In June 1954, in Vienna, Hindemith performed his ‘period reconstruction’
of the premiere of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one that he had undertaken
a decade earlier. The intention therefore was not to ‘arrange’
it for contemporary taste, but adventurously for the time to
include an organ, harpsichord, lutes, strings and other instrumentation
including a complement of winds.
The participating members of the Vienna Symphony included such
future luminaries as cellist Nikolaus Harnoncourt, harpsichordist
Anton Heiller, and lute players Karl Scheit and Robert Brojer
amongst others. Hindemith introduced the performance from the
stage and his four minute speech has been preserved. He then
performs three pieces by Gabrieli to preface Orfeo. Two are
choral, and derive from Symphoniae Sacrae. Virtute magna
is a warmly textured motet whilst the Nunc dimittis receives
a big-boned reading. In between comes the instrumental Sonata
octavi toni with its stately winds.
The performance of Orfeo is notable for a number of reasons.
We can appreciate the bracing wind contribution – no shrinking
violets – as well as the sinewy texture of the strings. This
must have been something of an aural challenge to mid-1950s
Vienna, where whipped cream tended to dominate. Nevertheless
Hindemith’s cultivation of some tart and evocative sounds is
very descriptive and engaging. The flute playing gives a particular
lift, and the opportunity to trill and swoop is a constant and
diverting delight. As so often is the case, the instrumental
playing is at odds with the vocal performances, which remained
very much predicated on can-belto lines. This is not to impugn
the principal singers, who were all solid artists, though hardly
outstanding ones, more to point out the divergent aesthetic
at work in the performance.
Gino Sinemberghi is the Orfeo and, within the compass of his
own background, he sings well enough, though he’s rather beefy.
His bel canto qualities can be sampled via Vi ricorda o bosch’ombrosi.
Uta Graf similarly brings old school commitment to Euridice
– a strong, though not pungent presence. The other singers offer
solid, occasionally workmanlike support. As if to reinforce
the point, the (female) prompter has a busy night, and there
is plenty of audible stagecraft. The men in the chorus are sometimes
rather weak, when exposed – as they are in Ma s’il nostro
gioir; the women have fruitier vibratos.
The notes are predominantly in German.
This is by no means a first appearance for this performance
on CD. In fact there are already at least two competing versions
on Archipel ANDRCD9069 and Walhall WAL 9069, though I’ve not
had access to them for comparative purposes. This little slice
of history will be a very specialised purchase, but it does
bear the whiff of something new, and exploratory.