Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice Hob:
Orfeo - Herbert Handt (tenor)
Euridice - Judith Hellwig (soprano)
Creonte - Alfred Poell (baritone)
Genio - Hedda Heusser (soprano)
Pluto - Walter Berry (bass-baritone)
First Corista - Richard Wadleigh
Kurt Rapf (harpsichord)
Members of the Akadamie Kammerchor, Vienna
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Hans Swarowsky
rec. 1950, Vienna
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1250 [70:58 + 54:28]
Remarkably, Haydn’s last opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, received its
first staging as late as 1951. That Florence performance featured a cast of
imposing stature; Maria Callas, Boris Christoff, Tygge Tyggeson, and a no less
imposing conductor in the person of Erich Kleiber. Such dream casting may cause
speculation as to the nature of the performance. What however can’t be
gainsaid is the existence of this earlier 1950 Vienna recording, made for Haydn
Society LP, and released in a three LP set on HSLP2019, as well as on Vox OPBX193.
It was, I believe, the first complete recording of a Haydn opera.
This was a most worthy undertaking. The cast, whilst variable, was well blended
and the orchestral contributions strong and alert. Swarowsky directs with intelligence,
and manages to generate quite a deal of theatrical heft. This is important because
Orfeo ed Euridice is a dramatic, powerful work, and grandly conceived.
If opera seria was soon to die, then its swansong here and in Mozart’s
contemporaneous La Clemenza di Tito was an effective end to the genre.
Orfeo is Herbert Handt whose plangent tenor is a pleasure to hear. In the harp-accompanied
Rendete a questro seno he demonstrates the salient features of his musicianship;
a lyric tenor, well deployed throughout the scale, a soft, when necessary, caressing
tone; fine divisions; a certain elegance of expression; a slight similarity
in timbral quality and effect to Heddle Nash. But Handt doesn’t lack for
vigour, either, and sings throughout with strength, purpose, and intelligence.
His Euridice is Judith Hellwig. She has a fine tone and when singing long sustained
notes evinces no sign of a wobble. Her Filomena abbandonata in the First
Act does however reveal her real weakness in runs, which are, to be blunt, pretty
awful. The two lovers sing well together in their end of Act I duet Come
il foco allo splendour, but it’s noticeable that her intonation veers
badly without his support. She’s much better in Act II where her lyric
gifts are well met in Dovè l’amato bene? and Del mio
core; here her delicious portamenti and legato win the day.
The Genio is pure-toned Hedda Heusser, more technically secure than Hellwig,
who essays her exceptionally difficult task with great fervour. Perhaps the
best known singers to us today are Walter Berry and Alfred Poell. They sing
with rugged assurance. Poell is especially bluff and convincing in his Act II
Mai non fia insulto.
The chorus is alert and taut, but not always precise. Its entry in the first
act is rightly dramatic, taut and arresting. It plays an increasingly important
and demanding role as the opera develops, and shows Haydn’s clear indebtedness
to Handel’s ‘English’ choruses. Instrumentally, the harpsichord
of Kurt Rapf is quite a large-sounding beast, or maybe it was recorded very
close up. It’s certainly prominent but not actually off-putting. Orchestrally,
the martial elements of the music are nicely dealt with - the drums and brass
in Act II Scene II in particular. This is a very interestingly orchestrated
work with ripe roles for the brass and harp in particular.
The work ends in reflective intimacy, in a long diminuendo, and Swarowksy sustains
the expressive temperature of the work to the very end. The set comes with a
series of essays from H.C. Robbins Landon - none better in this field of course
- but there is no libretto. The only concern is the rather muddied and occasionally
distorted sound, qualities that I strongly assume to have been endemic and thus
eradicable, even by so expert a restorer as Lani Spahr.
A most worthy undertaking.