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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Die Zauberflöte K620 (1791)
Matti Salminen (bass) - Sarastro; Hans Peter Blochwitz (tenor) - Tamino; Thomas Hampson (baritone) - Speaker; Alexander Maly (bass) - First Priest; Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) - Second Priest; Edita Gruberova (soprano) - Queen of the Night; Barbara Bonney (soprano) - Pamina; Pamela Coburn (soprano) - First Lady; Delores Ziegler (mezzo) - Second Lady; Marjana Lipovšek (contralto) - Third Lady; Anton Scharinger (baritone) - Papageno; Edith Schmid (soprano) - Papagena; Peter Keller (tenor) - Monostatos; Stefan Gienger, Markus Baur, Andreas Fischer (Members of Tölzer Knabenchor) - Three Boys; Thomas Moser (tenor) - First Armed Man; Antti Suhonen (bass) - Second Armed Man; Gertraud Jesserer - Spoken Text; Chorus and Orchestra of the Zurich Opera House/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Kirche Altstetten, Zurich, November 1987
WARNER TELDEC 2564 69127-2 [73:22 + 70:30]
Experience Classicsonline

Nikolaus Harnoncourt was one of the pioneers of the period performance movement of baroque music. When he later widened his scope to encompass the Vienna classics and romantic music he brought with him some of the experiences from earlier periods. The results have often been refreshing, sometimes controversial, hardly ever dull. The present recording of Die Zauberflöte, made almost 22 years ago is not entirely free from idiosyncrasies, some of which are truly illuminating.

The overture at once tells us that this is going to be a thrilling version. The acoustics are rather dry but admirably clear and the playing is alert, rather swift with some sharp accents, a Harnoncourt hallmark, rich in contrast and with rather clipped phrasing. In the opera proper Harnoncourt adopts leisurely tempos but this is compensated by some lively surprises. The duet for the two priests in act II (CD 2 tr. 2) and the following quintet are both fastish and the trio Seid uns zum zweiten Mal willkommen with the three boys (CD 2 tr. 12) is rhythmically incisive. Very refreshing. Many other tempos are discriminatingly chosen and no one is likely to be put off for that reason.

The singing is generally first class, which should make this an attractive proposition at its competitive price. The three boys - members of the famous Tölzer Knabenchor - are not always ideally fine-tuned but are still more than acceptable. In any event I prefer the sound of boys to mature women playing boys. The three ladies are excellent and the two armed men ditto. Thomas Moser all those years ago was a lyric tenor, today he sings Tristan. The second priest is sung by veteran Waldemar Kmentt, who was still singing at the Vienna State Opera only a few years ago. There is a cute Papagena and Peter Keller is a suitably nasty Monostatos. Thomas Hampson is a splendid speaker, darker of voice than usual - which suits this very special role. On my first Zauberflöte - Karl Böhm’s DG recording - it was the great Hans Hotter who made every word tell unforgettably - but Hampson isn’t far behind, and in fresher voice. Edita Gruberova seems a bit below her best as Queen of the Night. There is nothing wrong with her coloratura and the top notes are as secure as ever but her tone is rather shrill and there is some strain in Der Hölle Rache.

On the other hand Barbara Bonney’s Pamina is one of the loveliest on any recording I have heard. The duet with Papageno Bei Männern (CD 1 tr. 14) is so soft and hushed and her aria (CD 2 tr. 14) is marvellously pure and innocent. Anton Scharinger’s Papageno is expressive and good-humoured but a bit over-emphatic and slightly heavy. His voice is more bass-baritone than plain baritone. Matti Salminen is a noble Sarastro and his two arias are among the highlights of this recording, worthy to set beside Kurt Moll or Salminen’s old compatriot Kim Borg, whom I heard in the role at the Stockholm Opera in the early 1970s.

The hero, Tamino, is sung by Hans Peter Blochwitz, whose mellifluous and flexible voice also has some heroic ring. He may not be as expressive as Peter Schreier nor as rich of tone as Fritz Wunderlich or as refined as Leopold Simoneau but this is still a reading to rank with the best.

So there are no hang-ups, then? Well, yes. There are two rather frustrating drawbacks. One is the spoken dialogue that often poses problems on recordings. It can be too long, which makes repeated listening tiring, or too compressed, which takes away important information. Here the dialogue is almost completely omitted and is replaced by narration. This was something that Deutsche Grammophon practised more than thirty years ago. I have a complete Oberon and a complete Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor - in both cases with a lively and expressive narrator - though I would have preferred the original dialogue. On the present recording the narrator is dull, expressionless and rather boring. It is true that we do hear the prescribed sound-effects - thunder, signals et al and certain key lines are actually spoken by the singers but it is a pity we don’t get the original since it is quite amusing, especially Papageno’s words.

The other drawback has to do with easy access to some musical numbers. The two extended finales - act I 24:50 and act II 31:47 - have no cue points at all. This means that to play Tamino’s flute aria Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton! one has to wait for nine minutes. To hear the delightful Papageno-Papagena duet in act II you will wait even longer: more than twenty minutes. This is bad service to listeners who, like myself, want to pick and choose, to compare with other readings and for analytical study. Still this set has very much to offer in the shape of excellent singing and Harnoncourt is never dull.

For readers seeking a good Zauberflöte without jeopardizing the housekeeping money there are several attractive alternatives. I reviewed Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1972 set, now on Classics for Pleasure, a couple of years ago (see review). There I also gave an overview of other existing sets. My favourite is still Karl Böhm on DG with Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Franz Crass and Hans Hotter. Harnoncourt is however a safe bet as long as one can accept the drawbacks I mentioned. He has the loveliest Pamina of all in Barbara Bonney.

Göran Forsling

Note: The libretto can be found at Karadar or Stanford Uni websites.

 


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