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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le Nozze di Figaro K 429
Figaro: Ezio Pinza (baritone)
Count Almaviva: Mariano Stabile (baritone)
Countess Almaviva: Aulikki Rautawaara (soprano)
Susanna: Esther Réthy (soprano)
Cherubino: Jarmila Novotná (mezzo-soprano)
Don Basilio: William Wernigk (tenor)
Bartolo: Virgilio Lazzari (bass)
Marcellina: Angelica Cravcenco (Soprano)
Antonio: Viktor Madin (baritone)
Barbarina: Dora Komraek (soprano)
Don Curzio: Giuseppe Nessi (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Live performance recorded in the Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 19 August 1937
ANDANTE 3981 [3 CDs 42’32" + 44’05" + 69’34"]



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Andante have already issued a number of extremely important recordings but this one, I venture to suggest, may be the most significant to date. It is important for several reasons. Firstly, as I hope to show, it is important on account of the performance itself. Secondly, with hindsight this performance may be regarded as one of the final flowerings of high musical art in pre- Second World War Europe. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it represents an important addition to our appreciation of the stature of Bruno Walter, especially since he never made a commercial recording of any complete opera.

As the copious booklet notes make clear, the 1937 Salzburg Festival was a mouth-watering prospect for the musical connoisseur with four operas each conducted by Toscanini and Walter, with two more, both by Richard Strauss, under Knappertsbusch for good measure. There were also nine concerts, led by the conductors already mentioned plus Rodzinski and Furtwängler. The orchestra for all these events (36 performances in all) was the indefatigable Vienna Philharmonic; how did they cope?

Walter’s operatic contribution included not only three performances of Figaro. He also presided over Orfeo ed Euridice, Euryanthe and Don Giovanni. Remarkably, this Figaro represented the first time that the opera had been heard in Salzburg in the original Italian rather than in German translation.

The broadcast performance preserved here was transmitted by Austrian Radio. They had access to a novel recording system known as Selenophone. The process is described in more detail in the booklet but, if I understand it correctly, it involved recording the music onto film. This produced a much better result than the use of wax. However, the process enjoyed limited exposure before being overtaken by the use of magnetic tape. Producer Ward Marston has used a transfer to tape direct from the original film as the source for his CD transfer and has made a very successful job of it. The recorded sound that we hear has its inevitable limitations, of course. The voices are reported pretty accurately, even allowing for movement around the stage. The orchestral balance, as recorded, favours the wind (and mighty characterful the VPO wind players are). At the very start the overture sounds a bit boxy but one very soon forgets any sonic limitations for we are swept up in a hugely involving performance. Overall, I find it little short of amazing to think that I have been listening to a very good reproduction of a performance that took place just a few days short of 66 years ago as I type this review on 2 August 2003!

It is necessary, of course, to comment on the recorded sound but the performance is what matters, and what a performance it is! All five principals distinguish themselves and perhaps an important element in the vitality of the performance lies in the ages of the singers. Aulikki Rautawaara was 31 at the time of this Festival; Jarmila Novotná was a month short of her 30th birthday, while Esther Réthy was not quite 25. The leading men were older. Pinza was 45 and Stabile was 49 but their extra experience nicely complements the freshness of the ladies.

Jarmila Novotná, a soprano in a role more usually assigned to a mezzo, is a coltish Cherubino. Her ‘Non so più in Act 1 rightly earns the first applause (listeners may be pleased to know there are relatively few such interruptions and, indeed, there is little in the way of distracting audience noise although, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of stage noise can be heard; I find it adds to the sense of occasion.). Like all her fellow principals Novotná is excellent in recitative and contributes to a really spirited dialogue with Susanna in Act 1, Scene 4. She also plays a full part in a delicious, lively account of the exchanges with Susanna and the Countess in Act 2, Scene 2. ‘Voi che sapete’ is also memorable where Novotná is every inch the ardent, infatuated youth. This is singing with real life to it.

The Countess is portrayed by the Finnish soprano, Aulikki Rautawaara, who was already established as a favourite in this and other roles at Glyndebourne. I must confess that I loved her singing. She, no less that the other leading ladies, is wonderfully alive in recitative but, of course, any performance of the role of the Countess stands or falls by the two big arias. ‘Porgi amor’, the hugely demanding opening to Act 2, is taken quite slowly, beginning with a warmly phrased introduction. Rautawaara’s singing is absolutely gorgeous with generous, long-breathed phrasing and lovely full tone. She is touching and vulnerable

and sounds every bit the wronged noblewoman. She is no less successful in ‘Dove sono’ and, indeed, in the dramatic recitative that precedes it. There is a suggestion that she fades a little in the fiery end to that aria but this, I think, is down to the recording, not the singer.

Making up a trio of delectable ladies is Esther Réthy as Susanna. Hers is a marvellous, vital performance. In fact, she and the Figaro of Ezio Pinza strike sparks off each other right from the opening scene of Act 1. Her ‘Deh! Vieni’ in Act 4 is poised and quite lovely and is preceded by a melting recitative. But it’s for her recitative that I especially value Réthy. In her exchanges with the Countess she suggests a real bond of affection between servant and mistress; she, surely is the Countess’s only confidante. She leads the Count along beautifully and is no less effective as a backstairs intriguer than is Figaro. In the plot her relationship with her beloved Figaro has its ups and downs and Réthy is excellent at portraying the many changes of mood of her character. Hers is an affectionate performance, suitably pert but never suggesting the soubrette.

I ought to say that in the passages of quicksilver recitative involving the three ladies it can be quite hard to tell their voices apart but I don’t regard that as a serious drawback.

It probably helped Réthy that she was singing opposite such a marvellous and experienced Figaro. We learn from the booklet that Bruno Walter, much though he admired Pinza, was unsure that the Italian bass was right for the role (which Pinza desperately wanted to sing). Happily he relented and how wise he was to do so. Pinza’s voice is a large one, bigger than one is accustomed to hearing in this role, at least nowadays. However, he uses his voice with great intelligence and discretion and it proves to be an extremely flexible instrument. He is no less agile than his colleagues in recitative and his arias are uniformly successful. In Act 1 ‘Se vuol ballare’ and its preceding recitative shows him singing easily and lightly (just very occasionally taxed by a particularly high note) but one senses that there’s power and steel in reserve; this servant is not one whom his master should cross! ‘Non più andrai’ is splendidly sonorous and ironic. Throughout he portrays a quick-witted, wily character, full of guile yet when it really counts, putty in Susanna’s hands.

Pinza would be the dominant vocal force in this production were it not for the fact that he is matched for excellence by the Count of Mariano Stabile. He is just as magnificent as Pinza in his singing and his verbal acting. The Count must be a difficult role to sing because his fortunes swing even more wildly than do those of his manservant. Whatever facet of the character he is required to portray at a given moment, Stabile delivers. So, this Count is by turns suave, arrogant, libidinous, overbearing, imperious, cunning and, at the very end, contrite. Like Pinza, Stabile was a native Italian and no doubt this helps him to give added point to the delivery of the text. He is another who is superb in recitative and his Act three recitative and aria, ‘Hai già vinto la causa!’ is absolutely splendid, featuring vivid, commanding and unbuttoned (yet perfectly controlled) singing of a type you don’t hear today. Rightly, the audience accord him an ovation.

The remaining members of the cast aren’t quite in the same league as the principals. Barbarina is too mature to suggest a young girl in her Act 4 aria The singers portraying Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina are not really to my taste for they all attempt a little too much in the way of vocal characterisation but unlike the principals don’t quite have the same degree of skill to bring this off. Thus, what probably was effective when seen on stage as well as heard sounds rather mannered on purely aural repetition. (In fairness, all three make a much more pleasing contribution to the important action in Act 3, scene two scene where Figaro’s parents are revealed.) The Act 4 arias for both Basilio and Marcellina are cut, which I don’t regret. However, other listeners may enjoy the singing of the lesser roles more than I did and, in any case, these contributions are emphatically not such as to detract from the overall merits of the set.

Presiding over all this, unseen and unheard but crucial to the success of the enterprise, is Bruno Walter. On the strength of some of the recordings that he made in his last years he has been characterised in some quarters as a mellow, genial conductor whose interpretations were a bit too avuncular for their own good. I have never subscribed to this view, preferring to regard the last recordings as a beneficent last look at some much-loved areas of his repertoire from the wise standpoint of old age. However, as more and more of his earlier recordings, whether studio or ‘live’, come into general circulation we can see what a vital force he could be. (It’s always seemed to me that Mahler, who did so much to foster Walter’s early career, would never have taken under his wing any young conductor who appeared to be less than energetic and energised.)

I would certainly describe Walter’s conducting of this performance as energetic and energised. Right from the very beginning his vital reading of the overture starts to draw the listener into the drama which is about to unfold. Once he’s got you hooked Walter never lets you go. The recitatives fairly fizz and the pacing of the arias and ensembles is always convincing. This is really involving, dramatic conducting by a true man of the theatre (at this time Walter was closely associated with the Vienna State Opera and, indeed, opera had been a crucial element in his career up to this point.) One contemporary report suggested that it was Walter himself who played the harpsichord in the secco recitatives. Whoever does so plays the continuo pretty plainly but in so doing contributes to the energetic drive; there’s no lingering over fancy roulades here! Just occasionally some listeners may feel that the performance is just a bit too driven in the heat of the moment and that a little more relaxation might have been welcome. For myself I can only say that I found myself swept along by the thrust and conviction of the whole thing. If ever there was a case of a performance caught on the wing, this is it.

Of course, there are a few imperfections. Even Pinza rushes the fast triplets towards the end of his Act 4 aria, ‘Aprite un po’quegli occhi’ and Bartolo similarly gabbles some quicker passages of ‘La vendetta’ in Act 1.Also it has to be said that the, admittedly brief, appearances of the chorus are not among the highlights of the show. The ladies sound matronly and the whole chorus is wavery and imprecise in ensemble. However, such blemishes are few and should not deter anyone. This is a vivid, exciting theatrical experience. Andante have done a major service in rescuing this performance from the vaults and making it generally available. I don’t know how many of the other performances from that Festival were recorded and can be retrieved (though Andante have just released Toscanini’s Die Meistersinger, also from the 1937 Festival). The prospect of Walter in Don Giovanni to say nothing of Toscanini in Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio and Falstaff (all of which adorned the 1937 Salzburg programme) should set many collectors’ pulses racing.

As usual, Andante’s documentation is lavish. The three CDs are contained in a hardback booklet of 383 pages. This contains the libretto with translations into English, French and German. The comprehensive and extremely informative notes are provided in the same three languages.

This is an historic issue of the utmost importance and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

John Quinn



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