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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Così fan tutte [159:06]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Fiordiligi, soprano), Nan Merriman (Dorabella, mezzo), Lisa Otto (Despina, soprano), Léopold Simoneau (Ferrando, tenor), Rolando Panerai (Guglielmo, baritone), Sesto Bruscantini (Don Alfonso, bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1954
Don Giovanni: Vedrai carino [03:33], Crudele? … Non mi dir [07:23], Batti, batti, o bel Masetto [03:31], Le nozze di Figaro: Porgi amor [04:14], Voi che sapete [02:56], Dove sono [04:54], Idomeneo: Zeffiretti lusibghieri [05:54]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra/John Pritchard
rec. 1953
Die Zauberflöte: Ach, ich fühls [04:17]
Don Giovanni: In quali eccessi … Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata [05:50]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Mario Rossi
rec. 1952, live
REGIS RRC 3010 [3 CDs: 62:56 + 63:06 + 75:50]
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In my earlier record-collecting days the "Così fan tutte" was the 1962 Böhm EMI with Schwarzkopf heading a starry cast, rather as the "Figaro" was the Erich Kleiber on Decca. The Kleiber "Figaro" has pretty well maintained its position, at least among pre-"authentic" interpretations, while the pre-eminence of the Böhm "Così" seems less assured. Personally, I got it as a "safe" choice in an early CD reincarnation and found it about as enthralling as a wet blanket. In the wake of period-style and period-style-influenced interpretations, critical opinion seems to have veered in my direction over the last decade-and-a-half but at the time only the E.M.G. Monthly Letter, of glorious memory, found it a disappointment compared with EMI’s previous LP set under Karajan. Basically, Böhm would appear to believe that Mozart was still writing the old style of opera in which the story-line is carried forward in the recitatives – albeit at a fairly stately progress in his hands – while the musical numbers offer a sort of static commentary on the larger philosophical issues, to which the words are only a peg. Despina’s two arias and the Dorabella/Guglielmo duet are extreme cases where the singers do all they can to enunciate their words with some sense of fun while the conductor provides an exquisitely manicured orchestral backdrop which seems deliberately intended to contradict the meaning of what is being sung. Personally, I disagree profoundly with such a manner of interpreting this opera – a manner which might be suited, among Mozart’s works, only to "La Clemenza di Tito" and early pieces such as "Mitridate, Re di Ponto" – but if it sounds like your ideal then you might possibly prefer Böhm’s even more marmoreal final reading (1974) on DG. I have duly listened to the Böhm EMI again as a comparison with Karajan, and also to a 1957 broadcast under Vittorio Gui which permitted me to hear Sesto Bruscantini’s Don Alfonso in a different context. This performance has not been officially issued though, the operatic grapevine being what it is, I don’t rule out the possibility that you might run a bootleg version to earth if you tried hard enough. A very much later (1990) Bruscantini performance of this role was issued by Orfeo in a performance under Gustav Kühn otherwise performed by some very young singers of whom at least three – Antonacci, Bacelli and Dohmen – have remained with us.

Other cross-references, unavailable to me, might be worth following up. Schwarzkopf and Merriman were together again at La Scala under Guido Cantelli in a legendary performance that established this opera in the Italian repertoire rather as Busch’s Glyndebourne performances of the 1930s had done in England. Here the present Guglielmo, Rolando Panerai, sang Don Alfonso, as he did twenty years later in the last Böhm version. Merriman returned to Dorabella in a well-regarded DG set under Jochum with Seefried, Köth, Haefliger, Prey and Fischer-Dieskau. Lisa Otto’s Despina can be heard live under Böhm in a 1954 Vienna performance with Seefried, Dagmar Hermann, Dermota, Kunz and Schöffler. Despite Karajan’s numerous re-recordings, this is one work to which he did not return.

Schwarzkopf is noticeably more vivid with her recitatives and in the ensembles under Karajan. The stop-watch shows that her two arias are actually slower with Karajan but they seem less static due to the conductor’s greater emotional participation. This would seem to be the performance of the two by which Schwarzkopf is best remembered. Incidentally, at a 1961 concert in Naples at which she sang a string of Mozart arias conducted by Carlo Franci, she adopted a somewhat more flowing tempo for "Per pieta, ben mio", presumably at her own choice.

Nan Merriman’s darker voice differentiates the two sisters better than is the case with the more similar Christa Ludwig and she provides plenty of character in her recitatives and ensembles. Her arias are not so interestingly sung, however, and there is a trace of scooping in "Smanie implacabili" which I didn’t much care for. Christa Ludwig’s much more detailed response reveals her as the great singer we know her to be. Furthermore, Böhm is at his least devastating in these arias and indeed his very lively "E’ amore un ladroncello" is one of the few moments of his performance I really enjoy. Lisa Otto offers the traditional soubrette Despina but curiously she inverts the normal practice in her disguised voices, singing the Doctor very nasally (and also out of tune, deliberately or not) and adopting a sort of owl-hoot for the Notary, which Mozart actually marked to be sung nasally. Whether this was Otto’s own idea or Karajan’s could be checked out by reference to her 1954 performance under Böhm. Hanny Steffek, for Böhm, does not change her natural voice much for the Doctor and offers the usual nasal Notary, as does also Elena Rizzieri for Gui. Potentially I would prefer Steffek to Otto since her timbre is less shrill, but she suffers more than anyone from Böhm’s funereal tempi. Arguably Rizzieri, as a native Italian and helped by that master-Rossinian Gui, is better still.

Léopold Simoneau’s suave emission and exquisite artistry made him one of the most admired Mozart tenors of his day – a finer Ferrando could hardly be imagined. Alfredo Kraus – brought in to replace an unavailable Nicolai Gedda – was a great singer too, of course, but here seems less inclined than the rest of the cast to counter Böhm’s blandness. Panerai and Taddei, Böhm’s Guglielmo, were both outstanding Italian baritones. It is probably Karajan’s greater urgency which leads me to prefer Panerai rather than the singing itself.

The scheming, cynical, Don Alfonso is really the pivot on which the whole opera hangs. For Karajan, Sesto Bruscantini adopts an almost whispered, insinuating manner, achieving his ends by stealth. For Gui he is quite different, perhaps more the conventional comic bass, strutting around and organizing everybody and everything. Walter Berry, for Böhm, is good but a size smaller. You don’t get the same idea that he is at the centre of the plot.

Karajan, as always, is intensely individual but, while he could be a heavy Mozartian in later years, for the most part everything here sparkles and flows naturally. Even when I don’t agree, he’s rarely impossible, as Böhm so often is. I certainly know which my choice would be. I should point out, though, that Karajan has the recitatives drastically cut and takes a few snips at the actual music. Böhm, by the standards of his live performances and his first recording on Decca – with Della Casa, Ludwig, Loose, Dermota, Kunz and Schöffler – uses a relatively full text (his 1974 version, in spite of the slow tempi, fits onto two CDs because of the savage cuts), though not to the extent of reinstating Ferrando’s first Act Two aria. So if you want a complete text, none of the historical versions will do.

The Karajan "Così fan tutte" has been reissued by EMI themselves in the Great Recordings of the Century series. Regis offer reasonable reportage of the LPs as you would hear them if you had good copies and the means to play them. Surface noise is detectable on headphones but would probably not worry you in domestic surroundings unless you have a padded cell for a listening-room. Distortion comes and goes, corresponding, I imagine, with the end of the original sides. It is never too serious. The booklet has notes and a synopsis. In a desperate attempt to make amends for all the times they have spelt Giuseppe Di Stefano with a small "D", Regis have spelt Herbert von Karajan with a capital "V", while maintaining the small "D" for the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte! They also continue to be reluctant to understand that the omission of an accent from an Italian word may change the meaning radically. I haven’t heard the "official" EMI transfer, but no one should feel short-changed by the sound produced by the present one in view of its venerable age and it does provide some extras, which the EMI doesn’t. Most of these are from a recital disc conducted with unobtrusive good sense (i.e. à la Böhm) by John Pritchard and including arias from parts Schwarzkopf did not normally sing on stage – Cherubino from "Figaro", Zerlina and Donna Elvira from "Don Giovanni". Maybe in 1953 she had not decided definitively which Mozart parts she was going to sing, but even later on she seems to have enjoyed forays into other singers’ Mozart roles. In the Naples concert referred to above she followed the Fiordiligi aria with Dorabella’s "E’ amore un ladroncello" and Susanna’s "Deh, vieni" from "Figaro". It would have been nice to have had these here, but of course the 1961 recordings are still under copyright.

Lastly, we have two extracts from a 1952 "Martini & Rossi" concert. The "Martini & Rossi" concerts were a series sponsored for at least a decade by the manufacturers of the popular drink and featured arias sung by two singers - plus the odd duet if the singers in question happened to be on speaking terms - with a few orchestral items. They were broadcast and recorded by RAI and quite a lot of this material has been issued on CD. The fact that this particular concert was conducted by Mario Rossi is purely coincidental – Rossis are as common in Italy as Smiths in England. This same concert also included a version of "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" which might have been preferred to the one under Pritchard. It opens with a stretch of recitative not recorded in 1953. The conductor’s more urgently detailed response – in spite of almost a minute of recitative the Turin performance is only a few seconds longer – is taken up by Schwarzkopf. Also in 1952, by the way, Schwarzkopf collaborated with Rossi in a performance of Mozart’s "Betullia liberata", a work otherwise absent from her discography. A bootleg version has been issued but, with Cesare Valletti and Boris Christoff among the other singers, something more official would be welcome.

In conclusion, since I have advocated before now an appraisal of the broadcast material left by the under-recorded Vittorio Gui, let me sum up the pros and cons of a hypothetical release of his "Così fan tutte". The Fiordiligi, Orietta Moscucci, is the drawback, obviously a little flustered in the early stages where she snatches extra breaths in unsuitable places and generally not entirely secure. An attractive voice and a natural handling of the recitatives - in her own language, after all - make some amends but she is no match for Schwarzkopf or for many other recorded Fiordiligis. The Dorabella, Miriam Pirazzini, could be preferred to Merriman, though hardly to Ludwig. Juan Oncina and Franco Calabrese, the Fernando and Guglielmo, are familiar from Gui’s Glyndebourne Rossini sets. Oncina had not quite the vocal beauty and resources of Simoneau or Kraus, but was an attractive artist. Only recently my colleague Goran Försling was remarking that Franco Calabrese usually only got comprimari roles on disc so it sounds as if at least one listener would be interested in his Guglielmo - also to be heard on the Cantelli performance. I have already discussed the Despina and Don Alfonso.

Gui’s two acts come in at about 78 and 72.5 minutes and so would go onto two CDs. This is not because his cuts are greater – if anything he has a little more recitative than Karajan – but because on the whole he is swifter. And even when he is not, as in the duet "Prenderò quel brunettino", his greater lilt makes him seem so – how one’s heart sinks as Böhm begins this piece. He knows how to make a finale spin and he also knows what can be sung, so his tempi never actually seem rushed. This recording certainly demonstrates that, if EMI had had the imagination to invite Gui rather than Böhm to conduct the second Schwarzkopf recording, the result would have been a classic to set alongside the Kleiber "Figaro". In view of the casting, this RAI version could not achieve the same status, and its viability would also depend on whether a sympathetic re-mastering of the original tapes could make it sound a whole lot better than my off-the-air taping, which seems about ten years older than it actually is.

Christopher Howell



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