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Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice (1762)
Orfeo – Fedora Barbieri (mezzo-soprano)
Euridice – Hilde Gueden (soprano)
Amore – Magda Gabory (soprano)
Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded live 7th April 1951

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The Milan broadcast of Furtwängler’s Orfeo preserves a performance rather different from that which one might have expected; certainly the conductor’s detractors would find in it little, in the light of performance practice of the time, with which seriously to take issue. The string sound is not too heavy – is in fact lacking the marmoreal quality entirely – and whilst the opening Overture is rather more Maestoso than the marked Allegro it nevertheless evinces a sure theatrical impulse. Indeed he encourages some really rather searing violin playing and for all the acoustic muffle of the string choirs (indistinct and often sounding undifferentiated) the strongly vibrated fiddles of the orchestra of La Scala bring commendable vibrancy and life to their part.

Something with which that detractor could take offence is the chorus, who were having a decidedly off day (their Act II interjections are pretty horrible), and the variable solo singing. Barbieri’s Ite voi tutti almost comes to a standstill – very much, it’s true the conductor’s responsibility – and some of his tempi can tend to the lugubriously noble. As for Barbieri her voice is more properly a Verdian one and the chest register in particular sounds intensely over vibrated – though perhaps one should spare too much criticism over voice types in this particular instance, except to note that her verismo outpourings in Che disse! add an interesting theatrical gloss to Italian Gluck performances of this period. Gabory, the Amore, has a starchy sounding voice and it’s none too steady either. As Euridice we find Hilde Gueden in youthful and fresh voice, though what we lack is a lived-in sense of theatrical understanding. Rather too often her phrasing is generic and not expressive – it’s just a touch of a blank, just on the prosaic side for all the gleaming beauty of tone. Furtwängler plays the Dance of the Blessed Spirits with grave deliberation, though less sympathetic ears will find it ponderous (as do I). He plays the 1774 edition, in Italian; there are numerous cuts and modifications of recitatives and arias as well as wholesale cutting of the ballet numbers.

As for the sound it’s no better or worse than one would expect of a 1951 off-air recording. I can hear no “24Bit/96Khz” remastering as claimed – just a fair representation of the original signal. There are no notes or texts at all and just broad tracking details. Imperfect as this undoubtedly is it’s most valuable for the conductor’s contribution – measured, certainly, stressing the philosophic nobilities of the score, unhurried and weighty without courting ponderousness.

Jonathan Woolf


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