Since this legendary recording of Le nozze di Figaro was first issued as part of the Mozart year 1956 celebrations it has more or less continually been available in one shape or another. Its latest incarnation appeared ten years ago in the Legends series, and that version is still in the catalogue. Where they differ is in the presentation. The issues in this new Heritage Masters series have a cast-list, a track-list and recording dates, nothing else: no notes, no libretto. Collectors who know their Figaro only need the discs; librettos can be found on the net. This is a great opportunity to get hold of classics at modest costs whether you are a newcomer to recorded opera or have worn out the old LPs.
I belong to that latter category. It was through excerpts from this recording that I got to know Le nozze di Figaro. Every time I listen to this marvellous opera I have the voices of Siepi, Güden, Della Casa and Danco ringing in my head. When I bought my next Figaro – Karl Böhm’s DG version from the late 1960s – I couldn’t avoid comparing Prey, Mathis, Janowitz and Troyanos with their somewhat older colleagues, and for some reason they always tended to come second best. And this has continued through the decades. It is still the old Kleiber that stands supreme.
This doesn’t mean that I am uncritical. When the present set arrived I decided to start from scratch with no preconceptions. It wasn’t easy but here is my evaluation, warts and all:
Sound: Recorded almost 55 years ago it can’t compete with Böhm or some even younger rivals. The string tone is somewhat undernourished and it is a bit bass heavy but it is atmospheric and warm, the stereo spread is OK, balance impeccable and taken on its own it is more than acceptable. Victor Olof and Peter Andry were producers and James Brown and Cyril Windebank engineered.
Completeness: I haven’t checked if there are cuts in the recitatives but the music numbers are all here, including Don Basilio’s and Marcellina’s arias in the last act. The curious thing is that Hilde Güden, Susanna on this recording, sings Marcellina’s aria. It is not a drawback musically, since Güden sings just as wonderfully as she does her own role, but dramatically it feels wrong to hear the bright and charming Susanna voice when one expects Hilde Rössl-Majdan’s fruity contralto.
Orchestra: The Vienna Philharmonic were in wonderful shape in June 1955. They knew their Mozart and were also recording Don Giovanni under Josef Krips and Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte under Karl Böhm at about the same time.
Conductor: Erich Kleiber, the father of Carlos Kleiber, was born in Vienna and had Viennese music in his veins – not only the classics; he conducted the world premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck – and he was an experienced opera conductor. Like Böhm and Colin Davis he had the ability to let the music unfold and breathe naturally. There isn’t a single tempo on this set that doesn’t sound right.
Soloists: Siepi’s, Güden’s and Della Casa’s assumptions of their respective roles have never been surpassed - possibly equalled a couple of times. No Figaro has more humour and more black wrath than Siepi’s, no Countess has a creamier voice or a more noble bearing than Della Casa, no Susanna is more lovely and warmer than Güden. Suzanne Danco is a very good Cherubino but she hasn’t quite the nervous boyishness of Frederica von Stade. Fernando Corena, often accused of being too coarse and too parodical, is on his best behaviour and sings with an elegance that few other Bartolos have achieved. The weakest link is Alfred Poell’s Count Almaviva. There is nothing particularly wrong with his voice, though he was no youngster when the recording was made, and he characterises well – but it is the wrong character. Almaviva may be a boor, but he is a nobleman and knows how to behave. Here he seems to come from the lower ranks of society. Harald Pröglhof, who makes a good portrait of Antonio, might even have been a better choice. Hilde Rössl-Majdan is a splendid Marcellina and Murray Dickie is a more heroic Don Basilio than most. This Scottish-born tenor is probably best known for singing the tenor part in Das Lied von der Erde under Paul Kletzki with Fischer-Dieskau taking the baritone part. Hugues Cuénod on Vittorio Gui’s almost contemporaneous recording is even more oily but Dickie’s is a refreshing reading. Hugo Meyer-Welfing, who used to sing Don Ottavio and Hoffmann, is luxury casting for Don Curzio and Anny Felbermayer is a pretty Barbarina.
Alfred Poell’s Almaviva apart – and others may well like him better than I do – this old warhorse still holds its own against the keen competition. Readers who want to botanise among other vintage recordings of Figaro should try Böhm, who has Fischer-Dieskau as an inimitable Almaviva (DG), Colin Davis with Ingvar Wixell a superb Almaviva and sterling contributions from Jessye Norman and Mirella Freni (Philips). Both these sets win hands down when it comes to sound quality. Vittorio Gui’s EMI version has surprisingly good sound and also sports one of the outstanding Figaros, Sesto Bruscantini, together with Sena Jurinac and Graziella Sciutti. There are also Fricsay (DG, Fischer-Dieskau again Almaviva and Irmgard Seefried a charming Susanna) and Giulini (EMI) with Giuseppe Taddei’s idiomatic Figaro, Eberhard Wächter’s hot-tempered Almaviva and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s noble and dignified Countess. There are riches aplenty and for those who love this opera as much as I do it can never be enough with only one recording. From the last decades there are good recordings under Karajan (quirky conducting but great soloists), Solti, Östman, Barenboim, Mackerras, Marriner … Need I say more? My final verdict is: Don’t you have a Figaro at all? Buy this Kleiber set. Do you have one and want an alternative? Buy Kleiber! Are your shelves sagging with Figaros? Buy new shelves and add Kleiber to the collection.