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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787)
Don Giovanni (baritone) Eberhard Wächter
Donna Anna (soprano) Joan Sutherland
Leporello (bass) Giuseppe Taddei
Il Commendatore (bass) Gottlob Frick
Donna Elvira (soprano) Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Don Ottavio (tenor) Luigi Alva
Masetto (bass) Piero Cappuccilli
Zerlina (soprano) Graziella Sciutti
Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded 7th-15th October, and 23rd-24th November 1959, No.1 Studio, Abbey Rd. London UK
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 7243 5 67869 2 9 [3 CDs: 61:39+64:52+35:49]

It seems incredible now that Carlo Maria Giulini was the third choice of conductor for this famed recording. First choice was Beecham, and when that fell through, Walter Legge, the producer, engaged Klemperer, who, though weakened by illnesses and accidents, began working on the recording, only to withdraw after three days because of pericarditis. Legge sent an SOS to the then relatively unknown Giulini, who responded positively, though, as the booklet tells us, with some trepidation. The rest is indeed history, as the whole ensemble proceeded to work like a dream, and produce what in this case is without question one of the supreme recordings of the twentieth century, and will surely never be surpassed on disc.

Credit must go to Legge for two things in particular; firstly for assembling the peerless cast, and secondly for overseeing the technical aspects so faultlessly. The beauty of the singers is that, as befits the nature of the opera, they were either young (Alva, Wächter, Sutherland and Cappuccilli in their thirties, Sciutti in her twenties) or in their absolute vocal and dramatic prime (Schwarzkopf, Taddei and Frick). Giulini himself was just 45, and the whole project has a dynamism and wicked sense of humour that could only be obtained with a team possessing this blend of talent, comparative youth and experience.

To anyone who knows her only in 19th century Italian repertoire, Sutherland is a revelation here. She sings Donna Anna's arias with rare delicacy and elegance, plus the expected technical brilliance, while Schwarzkopf is simply perfection as Donna Elvira, transforming her from what can sometimes be a mournful nag into a woman of great dignity and strength of character. The young Sciutti was an inspired choice as Zerlina, giving her a delightfully disingenuous quality that is as endearing as it is entertaining.

The men are equally good; Wächter was an exceptional Don, and in his vocal colouring contrives to reflect brilliantly all the different ways the character presents himself to those he wishes to manipulate, be they male or female. Alva makes an appropriately sweet-toned and rather deadpan Don Ottavio (though he is a touch rhythmically slack in places), and Cappuccilli makes an hilarious Masetto, aflame with righteous indignation and sexual jealousy. Frick is in his best cavernous voice as the Commendatore, reminding us of the great recorded Hagen he was to become soon after this.

A cast ‘to die for’, then, no doubt about that. Yet there are plenty of opera sets that fail to ignite despite the starriest of line-ups. It’s the pacing of the whole thing that is so superb, and here the continuo player, Heinrich Schmidt, makes a huge contribution. He gets the passages of recitativo secco bowling along at a terrific rate, emphasising the knockabout humour. In particular, the exchanges between Don Giovanni and Leporello are outstanding, the master’s twitting of the servant having, for modern ears, unmistakable echoes of Blackadder and Baldrick.

The orchestral playing is what finally lifts the performance to the sublime level it achieves. Giulini draws the most sensitive, stylish and dramatically aware playing from the Philharmonia, especially from the strings, who produce a warmth and beauty of tone that is very special. This serves to underline how this opera came to mean so very much – arguably more than any other 18th century stage work – to the Romantics of the 19th century.

The recording captures all of this faithfully, with a balance that manages to make the singers sound just a little larger than life without losing the correct perspective. One of the greatest musical and dramatic experiences available on disc, then, and one that I personally will always treasure.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see Great Recordings of the Century

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