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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Le nozze di Figaro - opera in four acts (1986)
Tom Krause (baritone) – Il Conte di Almaviva; Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano) – La Contessa; Ileana Cotrubas (soprano) – Susanna; José van Dam (bass-baritone) – Figaro; Frederica von Stade (mezzo) – Cherubino; Jane Berbié (mezzo) – Marcellina; Jules Bastin (bass) – Bartolo; Heniz Zednik (tenor) – Basilio; Kurt Equiluz (tenor) – Don Curzio; Christiane Barbaux (soprano) – Barbarina; Zoltán Kélémen (bass) – Antonio; Christiane Barbaux and Marjon Lambriks – Due giovinette.
Wiener Staatsopernchor
Konrad Leitner (continuo)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, April and May 1978. ADD
DECCA 475 7045 [3 CDs: 66:41 + 62:18 + 40:33]
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Mozart year has only recently begun but there is already a steady stream of releases, most of them reissues. At the time of writing there are still a few days remaining to his birthday. I doubt that this recording is to be regarded as the most important of his many birthday presents, but it is still interesting – and even controversial. When it was first released in 1979 I didn’t feel like adding yet another Figaro to the Erich Kleiber and Karl Böhm sets I already had. Accordingly this was my first encounter with Karajan’s Figaro – and Karajan’s it is, since the old timer distinctly sets his seal on the performance. The older he got the more his readings became centred on Karajan’s Mozart, Verdi, Wagner instead of Mozart’s, Verdi’s, Wagner’s. This can be clearly illustrated by comparing his Otello from 1960 with his EMI remake from about 15 years later. In 1960 Verdi still occupied the seat of honour while the latter shows a full-length portrait of the maestro.

This is also the case with Figaro; not necessarily a bad thing. Karajan was after all one of the great maestros of his era and he knew what he wanted. Sometimes a break with the traditional view of a piece can be illuminating and perspective-building. Maybe he wanted to show that Mozart was not only a composer of his own time but one for all time. "Suppose", Karajan might have reasoned, "that Mozart had lived long enough to experience the blossoming of the Romantic era"; and why not? When Weber died Mozart would have been 70. "With his inquisitive mind", Karajan might have continued, "he would probably have adopted the Romantic attributes: wider dynamics, more flexible tempi, heavy accents, a fuller sound with more legato playing. So, let’s give it a try!" With the Vienna Philharmonic available he couldn’t dream of a lusher body of strings, of more romantic woodwind and more sonorous brass, well versed as they were in Wagner and Bruckner and Brahms … you name it.

Starting with the overture Karajan sets off briskly and the Vienna musicians play like gods. This music requires a virtuoso orchestra – and that’s what the VPO are. Karajan is alert to the rhythms and the music whirls on, elegantly and powerfully, but we soon notice that the maestro inserts accents, hair-pins, crescendos and decrescendos that belong to a later era. Rossini would probably have swooned for joy if he had heard this. And why not? This is what I call interventionist conducting, adding things to the written score. The thing is that he does not confine this to the overture. All through the opera he pulls the music about in very Romantic fashion, sometimes hair-raising rubatos, sometimes - very often - these heavy accents or ultra-refined pianissimos. It is like a writer who has to underline every fifth word, set inverted commas here, italicize there. It is done with great skill. It makes one listen anew to the music but – is it Mozart? Yes, maybe, forty years later.

I’ll give just a few examples, all of them from the last act, since that’s what I remember best. Starting with Figaro’s aria (CD 3 track 4), where the recitative Tutto è disposto is played so slowly that it almost comes to a stand-still, with soft silken strings. And there are gains: never, in my memory, has a Figaro been allowed space to snarl, to whisper, weigh his every word the way José van Dam is here, and he grabs every opportunity. This is a memorable reading, staggering, revealing the poor valet’s despair. This is no longer a buffo actor but a real person of flesh and blood, who believes he has been deceived, and the aria proper, Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi is sinister and dark. As I said: there are gains. Go then to the next track, Susanna’s recitative and aria Giunse alfin il momento … Deh, vieni, non tardar, again extremely slow – but telling. Here one can’t avoid noticing that poor Ileana Cotrubas would have loved it to be played a notch faster, but she also finds new nuances in a piece that everybody thought they knew. Finally, in the long finale, when half-way through the number, Figaro for a second is alone on stage, he sings Tutto è tranquillo e placido (All is peace and quietness) very, very slow and soft, almost like a slow-motion sequence in a movie. Again when near the end Il Conte is forced to apologize to La Contessa, Karajan makes a longer than normal pause, there is breathless silence and one can imagine everybody standing there, open-mouthed, amazed: "What will happen now?" After a half eternity, Il Conte finally opens his mouth too, and sings extremely slowly and softly Contessa, perdono to show that he of all people has to condescend to an apology. This is another special moment and Karajan knew: this is revolutionary. It may not have been the way Mozart meant, but it makes good music theatre. I have written at some length of these matters, since prospective buyers should be aware of the idiosyncrasies. I am still not convinced that this approach is totally successful but it is indeed a reading with a difference.

Sonically it is big-boned with the orchestra centre-stage, but Karajan handles the proceedings with such skill and elegance that the singers are never swamped. More of a problem is that recitatives, performed very flexibly, are sometimes so intimately acted and sung that one has to turn up the volume to a setting that is uncomfortable for both eardrums and neighbours when the orchestra enters. Since I am seated by the player and amplifier this is no big problem but listeners with the equipment in the other end of the room may end up quite fit but with little musical benefit. Oops, sorry, there are remote-controls nowadays, I forgot.

So far not many words about the singers, which might be a bad omen – but it isn’t. Karajan engaged a line-up of great singing-actors, several of them belonging to his inner circle. Since most of them belong to my roster of personal favourites I have to commend Karajan for his good taste. José van Dam, one of Karajan’s regulars, is a Figaro to challenge the best - for me that implies Cesare Siepi, Hermann Prey and Thomas Allen - expressive, nuanced, biting and relishing every syllable. Non più andrai, full-voiced and exuberant, is something to return to. Tom Krause is a Count with all the nobility and authority needed and he can also be mellifluous and seductive. His third act aria, preceded by the duet with Susanna, offers some of the most glorious singing of this part ever recorded. In the aria, especially, he really relishes the text, spitting consonants and rolling his "r"s. The only problem is that van Dam and Krause have quite similar voice timbres and without the libretto, which fortunately is included, it can be difficult to tell them apart from each other.

His Contessa is Anna Tomowa-Sintow, a great favourite with Karajan. She sings her two quite static but extremely beautiful arias touchingly in long thin silver threads, her slightly fluttery tone underlining her tragic life. As Susanna Ileana Cotrubas is in her element, glittering and sparkling. The Letter duet with Tomowa-Sintow is intimate with the voices blending beautifully. Frederica von Stade is of course the ideal Cherubino. She recorded the role again a few years later, also for Decca, with Solti, a recording that also has to be on anyone’s short-list. It is more generally recommendable than Karajan’s. She is a little hampered by the stately tempo Karajan adopts for Non so più, which robs it of the youthful nervousness and eagerness. Vocally however it is exquisite; even better is the second act’s Voi che sapete, an aria she once sang as an encore at a concert in Stockholm. She is one of the few mezzos who is able to make Cherubino sound boyish, just as her Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier is also believable.

The supporting cast is excellent. Jules Bastin is very expressive but hasn’t quite the booming low notes that can make Bartolo such a formidable character. He sounds young and the same goes for Marcellina, sung by the ever-reliable Jane Berbié. She is vouchsafed her aria in act four, and the splendid character tenor Heinz Zednik, singing Basilio is also allowed his aria. As Barbarina Christiane Barbaux sounds suitably girlish and the rest of the cast also make their marks. The continuo playing by Konrad Leitner is very sparse; neither he nor the singers indulge in any embellishments.

Karajan fans, who lack this recording, should not hesitate and I hope that others now have some idea of what to expect. Personally I will still stick to my old Kleiber and Böhm versions but Karajan’s approach is refreshing and the singing is superb. At its new mid-price it can certainly be a valuable alternative. "Mozart at 70", maybe – and why not?

Göran Forsling



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