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Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Die Lustige Witwe Operetta in 3 Acts (1905) [74:09]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Künstlerleben Op. 316 [9:21]; Rosen aus dem Süden Op. 388 [8:54]; “Die Zigeunerbaron” Overture [7:13]; Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald Op. 325 [12:04]; Kaiser-Walzer Op. 437 [10:29]; “Die Fledermaus” Overture [7:48]; An der schönen blauen Donau Op. 314 [9:39]
Hanna Glawari – Dame Felicity Lott (soprano); Count Danilo Danilowitsch – Thomas Hampson (baritone); Valencienne – Elzbieta Szmytka (soprano); Camille de Rosillon – John Aler (tenor); Vicomte Cascada - Kurt Azesberger; Baron Mirko Zeta – Robert Poulton (baritone); Raoul de St Brioche – Rudolf Schasching; Kronow – Stuart MacIntyre; Bogdanowitsch – Christopher Parke; Pitschitsch – Howard Quilla Croft; Grisettes – Anna O’Byrne, Paula O’Sullivan, Philippa Daly, Michelle Walton, Alison Duguid, Joanna Campion; The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. (Lehár) live, Royal Festival Hall, London, July 1993; (Strauss) No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, April 1990
EMI CLASSICS 5209742 [74:09 + 65:28]
Experience Classicsonline

There is already a profusion of good and very good recordings of “The Merry Widow”, including those featuring Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and those conducted by Karajan, Gardiner or Stolz. If you prefer it in English, you could go back to the old Sadler’s Wells version with June Bronhill and Thomas Round, the New Sadler’s Wells set with Eiddwen Harrhy, or to that with Joan Sutherland conducted by Richard Bonynge. All of these have strong claims as do others, but even in this distinguished company the present reissue is worth considering. Admittedly it is let down by the recording and presentation, but the performance gives such pleasure that I urge you to ignore these defects and concentrate on its virtues.
 
This was one of a number of concert performances under the auspices of Glyndebourne while the new opera house was being constructed. It was given in the Royal Festival Hall, and was linked by a narration in English by Tom Stoppard spoken by Dirk Bogarde. On this recording that narration is omitted, so that numbers simply follow each other in succession, with occasional applause, and, very oddly, an encore for the March-Septet in Act 2. I would much prefer to have a brief break between numbers, such as the brief snatches of dialogue that DG managed to include on a single disc in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Vienna recording with Cheryl Studer and Boje Skovhus. However the lack of dialogue applies also to the classic earlier Schwarzkopf recordings so that in itself does not rule the recording out. In addition EMI have not helped the listener by including only the briefest of summaries of the plot and by omitting a libretto. When the singers have all obviously worked hard to point the lines with such care this does seem to show a lack of understanding of the recording’s particular qualities. That said, many potential purchasers will already have a version with a libretto, and at the very low prices at which the set can be obtained it would be a mistake to allow EMI’s decision to put you off.
 
The cast is extremely well chosen, and there is a delightful sense of a real performance taking place. It would have been better if it had been taking place in another location, as the size of the Hall seems to have required most of the singers to sing more forcefully than is ideal in this music. I do not know whether it is because of this or because of unsuitable positioning of microphones, but the voices of almost all of the main singers, with the exception of Elzbieta Szmytka as Valencienne, seem to have acquired a harshness which I suspect they do not normally have when heard live, and which they certainly do not have on their other recordings. Dame Felicity Lott and Thomas Hampson both have voices of singular beauty, but as heard here there is a touch of hardness which detracts from the results. However even this does not stop them being very winning performances, fully inside their characters. The smaller roles are generally well taken, although here too there is a tendency to sing louder than is good for the music. The chorus sounds fine but perhaps too large and well rehearsed to sound like party guests, however grand the party.
 
The main pleasure comes, however, from the playing of the orchestra. Even when compared with such rivals as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philharmonia in its early days, the London Philharmonic here play with rare delicacy and understanding of the idiom, half way between classical Viennese operetta and the musical comedies of the early twentieth century. Nothing is overdone, but everything is in its place in the sometimes lush textures. It is hard now to understand why some people at that time were dismissive of the talents of Franz Welser-Möst. As he has shown even more clearly since then, he is a conductor of rare ability, especially in opera. I think that it can largely be put down to him that this is such an enjoyable performance, well worth adding to your collection as a first or second recording of the opera.
 
The Strauss items on the second disc are also enjoyable, although it might have been more so with a less hackneyed programme, and again EMI show a penny-pinching approach in omitting the zither in “Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald” (Tales from the Vienna Woods). Admittedly the small string group that is used is shown as an alternative in the score, but the effect of the zither is so individual that it is hard to see how anyone could willingly leave it out. Nonetheless overall this disc too is worth hearing with its idiomatic but unexaggerated performances, although it is for the first disc that I would recommend this set.
 
John Sheppard
 

 


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