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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787)
George London (baritone) – Don Giovanni; Ludwig Weber (bass) – Il Commendatore; Hilde Zadek (soprano) – Donna Anna; Léopold Simoneau (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Sena Jurinac (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Walter Berry (bass) – Leporello; Eberhard Waechter (baritone) – Masetto; Graziella Sciutti (soprano) – Zerlina; Vienna Chamber Chorus, Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Moralt
rec. 1955
Bonus: George London sings Arias by Mozart
Le nozze di Figaro: Se vuol ballare [3:27]; La vendetta [3:04]; Non più andrai [3:58]; Vedro mentr’io sospiro [4:42]; Aprite un po’ quegl’ occhi [4:10]; Mentre ti lascio, o figlia, K.513 [8:04]; Per questa bella mano, K.612 [7:47]; Rivolgete a lui lo squardo, K.584 [4:50]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Walter (harpsichord); George Neikrug (solo cello)
rec. Los Angeles, California, 7-8 May, 1953
PREISER 90762 [3 CDs: 79:01 + 66:44 + 62:19] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


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.

However almost 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 for.

Walter Berry, 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.

Eberhard Waechter, 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 tenors.

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.

The 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.

Göran Forsling

 

 


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