For the 200th anniversary celebrations of Mozart in
1956 the big record companies overbid each other in lavish offerings.
There were newly recorded versions of his masterpieces and also
works that were new to the catalogues. This was in the relative
infancy of the LP record and compared to the cornucopia in the
early 1990s, celebrating 200 years after his death, it was a rather
meagre offering. Then Philips issued ‘The Complete Mozart’ including
fragments of little or no value to the general listeners but by
then completeness was the buzzword.
55 years ago there was suddenly a wealth of different recordings
to choose from. Especially in the field of opera this was
quite a new experience. Complete Mozart operas were first
issued in the late 1930s when HMV recorded Don Giovanni,
Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte with Glyndebourne
forces under Fritz Busch and, just before the outbreak of
the war, Die Zauberflöte in Berlin under Sir Thomas
Beecham. The early LP era saw new recordings by HMV of Zauberflöte
and Nozze di Figaro by the then relatively new star
Herbert von Karajan, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail
under Josef Krips for Decca. There may have been a couple
of others as well but my memory fails me. But when the anniversary
came closer several companies were in great form. Italian
Cetra released a Don Giovanni, from EMI came Così
fan tutte (Karajan), Le nozze di Figaro (Gui) and,
somewhat belatedly, Die Entführung (Beecham); Deutsche
Grammophon recorded Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte,
both under Fricsay. Philips offered Figaro (Böhm) and
Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte (Moralt). Decca
topped the others by issuing four operas, recorded in Vienna
with the Vienna Philharmonic and featuring primarily leading
singers from the State Opera: Figaro (Erich Kleiber),
Don Giovanni (Krips) and Così and Zauberflöte
(both under Böhm). Of all these the HMV operas have become
classics and so have the Deccas, especially Figaro
and Don Giovanni. The DGs have a lot of merits – I
have known both for ages – but the drawback is that the spoken
dialogue was allotted in most cases to actors with quite different
voices than the singers. The Philips recordings have been
in and out of the catalogue and while there is general agreement
that there are several strong individual performances the
overall verdict puts them in the shadow of the HMVs and Deccas.
One reason may
be that the Vienna Symphony always was the second best orchestra
in the Austrian capital. Though I have admired the orchestra
live in the Musikverein and the Vienna Concert Hall on several
occasions it has to be admitted that there has never been
that sheen and homogeneity in the string department. As for
Rudolf Moralt’s conducting it is safe but unexceptional, which
actually is more positive than it sounds. His is an experienced
Kapellmeister approach with no eccentricities and the music
unfolds naturally, though with no special insights. Tempos
are on the whole well judged and generally speaking this is
a safe but unthrilling reading. Not a recording for revelations
in other words.
The cast, on the
other hand, is a fine mix of experienced and young and upcoming
Mozarteans, several of whom took part in other recordings
of Don Giovanni. The veteran is Ludwig Weber, who was
in his mid-50s. He was a noted Wagner singer and is an unforgettable
Ochs on Erich Kleiber’s Decca recording of Der Rosenkavalier.
He was a fine Sarastro on Karajan’s Zauberflöte. As
Il Commendatore he has little to sing: a few phrases in the
first scene before he is killed by Don Giovanni, a couple
of bars in the churchyard scene, where he is so feebly recorded
that he makes very little impact. It is only in the final
trio, leading to the death of Don Giovanni, that he comes
on his own and is the monumental stone guest one had hoped
26 at the time, was already an experienced singer, having
made his precocious debut at the Vienna State Opera as early
as 1947, when he was still a teenager. He became famous for
his Papageno which he recorded at least three times. Here
he is a flexible and expressive Leporello, a role he recorded
again under Karl Böhm in the 1970s.
born the same year as Berry, 1929, started his singing career
somewhat later and made his debut in 1953. His Masetto is
youthful and uproarious and he is a good actor with vocal
means. A few years later he was upgraded to the title role
on Giulini’s classic Don Giovanni recording.
The Don on this
recording, the Canadian bass-baritone George London, had a
magnificent voice but he was better suited to Wagner – he
was a great Wotan and Holländer – and nasty characters like
Scarpia. Don Giovanni is no doubt a villain, but an elegant
and seductive one. London makes him blustery and unlovable
and only occasionally does he soften his tone. He does this
to fine effect in the recitative with Zerlina leading over
to the duet La ci darem la mano, but his singing there
is rather crude and unrelenting. His champagne aria is breathless
and badly articulated and the canzonetta isn’t very seductive
though he has some honeyed phrases in the second verse. He
is at his best in the dramatic aria Metà di voi quà vadano
and the recitative that follows and where he beats up Masetto.
For really great
Mozart singing we have to go to Don Ottavio, sung here by
another Canadian, Léopold Simoneau. During the 1950s he was
possibly the foremost Mozart tenor and few singers have challenged
him since then, apart from Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda
in their heyday. His Dalla sua pace has everything:
tonal beauty, exquisite nuances, nobility and elegance. Il
mio tesoro is a model with superb legato, fluent runs
and a brilliance on the upper notes that often eludes lyric
His Donna Anna
is the little recorded Hilde Zadek who is intensely dramatic
though slightly squally at times. Non mi dir is however
superb and here she sings with steady tone and fine legato.
There were several
outstanding Donna Elviras at the Vienna State Opera during
this period: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lisa Della Casa recorded
the role for EMI and Decca respectively and Sena Jurinac’s
reading here is of the same calibre. In In quale eccessi
… Mi tradì she sings with such power and brilliance that
it is no wonder she also wanted to sing Donna Anna, which
she did on Fricsay’s DG recording a few years later. Good
as she is there she is still better as Elvira here.
The third soprano,
Graziella Sciutti, was another relative youngster in this
cast and her bright, glittering voice, which could also radiate
considerable warmth, is ideal for Zerlina. Batti, batti.
bel Masetto is delicious. Walter Legge and Carlo Maria
Giulini obviously thought so too, since they engaged her four
years later for the same role on their famous recording.
is acceptable and the Vienna Chamber Chorus is more than that.
There is a short essay on the work in the booklet and a track-list
but no timings. The bonus tracks, recorded two years earlier,
find George London in better shape than on the complete opera.
It is full-throated singing but it is done with quite a lot
of sensitivity. La vendetta is virtuosic. It’s a pity
his Don isn’t more attractive; a Don Giovanni without
a good Don is almost like a Hamlet with a bad prince.
Those who can accept this drawback will find a lot to admire
from all the other singers.