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