of being in the theatre that distinguishes this reading.

The overture sets the orchestral standard that the Philharmonia keep until the very last note. Textures are light, the tempo is flowing and the wind solos are breathtaking. String articulation is clear and bursting with life. Of the soloists, it is Lisa Otto’s Despina that calls for the first comment. Her ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ is light, stylish and superbly coquettish, and as a bonus she is a mistress of the art of disguise: listen to her ‘Notary’ on the final disc (which, incidentally, is short measure at 38’17). Schwarzkopf is on tremendous form as Fiordiligi. Her ‘Per pièta, ben mio, perdona’ is a true highlight. She pitches the large intervals perfectly, but is nearly upstaged (unlikely though it may sound) by the stunning horn playing. Her Dorabella, Nan Merriman, is the perfect vocal match not only for Schwarzkopf but also for Panerai’s Guglielmo (try ‘Il core vi dono’ as evidence of this). Merriman gives a dramatic portrayal, too, but within Mozartian limits: her ‘Ah, scostati! … Smanie implacabili che m’agitate’ is superbly done, without suffering from over-vibrato. Sesto Bruscantini is cynicism personified as Don Alfonso.

The sense of theatre that runs through the entire performance is this Così’s distinguishing feature. Karajan’s tempi almost always feel natural and as if they could not be otherwise. There are only occasional quibbles, but they are almost irrelevant: perhaps the chorus ‘Bella vita militar!’ could be livelier, for example. The Philharmonia convey the atmospheres of the arias, ensembles and choruses with true finesse. Panerai’s Guglielmo is consistently outstanding (listen to his contributions to ‘Sento, oddio, che questo piede’) and the slight edge to his voice is entirely convincing (try ‘Non siatte ritrosi’ as evidence of this). Simoneau is, as ever, the very definition of style: he shades his aria, ‘Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro’ quite exquisitely.

This set surely represents the bright, busy epitome of comic opera. It is pure joy from beginning to end and will be making many return visits to my player.

 

Colin Clarke


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