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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni K527 (1787) arranged for wind ensemble (1788?) by Josef TRIEBENSEE (1772-1846)
Opera Senza (Maarten Dekkers, Tomoharu Yoshida (oboes); Thorsten Johanns, Paul-Joachim Blöcher (clarinets); Kathleen Putnam, Hubert Stähle (horns); Henrik Rabien, Hubert Betz (bassoons); Jörg Schade, (double-bass)
rec. 22-24 February 2007, Evangelische Kirche, Honrath, Germany. DDD. Stereo, 5+1 and 2+2+2 formats

How did people get to know the latest music before recording was possible? Reductions of the score for piano solo or duet offered one method, most familiar nowadays in Liszt’s many operatic transcriptions. Musical boxes provided another, very limited opportunity.

Arrangements for wind ensemble – Harmoniemusik in German – provided another. In the late eighteenth-century such outdoor groups came indoors, following the string ensembles which are thought to have formed the basis of Haydn’s earliest string quartets. In Act II scene v of Don Giovanni, the very opera which is arranged here for Harmonie, such a wind band is heard performing extracts from popular operas of the day, including Mozart’s own Figaro. Johann Strauss II was still doing much the same thing a century later: his Erinnerungen an Covent Garden embeds a number of English music-hall tunes, notably Champagne Charlie.

To what extent such arrangements are valuable today, with multiple recordings of Mozart operas available, is debatable. In a sense, it’s as dated as the 78 version of Là ci darem, sung in German by Richard Tauber as Reich mir die Hand, mein Leben, borrowed from a friend’s father, on which I first encountered the Don. It’s probably best to regard this work as an eighteenth-century wind serenade which just happens to contain a number of well-known tunes.

Mozart himself wrote a number of Divertimenti and Serenades for such ensembles, the most famous of which is the Gran Partita, alias Serenade No.10 for 13 Wind Instruments. A good selection of these, including the Gran Partita, is available on Decca 455 794 2, three bargain-price CDs offering delectable performances from the London Wind Soloists under Jack Brymer in generally well-remastered 1960s recordings. An even more complete 7-CD super-bargain set on Brilliant Classics 99716 received an enthusiastic review from fellow Musicweb reviewer Kirk McElhearn. This now appears to have reappeared as a 10-CD sdet on 99733 with a 3-CD selection on 92869. A selection of Mozart’s Wind Serenades on Naxos 8.555943 was made Bargain of the Month by my colleague Tony Haywood. Mozart is also known to have composed Harmonie arrangements of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and other of his own operas, but none of these have survived.

Josef Triebensee directed a Harmonie ensemble for Prince Alois of Liechtenstein and other princes before becoming director of the Estates Theatre in Prague. In 1803-4 he published a collection of arrangements of operas and original music, followed by a second collection of arrangements of operas and other works in 1808-13. An arrangement of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, coupled with Beethoven’s Wind Octet and Hummel’s Octet-Partita, is available on a Hyperion Helios CD entitled The Classical Harmonie: The Albion Ensemble on bargain-price CDH55037. Otherwise, today his arrangement of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is practically his sole claim to fame.

What we have on this new CD amounts to a set of highlights from the opera in wind-ensemble form, offering pretty well what you might expect on a single CD of ‘regular’ extracts from the opera. It joins three other recordings currently available: the recently-released Europa Symphony Wind Ensemble on Arte Nova 74321 39118 2; the Athena Wind Ensemble on Chandos Collect CHAN6597, both at bargain price, and a shorter selection, coupled with music by Salieri on Tudor C779, performed by the Zurich Wind Octet. A selection of Mozart’s own Wind Serenades on bargain-price Hyperion Helios CDH55092 includes Triebensee’s arrangement of the Don Giovanni Overture only.

Triebensee did not simply transcribe the music literally; his transcriptions are much more flexible than that, so it is not possible to make A-B comparisons with vocal performances of any of the numbers. In particular it is difficult to convey the drama of the original opera, especially the cataclysmic ending of Don Giovanni.

The booklet indicates that the last three items on the recording, Ah signor ... per carità, Don Giovanni, a cenar teco (the statue’s address to Giovanni) and Questo è il fin di chi fa mal, are ‘arr. by A.N.Tarkmann’. The notes do not offer any further explanation as to who this might be but I take it to be Andreas Tarkmann, credited rather portentously by the Rheingau Echo in 1996 with improving Triebensee’s arrangement of Don Giovanni in order to bring out the full potential of wind-ensemble music: "Mit diesen Änderungen gelang den Bläsern eine enorm vielschichtige Umsetzung der kompositorischen Substanz des Mozartschen Originals." (These changes enabled the wind-players to realise an enormously multi-layered transposition of the compositional substance of Mozart’s original.)

Whether this means that Triebensee balked at arranging this very dramatic music for Harmonie or that Tarkmann has improved on his arrangement is not indicated in Peter Stadler’s otherwise valuable notes. Presumably Triebensee omitted these last dramatic moments, or his arrangement of them has been lost, since the Athena Ensemble version on Chandos ends with Già la mensa è preparata - misprinted as ... le mensa ... on the Chandos website - thereby lacking the equivalent of the last 4˝ minutes of this MDG version. Gluck had not shirked the difficult task of depicting the Don’s bad end in balletic form – Mozart borrowed more than a little from the dramatic ending of this work. Can and should the same be done in wind-band transcription? The Tarkmann ending is effective enough but I have to say that Don Giovanni, a cenar teco did not make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in the same way that a live singer can do. This final track (20), like the finale of Act I on track 11, is subdivided, which is not much use when most (all?) modern CD decks have abandoned this feature.

Opera Senza is, as its name implies, a wind ensemble dedicated to the performance of opera without the voices, ranging from Mozart via Beethoven to Smetana. I believe that this is their first appearance on record – I certainly have not encountered them before – and it is an auspicious début: their performances do the music full justice. The addition of a double-bass to the usual wind-octet line-up, "to provide 16’ sound" as the notes in the booklet explain, tends to make this recording sound rather more bass-heavy than usual but not unduly so. Since the ensemble consists of members of the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, whose recording of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony under Semyon Bychkov I have just nominated Recording of the Month (Avie hybrid SACD AV2137) I presume that they use modern, not period instruments. The smoothness of the sound adds to that presumption, though the days when period-performance meant rough and often out-of-tune ensemble are long gone. In fact, there they are on the back cover of the booklet with their modern-looking instruments.

If I say that their playing reminds me of Jack Brymer’s London Wind Soloists, whose recordings first introduced me to the delights of Mozart’s wind music over forty years ago, that is high praise. Their rendition of Là ci darem la mano is fully equal to my fifty-year-old memory of the Tauber 78 rpm recording.

If the final impression is that Triebensee’s arrangement prettifies and trivialises Mozart’s opera, turning the ironic humour into bonhomie, that is hardly their fault. Like Dr Johnson, in his sexist comment on lady preachers, whom he compared to dogs walking on two legs, it’s well done but one wonders if it should be done at all. The now-obligatory Watteau painting on the cover - uncredited in the booklet - also prettifies the whole thing. It would be unfair, however, to deny at least a thumbs-up for the quality of the playing and recording.

The recording perfectly complements the smoothness of the playing. Long ago Peter Gammond’s series Music on Record convinced me that chamber music provided much greater opportunities than larger-scale works for stereo recording. On this CD the sound engineers have created a perfect illusion of nine players, each instrument - or, at any rate, pairs of instruments - inhabiting its own space but well integrated within the ensemble. As I have indicated, the double bass adds to the fullness of the sound without making it bottom-heavy or boomy. Some compatible SACDs sound less well in stereo than conventional CDs, but the stereo layer here sounds excellent in its own right. I note that MDG have developed their own 2+2+2 multichannel sound, graphically depicted in the booklet and available on this CD in addition to the normal 5.1 surround sound. How far the two are compatible I am not qualified to say.

The disc is encased in a ‘Super Jewel Box’, rather more heavily armoured than the usual SACD case, but that did not prevent its being slightly cracked in the post. The warning on the back cover ‘No picture/only music’ seems as unnecessary as labelling a packet of nuts ‘may contain nuts’.

Brian Wilson


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