Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’Orfeo Favola in musica [98:02]
Giovanni GABRIELI (c.1554-1612)
Virtute magna [3:21]
Sonata octavi toni [3:14]
Nunc dimittis [3:14]
La Musica – Patricia Brinton (soprano); Orfeo – Giovanni Sinimberghi (tenor); Euridice – Uta Graf (soprano); Speranza – Gertrud Schretter (soprano); Caronte – Norman Foster (bass); Proserpina – Mona Paulee (mezzo); Plutone – Frederick Guthrie (bass); Apollo – Waldemar Kmentt (tenor); Messaggiera – Ana Maria Iriarte (mezzo); Ninfa – Auguste Schmoczer (mezzo); Primo Pastore – Dagmar Hermann (contralto); Secondo Pastore – Hans Strohbauer (tenor); Terzo Pastore – Wolfram Mertz (bass)
Die Wiener Singakademie
Members of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Paul Hindemith
rec. live, 3 June 1954
no text or translation included
MUSIC AND ARTS CD-1237 [56:20 + 52:39]

Although it is not the first work that can be described as an opera, Orfeo is certainly the earliest that survives in the normal repertoire of most opera houses. The first performances took place in 1607 in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua where the composer was a court musician to the Gonzagas. There were subsequent performances elsewhere in Italy. Orfeo was published in two separate editions in Venice in 1609 and 1615. This early success was not maintained, and the work was virtually forgotten in the nineteenth century. The twentieth century saw a revival of interest, starting with a performance under Vincent d’Indy in 1904. Subsequent editions and performances followed, including editions by Orff and Respighi and many more modern and scholarly versions seeking to get closer to what the composer intended. The first recording was in 1942, followed swiftly by versions under Helmut Koch in 1951 and August Wenzinger in 1955. Hindemith’s interest in the work was therefore part of a more general movement rather than something unique. These discs therefore present a snapshot of an approach as to how the opera was performed half a century ago. This might have been more interesting if space had been found for extracts from other recordings from this general period for the purpose of comparison – an opportunity missed.

Listening to any of the many more modern recordings of the work it would be easy to forget the century of investigation, trial and error which has led to the kind of results we now tend to take almost for granted. It is salutary to listen to this, or indeed to any of the early recordings, and realise just what a debt is owed to the work of previous scholars and performers. This is not always accepted by those most directly involved. I recall correspondence in the Musical Times many years ago between Hans Redlich and Denis Stevens about their respective editions of the Vespers. A third party wrote a brief letter suggesting that the former should acknowledge that scholarship moves onward, and the latter that his efforts relied in part on the work of earlier scholars. For his pains they joined forces and attacked him viciously instead of each other. Passions run high in the field of Monteverdi scholarship.

The performance on these discs is introduced by Hindemith in a short talk, but I regret that my German is inadequate to follow either that or the two lengthy articles given only in German in the booklet. I regret that I can therefore report only on what I hear on the discs. As you will have gathered, this is very different from more modern recordings. Although some period instruments are used, this is not universal, and the organ in particular has a very curious sound, more like a piano accordion or harmonium. Scoring for the dances is less pungent than we are used to now, and chords for wind instruments are occasionally introduced into passages of recitative. The singing of the soloists varies, some wholly at sea with Monteverdi’s harmonic phrasing and most using more vibrato than we are accustomed to today in this music. Ornamentation is virtually entirely absent with the single exception of Orfeo’s long plea to Charonte, Possente spirito. Here Sinimberghi makes a gallant and by no means wholly unsuccessful attempt at its difficulties. He may have a voice and manner more obviously suited to later Italian composers but his evident sincerity and ease with the language are real virtues. Possente spirito is, as it should be, a high point of the performance as a whole. Low points come from moments, sometimes quite long moments, of uncertain intonation from other singers, mainly female, and from the very poor chorus. The instrumentalists are better with much real rhythmic energy when called for. All in all though, despite occasional moments of real eloquence, too much of this performance sounds as though all of those concerned are still feeling their way in the idiom.

The three short items by Gabrieli which precede the opera are poorly performed, especially by the choir. As I have indicated, the booklet contains long articles in German and, somewhat oddly, a transcript of the Wikipedia article on the opera. I found listening to the discs an interesting rather than an entertaining experience, and I find it difficult to imagine when I might want to return to them. I listened to them dutifully but it is hard to greet their issue with more than a very muted enthusiasm.

John Sheppard

I listened dutifully but it is hard to greet this issue with more than very muted enthusiasm.