has often been controversial in his
interpretations of post-baroque music.
This twenty-year-old recording of The
Abduction from the Seraglio as it
is known in English, is no exception.
I started my listening by putting on
Karl Böhm’s recording from the
1970s, generally regarded as one of
the best versions. The overture was
as I remembered it: lean, rhythmically
alert, well balanced, the strings well
in the foreground, in other words just
as it should be. A quick glance at the
covers told me that Harnoncourt was
a few seconds faster, but that difference
was what I had expected. When I changed
over to Harnoncourt my first reaction
was: the signal is very low, I have
to turn up the volume. I didn’t have
to. After the first pianissimo bars,
here played ppp, the fortissimo
started ffff and almost threw
me out of my chair. The percussion section,
which should be thrilling in this Turkish
style music, was right on my lap, playing
very aggressively, very staccato; probably
they were augmented too with all the
percussionists Zürich could muster.
Thrilling, no doubt, but was this what
Mozart had in mind? The next shock came
in the contrasting middle section. Böhm
keeps things moving even here, while
Harnoncourt, whose initial tempo was
noticeably faster than Böhm’s,
slows down to a near stand-still and
then adopts an unabashedly romantic
attitude with myriads of hairpin dynamics.
It is as if Bruckner had been there
and "corrected" the score.
I am exaggerating, of course, but not
much. While Böhm is careful to
differentiate between forte and
piano, between the outer sections
and the middle one, he also shows that
they belong together: he integrates
them, and I think that is right. Harnoncourt
goes to extremes in both directions,
which means that the music doesn’t belong
anywhere: it isn’t baroque, it isn’t
romantic, but it isn’t classicistic
either. And this happens ever so often
throughout this disc, the Janissaries’
chorus being the most obvious example.
Still it makes you think anew, it is
refreshing and I feel a bit ashamed
for not being open-minded enough. But
when you have accepted the approach,
or at least got used to it, there is
a lot to admire in this recording. So
let’s move over to the singing.
And here are many delights.
The first voice we hear is that of Peter
Schreier, instantly recognisable. It
is not one of those sappy voices and
not one of the most beautiful either.
He is no match for Fritz Wunderlich
or Leopold Simoneau on that account.
But it is a very flexible voice, used
with great intelligence and feeling
for the text as befits a renowned Lieder-singer,
and his pianissimo singing is ravishing.
He was in marginally fresher voice ten
years earlier, when he recorded this
part with Böhm, but the difference
is negligible. Osmin is sung, and acted,
with great aplomb by Matti Salminen.
He has been one of the really great
basses, in a variety of roles, for many
years, and his capacity is still undiminished,
as readers who heard the concert performance
of Die Meistersinger at Royal
Festival Hall in June 2004, should be
well aware. Osmin is a dream role for
any great bass and Salminen rightly
dominates every scene he takes part
in. Wilfried Gahmlich in the secondary
tenor part as Pedrillo, has a clear,
light voice that he uses well in what
little we hear from him. I would have
liked to hear him in my old favourite
aria Im Mohrenland gefangen war,
but of course not everything could be
included. The disc is already well filled.
The ladies also acquit
themselves well, but a little anonymously.
Yvonne Kenny has all the notes and sings
beautifully as Konstanze but would have
got deeper into the character had she
recorded it a little later in her career.
Still it is a feat in itself to execute
the heroine’s difficult music with such
ease. For recording purposes Lillian
Watson’s voice isn’t enough different
from Miss Kenny’s; in the two ensemble
pieces it is a bit tricky to tell who’s
who unless you have a libretto and Warner
supply their usual synopsis without
cues. Miss Watson also sings well but
I would wish for a more mercurial Blonde.
Reri Grist on Böhm’s set and, even
more, Rita Streich on the old Fricsay
set, are ideal.
For a really recommendable
recording of this delightful work I
would suggest Böhm. It has Arleen
Augér as an ideal Konstanze and
also the sonorous Kurt Moll as a serious
and formidable Osmin. Fricsay, recorded
almost fifty years ago and in mono only,
has a fluttery Maria Stader as Konstanze,
and Ernst Haefliger and Josef Greindl
as Belmonte and Osmin. Both sets are
on DG and should be available at mid-price.
But if you can accept
Harnoncourt’s approach, this highlights
disc at a give-away price, offers you
a wealth of good singing. Schreier and
Salminen are reasons enough to buy it.