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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (1791)
Josef Greindl (bass) – Sarastro; Walther Ludwig (tenor) – Tamino; Paul Schöffler (bass-baritone) – Sprecher; Hermann Gallos (tenor) – 1. Priester; Karl Dönch (bass) – 2. Priester; Wilma Lipp (soprano) – Königin der Nacht; Irmgard Seefried (soprano) – Pamina; Gertrude Grob-Prandl (soprano) – 1. Dame; Sieglinde Wagner (mezzo-soprano) – 2. Dame; Elisabeth Höngen (contralto) – 3. Dame; Karl-Schmitt-Walter (baritone) – Papageno; Edith Oravez (soprano) – Papagena; Peter Klein (tenor) – Monostatos; Elisabeth Rutgers (soprano) – 1. Knabe; Ruthilde Boesch (mezzo) – 2. Knabe; Polly Batic (contralto) – 3. Knabe; Ernst Haefliger (tenor) – 1. Geharnischter; Hermann Uhde (bass) – 2. Geharnischter
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker/Wilhelm Furtwängler
Recorded at the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg on July 27th 1949
ORFEO C650 053 D [3 CDs: 77:20 + 47:33 + 51:44]
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Here is another valuable document of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s activities as a Mozart conductor at Salzburg. Mozart’s music appeared infrequently on his concert programmes - the last four symphonies and the requiem plus the odd concerto when some renowned soloist demanded.. That said, he obviously had a special affection for the operas, which became more or less the core of his Salzburg performances during his last years.

We have come to expect expansive and deeply affectionate interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner from his baton. Is his approach to Mozart different? On the surface it isn’t and the timings of this issue (almost three full hours stretching over three fairly well-filled CDs) points towards a long drawn-out affair – which in part it is. But this isn’t the whole truth: there are some extremely slow tempos that could be questioned. I will come back to this in due time. I should however point out that the overall timing also accommodates lengthy applause, extended pauses while the sets are changed and an unusually full amount of spoken dialogue.

Following the performance with the Eulenburg score, which includes all the spoken words from the original edition, it is clear that there is much more dialogue here than in any other recorded performance I have heard – or even live performance for that matter. There are cuts – thank God – and it can be nice to hear these once. However as delivered here to a large outdoor audience, requiring a sometimes larger-than-life delivery, it becomes tiring on repeated hearing. It is nevertheless fairly well done, considering that these are singers and not actors. Through clever tracking it is also possible to programme out most of the dialogue, so readers allergic to long stretches of spoken German need not hesitate on this ground.

The quality of the sound is another matter. The source material is a radio recording made by the Salzburg studios of the Rotweissrot group of stations established by the American occupying forces. Unfortunately the original tapes are not available any longer so this set has been made from copies in less than mint condition. The booklet text stresses the restoration work that has been done, and while acknowledging the commitment and technical proficiency of Othmar Eichinger and Harald Huber, it has to be said that the finished result is still quite primitive. The value of this issue is primarily the opportunity to get a glimpse of the great conductor’s view of this indestructible masterpiece and also to hear many great singers of the day, most of them well remembered. There is a lot to admire here but one has to be prepared for thin string tone, a fair amount of distortion, voices coming and going through stage movements and unavoidable stage noises. On the other hand the numerous sound effects, primarily the recurrent thunders, are frighteningly realistic so one can easily understand Papageno’s fear.

The overture at once sets the seal on this performance: the adagio-opening is heavy, dark, oratorio-like, more Bruckner than Mozart, but the allegro is swift and sparkling. The three ominous wind fanfares (bars 97-102) are again heavy and doom-laden but then the allegro bounces along light-heartedly as befits a Singspiel. These contrasts turn out to be symptomatic of the whole performance: adagios and larghettos tend to be very adagio and larghetto, while allegros are certainly not slow, rather the contrary. Furtwängler is careful to stress the dramatic accents, for instance in the opening scene where Tamino is chased by the serpent. Most of the up-tempo numbers are traditionally executed but what remains in one’s memory after the performance are the sometimes extremely drawn-out slow speeds. Compared to the recorded version I know best, Karl Böhm’s 40-year-old DG recording, some of the numbers are almost somnambulist – and Böhm is no hustler! In well-known arias like Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (CD1 track 5) and Sarastro’s O Isis und Osiris (CD2 track 3) Furtwängler adds a full minute’s playing time; that is an extreme difference for a piece lasting three to four minutes. Besides enhancing the oratorio-feeling this approach also puts the singers’ breath-control to severe test. In The Queen of the Night’s first act aria, O zittre nicht (CD1 track 7) Wilma Lipp sounds uncharacteristically strained in the first larghetto section, while the allegro moderato – beginning with the words Du, du, du wirst sie zu befreien gehen, moves at a fresher pace making her sound much more comfortable. The march of the priests, opening the second act, takes Furtwängler 3:36 to traverse, while Michael Halász on the excellent Naxos recording, who is by no means rushed, needs only 2:35. Of course, difference in speed is only one criterion when comparing interpretations but at least it gives a tangible indication of what to expect. The Vienna Philharmonic play as well as their maestro allows them to do but the Vienna State Opera Chorus of this vintage was obviously not so homogeneous a body as we have come to expect from later incarnations.

The soloists are a quite different matter. A glance at the cast-list is like reading the Who’s who of Austro-German opera singers of fifty+ years ago. This goes down to the tiniest comprimario role. Here we find Ernst Haefliger who within a few years was to become one of the foremost Mozart tenors - recording Tamino, as well as Belmonte, Don Ottavio and Ferrando for DG. Here he is 1st Armed Man. One of the most formidable Wagner baritones of the 1950s, Hermann Uhde is here as the 2nd Armed Man? Sieglinde Wagner and Elisabeth Höngen as 2nd and 3rd Lady respectively are other examples of luxurious casting. Watch out also for Karl Dönch as 2nd Priest. The three ladies blend well in their concerted singing but Gertrude Grob-Prandl as 1st Lady, by far the most important of them, is shrill and fluttery on her own. The real find here is the otherwise unknown (to me at least) Edith Oravez as Papagena. It is of course mainly a speaking part, which she acts splendidly, but when eventually she is allowed to sing in the finale, she displays an enchanting soubrette, glittering, beautiful and perfectly pitched. I wonder what became of her. Rarely has the part of Monostatos been so well sung as here by Peter Klein, the second act aria expertly executed. Veteran Paul Schöffler is a warm and expressive Speaker, through Furtwängler’s slow speeds appearing almost as an Old Testament prophet. He is almost on a par with Hans Hotter on the Böhm recording – another important Hans Sachs – and he is in steadier voice. His speaking voice is surprisingly thin and tenoral, so much so that I wondered if it is the same actor.

Among the five central characters, three of the singers went on to record their parts commercially. Josef Greindl’s authoritative, slightly gritty but sonorous Sarastro is to be heard on Ferenc Fricsay’s DG recording from 1955, and although his is a towering presence whenever he appears on the present recording he is hampered by the slow tempos. In diesen heil’gen Hallen (CD2 track 11) sounds more comfortable and he finishes it on a resounding low (unwritten) E. Also in the mid-1950s Wilma Lipp recorded The Queen of the Night for Karl Böhm (his first Zauberflöte, for Decca) and to my mind that is, with the exception of Rita Streich on the Fricsay, the supreme assumption on records of this devilish part. Here she is, as I have already mentioned, a bit uncomfortable in the first aria but towards the end she climbs the scale on "ewig" with considerable ease, although the stratospheric F is only touched in. In the even more challenging Der Hölle Rache (CD2 track 9) she is really impressive: dramatic, intense and hitting almost all the high notes plumb in the middle. Lipp was not yet 25 when she recorded this, which makes it even more impressive.

The lovely Irmgard Seefried, who set down Pamina’s role for Karajan on EMI just a year later, is ideal for the part. In 1949 she still that bell-like silvery clarity that a decade later had been supplanted by something less precious. She could at the same time be utterly sad and vulnerable. Her second act aria Ach, ich fühl’s (CD2 track 15) shows her to very good advantage.

The remaining two lead characters never got to record their parts, which in the case of Walther Ludwig was a pity. Born in 1902 he had already had a lengthy career, making his debut in 1928 and being part of the first ensemble at Glyndebourne. At the age of sixty he resumed his medical studies, which he had put on the shelf in his youth, and from 1971 he worked as a doctor. He recorded another of his Mozart roles, that of Belmonte in Die Entführung aus der Serail for Decca, possibly that company’s first complete opera and one of the earliest LP-operas. Just a few years later, in the mid-1950s, his voice had lost most of its bloom, as is revealed by some operatic excerpts and song recordings in my collection. Here though, after a hesitant start where he lacks elegance and shows some of the hardening of tone that was to be prominent later on, he goes from strength to strength. In the first act finale he glows with burnished tone, not unlike that of Siegfried Jerusalem’s; just listen to O ew’ge Nacht (CD1 track 13, immediately after the encounter with the Speaker). Then try his second aria Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton (CD1 track 14). This is Mozart singing of the highest order.

I am afraid that I can’t be so enthusiastic about the Papageno of Karl Schmitt-Walter (1900– 1985). This singer also had a long career, making his debut as early as 1921. In 1961 he was still singing Beckmesser at Bayreuth and some Lieder-recordings I have, show a singer with a flexible voice still keen with the words. The latter aspect is also applicable to his Papageno; his is a lively impersonation and in the duet with Pamina, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen (CD1 track 11) he shows something of his former greatness. Otherwise he is dry-sounding and, in the Vogelfänger-aria, quite four-square. The booklet reprints a review by the noted Viennese critic Heinrich Kralik, who thought Schmitt-Walter’s characterization was masterful. This may well have been the impression with the visual elements in place but as a purely sonic experience it is a far cry from for instance Fischer-Dieskau’s (Fricsay and Böhm). Håkan Hagegård’s (in Ingmar Bergman’s film) is an assumption I also savoured from the then young baritone on several occasions in the early 1970s in Stockholm.

To sum things up: this is probably not for the general opera lover, who presumably wants something "cleaner". Furtwängler’s admirers, who don’t already own it in one of the pirate-versions that have appeared from time to time, should of course consider it as should general collectors with an interest in some of these singers. Personally I’m not sure I will return to it very often in toto, but for Seefried, Lipp’s Hölle Rache and Ludwig’s Wie stark it will definitely be tempting – sonics notwithstanding.

Göran Forsling



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