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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) (1905)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Hanna Glawari; Erich Kunz (baritone) – Count Danilo Danilowitsch; Nicolaï Gedda (tenor) – Camille de Rosillon; Emmy Loose (soprano) – Valencienne; Anton Niessner (baritone) – Baron Mirko Zeta; Josef Schmidinger (bass) – Raoul de Saint-Brioche; Otakar Kraus (baritone) – Vicomte Cascada
Speaking parts: Hella Kurty – Valencienne; André Mattoni – Vicomte Cascada
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Otto Ackermann
rec. 16–18, 21 April 1953, Kingsway Hall, London.
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1051 and 1052
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.111007 [79:06]


Just out of European copyright it’s a good time to reissue this classic 1953 Merry Widow. Otto Ackermann is at the helm of the Philharmonia, an orchestra he fronted for Walter Legge on disc and off it, and the stellar vocal soloists are, then and now, names to conjure with. The sound quality has come up well and without obvious difficulty, since it was anyway fine for its time. There’s a synopsis not a libretto but I suspect that will be of little account especially as admirers of the work or the cast will have other more recent recordings, not least the later 1962 von Matacic (EMI CMS5 67370 2) a two CD set in which Schwarzkopf and Gedda reprise their roles.

Back in 1953 we find the Philharmonia in bright, springy form. I’ve read some criticism of their contribution, finding it slack and lacking in character but the opposite seems to me to be the case, and contemporary critics felt the same. The rhythms are buoyant, instrumental solos eloquently taken, the wind choir truly characterful and the strings elegant and lithe. Even the smaller roles are well and knowledgeably cast. Otakar Krauss as Cascada shows a firmly centred and confident, athletic baritone and his opening scenes set the (albeit critically seldom acknowledged) standard for the performance. But we soon enough meet Gedda whose effortlessly deployed head voice illumines Ich bin eine anstand’ge Frau and in her replies and exchanges we can hear Emmy Loose’s light, caressing intimacy of utterance. Erich Kunz, hero of many a Viennese operetta, and much else, takes the role of the Count and with his usual treasurable warmth. He’s exceptional in Hilfe kommt where his buoyancy and natural rhythmic sap fuse with a line that lies perfectly for his voice. One should note however that Also bitte, ich bin hier doesn’t sit so well, rather too low, and he is forced to transpose.

Schwarzkopf shows her seductive side in the scene beginning Pardon, Madame, zuviel Reklam’! and in Act II’s opening scene we really hear the gleam in that tone as one does the finely trained choir - and also the way Ackermann imparts a real Dvořákian Slavonic Dance lilt. The lovely unimpeachable tone, with its admixture of gravity, and the way she floats it, makes Schwarzkopf’s Nun lasst very special, only enhanced by the shimmer of the strings with their perfectly placed pizzicatos. One of the most warming scenes is that between Gedda and Loose in Mein Freund, Vernunft! which rises to a peak of effulgence. Other things also impress as much as they ever did; the colour and shading of Schwarzkopf’s tone and the way her vibrato quickens so decisively in Act III’s Bei jedem Wallzerschritt (the Merry Widow Waltz). Or indeed the way Gedda’s honeyed tone communicates so warmly in his exchanges with Loose, not least Sich dort den kleinen Pavilion.

I last saw EMI’s own re-issue of this coupled on a 2 CD set with the Land of Smiles (567529-2) but many will warmly welcome this Naxos budget price single CD issue and the performance enshrined within.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Göran Forsling - April Bargain of the Month

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