Mozart composed his one-acter, Bastien und Bastienne when he was twelve. We all know that Mozart was a child prodigy, and so tend to take things such as this in our stride, but listening to this performance one is struck anew by the almost supernatural gifts with which the young Mozart was endowed. The story tells of a ruse to win back what is thought to be a neglectful lover, and as such has elements in common with many of the later operas, and with Cosi fan Tutte in particular. It would be foolish to expect the psychological insight of the later operas, but the work is witty and charming, melodious, and with many moments of real and penetrating beauty. At no point does it sound or feel like the product of a child. This is a fine performance in more than acceptable sound. The work is beautifully sung, and the conducting reminds us what a stylish Mozartean John Pritchard could be, a quality he put to good and frequent use in his work at Glyndebourne.
According to the booklet this is the first time this performance of Bastien und Bastienne has appeared on CD. It makes a lovely coupling for a fascinating performance of The Marriage of Figaro which, as far as I know, is also making its CD debut here. I remember very well the original Philips LPs, as I also do my delight at finding its cheaper reincarnation on the Fontana label. I was thrilled with my acquisition, and though a lot of water has flown under a lot of bridges since then, I’m very happy to make its acquaintance once again in what seems to me an excellent transfer on Guild.
Let me be clear about one thing right away: this will not replace any of the recommended modern versions of Mozart’s astonishing masterpiece. Marvellous performances have appeared over the years from Mackerras, Gardiner, Harnoncourt and others, and if none of them has managed to displace my own favourite, Colin Davis on Philips, with the young Jessye Norman as the Countess, I’m willing to accept that the rosy glow of nostalgia might have a role to play there. However, that version really does crackle with revolutionary spirit as much as it beguiles with tender compassion, qualities that come from brilliant conducting and which are supported by magnificent singing. The present release is, for the most part, beautifully sung. I’m full of admiration for Sena Jurinac, whose Countess passes through the different scenes with dignity and wounded pride. There is the odd sour note, and not everyone will warm to her vibrato, but I do, and many others also will. Paul Schöffler as the Count has perhaps too light a voice for the role, and seems to find it difficult being nasty enough. But my how he uses his voice as a dramatic tool! I also warm to Rita Streich and Walter Berry as the young lovers, particularly Streich, who sounds suitably girlish when required. The smaller parts are well taken, especially Erich Makjut as Basilio, though this Barbarina is no spring chicken. This leaves only Christa Ludwig, not yet thirty at the time of this recording. How could her singing be anything other than glorious? It certainly is here.
From all that I’ve written this would seem to be a Figaro not to be missed. In fact it turns out to be not quite the case, for the performance rarely catches fire. I haven’t mentioned Böhm yet, and it is true that his conducting style was rarely, shall we say, mercurial. Nonetheless, the orchestral part of this performance is very fine indeed, from the spirited overture onwards, and including the multitude of orchestral details that move the drama along. So it’s difficult to say why the performance as a whole doesn’t quite get the point. Let us take the opening exchanges between Susanna and Figaro. He is measuring with a yardstick the chamber the Count has assigned to them to see if there will be enough room for the marital bed. Susanna is trying on her wedding hat, and wanting Figaro’s opinion, but since, as William Mann observes in his marvellous book The Operas of Mozart, the ponderous bass line in this duet “tells us that the calculation is putting a strain on his intellectual capacities”, Figaro is having difficulty telling her what he thinks. There is thus considerable comic potential here, but though the duet is beautifully sung, as is the case almost throughout the work, comedy is in short supply. It is, rather, steady and reliable. Berry is very fine from a purely musical point of view in “Si vuol ballare”, but there isn’t much of either fun or anger. Nor is there much swagger from the singer in “Non più andrai”, though there’s plenty of just that quality in the orchestra.
I wouldn’t want to make too much of this, and in any event for the most part the quality of the singing makes up for it, but this is a Figaro in which those elements that make the work so miraculously successful in the theatre – rapidity, fun, drama, tenderness: one could go on – are all rather downplayed. In short, it isn’t a very theatrical performance.
There are a very few small cuts in the recitatives, but these move along briskly and are well enough accompanied by a jumbo-sized harpsichord. Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias are both cut, so that the early part of Act 4 is mostly recitative and takes a long time to get going. The finale, though, is well paced, leading to a satisfying close. One can’t really say the same about the great Act 2 finale which seems rather bitty here, with little sense of one crisis following another. There is no “production” as such: no bells ring, and we don’t hear the resounding smack of Susanna’s hand on Figaro’s cheek when she sees him kissing Marcellina. The Italian sometimes suffers from Germanic pronunciation. No text is provided in the booklet, not even a synopsis, but there is an extremely interesting and detailed essay about the recording and the performers by Jürgen Schaarwächter.
I have reservations, then, about the dramatic aspects of this performance, but very few about the singing and conducting. If it doesn’t tell the whole story of Figaro, any of the versions mentioned above will do so, as will others I haven’t mentioned. But I will come back to this one, and I urge collectors to consider it as a fascinating record of German Mozart of the period, and often very much more than that.