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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) - Singspiel opera in two acts, K. 620 (to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder assisted by Karl Ludwig Giesecke) (1791) [131:40]
Wilhelm Strienz (bass) - Sarastro;
Helge Roswaenge (tenor) - Tamino;
Walter Grossman (bass) - Speaker/Second Man in Armour;
Ernst Fabbry (tenor) - Priest;
Erna Berger - Queen of the Night;
Tiana Lemnitz (Pamina) - her daughter;
Hilde Scheppan (soprano) - First Lady;
Elfriede Marherr (soprano) - Second Lady;
Rut Berglund (contralto) - Third Lady/Third Boy;
Gerhard Hüsch (baritone) - Papageno;
Irma Beilke (soprano) - Papagena/Old Woman/First Boy;
Carla Spletter (soprano) - Second Boy;
Heinrich Tessmer (tenor) - Monostatos the Moor/First Man in Armour
Favres Solisten Vereinigung
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Bruno Seidler-Winkler (track 5)
rec. November 1937 and February/March 1938, Beethovensaal, Berlin, Germany. ADD
NIMBUS PRIMA VOCE NI 7827/8 [62:17 + 69:23]

Experience Classicsonline

For anyone compiling a directory of the ‘greatest recordings’ of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra some nominations are easy to classify. Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1937/8 Berlin recording of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is certainly one of them. Originally re-mastered in 1991 it is pleasing to have this Nimbus set available in the catalogue.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute described as, “An exotic fairy tale with mystical elements” (The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, ed. Amanda Holden, 2005) with a Masonic subplot is one of my favourite operas. I have seen several productions and last September (2009) was fortunate to attend Günter Krämer’s splendid contemporary staging at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Beecham’s celebrated version is a studio recording that he recorded at the Beethovensaal in Berlin principally in November 1937. Beecham had to return to Berlin in February/March 1938 for a couple more recording sessions and almost completed the score. Producer Walter Legge used a virtually all-German cast and it seems that he audaciously replaced a few members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra strategically with players from the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. The Queen of the Night’s aria O zitt’re nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Tremble not, my dear son) was the one set-piece that had to be recorded later in March with Bruno Seidler-Winkler conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Incidentally, Beecham chose to omit the spoken dialogue and also the majority of the recitative passages. The roles of the Three Boys are taken by female singers, the sopranos Irma Beilke and Carla Spletter with Rut Berglund, a contralto.
It seems that Beecham’s set was the first complete recording. As far as I know it was originally issued in mid-1938 by the HMV label as part of their Mozart Opera Society series. Over four volumes, two for each act, the set comprised nineteen 78rpm records.
Mozart’s composition of The Magic Flute in 1791 partially overlapped with his writing of the Requiem a score he never lived to complete. A couple of months before his death the composer was to conduct the opera’s première in September 1791 at the Theatre auf der Wieden, Vienna. It was an immediate success. It is testament to Mozart’s capacity that at a time towards the end of his life, tormented by failing physical and mental health, and mounting debts that he could write music of such vital energy, japery and fantasy. The success was such that following its première the opera was staged over 230 times in its first ten years at impresario Emanuel Schikaneder’s Theatre auf der Wieden.
The opera gets off to a flying start with Beecham’s rousing rendition of the Overture - so light and attractive and bursting with energy. The introduction to act one is impressive. In Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe! (O help me, oh help me!) after being chased by a enormous serpent a near-breathless Tamino meets the Three Ladies who emerge from a temple to kill the reptile. The Three Ladies, servants to the Queen of the Night are compelling performers, splendidly blending their well balanced tones.
In Papageno’s air Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja (My profession is bird catching, you know) the highly convincing Gerhard Hüsch displays his durable baritone with bright and clear diction in a performance that just skips with freshness. I enjoyed the glorious flute playing that accompanies Papageno. In his second act air Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (I’d like a young wife to comfort me) Papageno is dreaming of the future, with suggestions of despondency, whilst ringing his magic bells. Here the excellent Hüsch has lowered his voice to demonstrate a smooth and dusky timbre.
Burning with passion Helge Roswaenge as the love-struck Tamino gives a splendid performance of her air Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This image is captivating and beautiful). I was also impressed by the air Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton (Now I see your powerful magic spell) where a joyous Tamino offers his gratitude to the Gods. With impressive assurance the tenor Roswaenge delivers his tender love song with vivid and penetrating enunciation, using only minimal vibrato.
As the Queen of the Night the girlish tones of Erna Berger would initially seem not sufficiently full for this mature and imposing character. Yet any casting reservations soon evaporate and Berger proves to be an inspired choice. In her aria O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn! (Don’t be afraid, dear son) the soprano comes across as especially secure in her mid-top register. There is little noticeable vibrato to affect her light creamy timbre. Justly celebrated the Queen of the Night’s act two aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (My heart is afire with hellish vengeance) makes considerable coloratura demands that the impressive Berger, if a touch deliberately, surmounts with a thrilling and vehement attack.
Wilhelm Strienz performs Sarastro’s act two air with chorus, O Isis und Osiris (Oh Isis and Osiris), a prayer to the Gods in the temple to bestow the spirit of wisdom on Tamino and Papageno. The bass has a wonderfully rich and mellow timbre with a compelling and menacing quality. I was impressed by Strienz’s remarkable breath control during his extended vocal line. Sarastro’s air from the second act In diesen heil'gen Hallen (Within this holy place revenge is unknown) is calm and is movingly delivered by Strienz with a deeply resonant power. In this splendid bass aria where Sarastro forgives Pamina and comforts her it would be hard to imagine more wonderful singing.
In the act two air Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden (Everyone feels the joys of love) Monostastos the Moor creeps into the garden and lovingly gazes upon Pamina who is asleep in a moonlit arbour. As Monostastos I found Heinrich Tessmer a softly expressive and flexibly voiced tenor who certainly does not disappoint.
The Queen of the Night’s daughter Pamina is sung by Tiana Lemnitz. With its lyrical vocal line probably the most beautiful air in all the opera is Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden (Ah, I feel that it has vanished) from the second act. In an affecting performance the heartbroken Pamina, yearning for Tamino, is tenderly conveyed by Tiana Lemnitz. Sounding a touch too ripe for the part the soprano’s vibrato is evident but never interferes with the enjoyment. Lemnitz’s voice has considerable weight and I noticed how she is able to rapidly glide up the top of her range where she feels most comfortable.
Another highlight of the set is Pamina and Papageno’s first act duet Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen (The gentle love of man and women) where the couple sing of the bliss and selflessness of the unison of two lovers. I was struck by the combination of the appealing soprano tones of Tiana Lemnitz so wonderfully set against the rock-solid baritone of Gerhard Hüsch.
From act two the trio between Pamina, Sarastro and Tamino Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehn? (My love when we part, will I not see you again?) contains much splendid music as well as wonderful drama. This is a splendid example of voices that are exceptionally well contrasted. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is in glowing form under Beecham’s assured direction.
For a seventy year old recording the sound quality, involving digital transfers from the original 78rpm discs, is remarkable. What it may lack in depth is made up for by Beecham’s sparking performance. The accompanying booklet contains two essays and a synopsis but does not include any texts. So frustratingly the listener is prevented from obtaining the full enjoyment of the performances by understanding the meaning of the carefully chosen words. This same Beecham performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is also available on Dutton 2CDEA 5011 and Naxos 8.110127-8.
Certainly this classic 1937/8 Berlin recording by Beecham of The Magic Flute is indispensable for any opera collector or lover of wonderful music. Casting a bewitching spell on the listener this performance just sparkles and delights.
Michael Cookson

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