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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Le nozze di Figaro – Comic opera in four acts K.492 [165:04]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Count Almaviva), Elisabeth Grümmer (Countess Almaviva), Erika Köth (Susanna), Walter Berry (Figaro), Edith Mathis (Cherubino), Patricia Johnson (Marcellina), Julius Katona (Basilio), Martin Vantin (Don Curzio), Peter Lagger (Bartolo), Walter Dicks (Antonio), Barbara Vogel (Barabarina), Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin/Karl Böhm.
Recorded live in Tokyo, October 23rd 1963.
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Stabat Mater [54:08]
Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano), Maria von Ilosvay (contralto), Walther Ludwig (tenor), Helmuth Fehn (bass), Cologne Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay
Recorded live in Cologne, 1953
PONTO PO-1025 [3 CDs: 65:05 + 75:08 + 78:59]

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Perhaps one should distinguish between historic recordings, which make history, and historical ones, which simply document something that happened. This one tells us that the Berlin Deutsche Oper took Figaro on tour to Tokyo in October 1963.

Like a lot of live reissues, this one rehearses quite a number of known features. This same production, after some further honing and a few changes in cast, was recorded in the studio, again under Karl Böhm, by Deutsche Grammophon and issued in 1968. This time Hermann Prey was the Figaro, Gundula Janowitz the Countess and Tatiana Troyanos the Cherubino, while Fischer-Dieskau remained the Count, Edith Mathis had been promoted to Susanna and (relatively minor matters) Patricia Johnson, Peter Lagger and Barbara Vogel retained their present roles. Karl Böhm, for his part, had already recorded Figaro back in 1938 in Dresden and again (in Vienna for Philips) in the 1950s, where the present Walter Berry sang Figaro. Fischer-Dieskau’s Count had previously been recorded under Ferenc Fricsay in the 1950s (for DG) and was to appear again in the 1970s in the first of Daniel Barenboim’s two recordings, based on an Edinburgh Festival production. Interest, then, would seem to centre upon hearing some of these performers live, in the Countess of Elizabeth Grümmer and – but to a much lesser extent – in Erika Köth’s Susanna.

The reputation of Karl Böhm (1894-1981) has not held up all that well since his death; frankly, I find it strange that a conductor whose fame was based above all on the theatre (I am, of course, well aware that he also recorded praised cycles of the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms) should approach one of the most enlivening of all comic operas through the eyes of the symphonic conductor, treating the music in abstract, as it were, divorced from both the words and the situations. Edith Mathis gets herself into a fine frenzy with Cherubino’s lines about "read it to Barbarina, to Marcellina, read it to every woman in the palace", but to what avail when she is obliged to sing "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio" with a sort of sedate elegance and a romantically drawn out ending which surely has little to do with either Cherubino or Mozart. For much of the first two acts the cast’s attempts to inject the right comic spirit (and they do try, hear Susanna and Marcellina in their mud-slinging duet) have to come to terms with Böhm’s sound common sense in the pit. The serious approach might be expected to come into its own in the Countess’s aria "Porgi amor" and up to a point it does, though the tempo is allowed to sag towards the end, as is the already slow tempo for Cherubino’s second aria "Voi che sapete". In the long finale to Act 2, however, the performance at last gets up a head of steam (even here I would describe the pacing as symphonic rather than theatrical, but it’s certainly exciting) and thereafter things go much better. Perhaps the transit to Tokyo was not without its problems, for all sorts of minor orchestral glitches bedevil the earlier part of the work – later on things settle down though this is hardly the Berlin Philharmonic.

Under the circumstances perhaps we cannot blame Walter Berry (1929-2000) for working a shade too hard at his gags, but it’s a fine assumption all the same. Of the singers "new" to the work’s discography, Erika Köth (1927-1989) need not detain us very long. Hers is a light, soubrettish soprano timbre, which is no bad thing for Susanna, but not always steady or even between her registers, which is a doubtful blessing in any role. Passable but hardly historic. Far more significant is the Countess of Elisabeth Grümmer (1911-1986). Though she was nearing the end of a distinguished career her voice remains extremely beautiful (a slight beat has entered if we compare her with her 1953 self in the Rossini Stabat Mater), and her breath control exemplary. She loses pitch slightly on the F near the beginning of "Porgi amor" but this is a minor lapse (remember she has been sitting "cold" in the wings all through the first act) but everything else goes very finely indeed and she rises effortlessly to her two top Cs in the trio. Her recitatives, though, are a shade deliberate and hectoring – it is here rather than in the sung numbers that she betrays her age, even though she makes a lot of her words at certain points. Also of considerable interest is the young Edith Mathis’s Cherubino, lively and pert in her recitatives. Thanks in part to Böhm’s tempi she sounds too feminine in her arias and it is easy to see why she was shifted to the role of Susanna. I’m glad to have heard her Cherubino, however.

Though we hardly needed this further demonstration, there is no doubt from the moment Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau enters that we are in the presence of a master. Every word in his recitatives, indeed every pause between words, has been minutely considered so that every shade of emotion, suspicion, doubt, anger and (in his first exchange with Susanna) smarmy womanizing registers with the listener. Does he overdo it? This is a question which was asked over and again during the fifty or so years of his career. Certainly a moment such as his ire in discovering that Cherubino has not left the palace after all has a whiff of Sturmtruppen to it, yet there is no gainsaying the vividness of it all, and each member of the cast, in his or her exchanges with him, is inspired to give a little more than they do or their own.

Of the rest of the cast, Patricia Johnson (b. 1934) plays Marcellina as a right old battle-axe. I know this is, or was, the usual way, and Susanna’s description of her as a "dottoressa arrogante" might be freely translated thus; but the "old harridan" interpretation will only work if her aria is omitted, as it is here, since that sort of old-sounding mezzo-soprano just couldn’t sing it (it goes up to a high B twice). The first complete Figaro on record, that conducted by Erich Kleiber (on Decca), resorted to having the Susanna (Hilde Gueden) sing Marcellina’s aria since Hildegard Rössl-Majdan was patently not up to it. More recent complete recordings, therefore, have had to rethink Marcellina, casting her as a soprano or at least a highish mezzo. However, reviews suggest that Böhm’s studio recording, again with Johnson, is uncut, so I wonder how she managed.

Another aria which used to be cut regularly (and is so here) is that for Basilio. Since Julius Katona’s performance of the role is none too pleasant, and I mean vocally, not unpleasant in the way the character should be, the loss is not very great. Bartolo, and Barbarina are well taken.

The recording has all the bangs and bumps and changes of perspective we expect from a live source, and the concluding orchestral passages to most of the numbers (including the whole of the march which ends Act 1) have to be heard against a barrage of applause, so all things considered this is a specialist issue, mainly intended for admirers of Grümmer.

They will certainly be rewarded by what are oddly called the "bonus tracks" – a complete (apart from a few cuts in the last two numbers) performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater. This, too, revamps a known factor, namely Ferenc Fricsay’s interpretation which he recorded for DG with his own Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and a generally more celebrated cast. However, the recording is this time remarkably good for its age (and the audience is so quiet I only realised the performance was live when the applause began at the end) and the conductor’s dramatically effective, occasionally personalised, interpretation can be enjoyed, though if the metronome marks in the Ricordi vocal score are Rossini’s own (maybe they are not) several of his tempi in the early stages would seem too fast. I trust that better brass intonation was obtained at the start of "Inflammatus" in the studio recording but otherwise the Cologne forces acquit themselves well.

Once again, the performance of Elisabeth Grümmer is perhaps the principal interest. At around this time she recorded a famous Eva in Meistersinger under Kempe and her radiant, secure and ringing tones are equally effective here. But, though otherwise little-known, the whole cast is actually rather good. Maria von Ilosvay has admirable steadiness and musicality, though she rewrites parts of "Fac ut portem" to sidestep the problems created by Rossini’s longer phrases. The note-writer, Andrew Palmer, shoots himself in the foot by referring to the "famous high D flat" in the tenor aria; as a matter of fact Walther Ludwig uses a rewritten cadenza which reaches only B flat. Well, better that than making a fool of himself attempting a note he hasn’t got. What he does have is a pleasing, easy emission, a typical German tenor in the Ernst Haefliger mould. Palmer also mentions the trill in the bass aria which, as Gramophone’s Rossini expert Richard Osborne has often pointed out, has scarcely been attempted since Pol Plançon in the earliest days of recorded sound. I must say I can’t for the life of me see why it should be such a problem, since trills of this kind are bread and butter for any singer specialising in the baroque, but there it is. Helmuth Fehn doesn’t try but is otherwise effective. Reissued on its own, the claims of this Stabat would need to be weighed very carefully against those of Fricsay’s DG recording.

Christopher Howell

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