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CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) - Opera in two acts, K. 620 (1791) [171:54]
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K453 (1788) [27:59]
Wilma Lipp (Queen of the Night)
Irmgard Seefried (Pamina)
Anton Dermota (Tamino)
Josef Greindl (Sarastro)
Erich Kunz (Papageno)
Edith Oravez (Papagena)
Peter Klein (Monostatos) Paul Schöffler (Speaker) Fred Liewehr (first priest) Franz Hobling (second priest) Christel Goltz (first lady) Margherita Kenney (second lady) Sieglinde Wagner (third lady) Hannelore Steffek (first boy) Luise Leitner (second boy) Friedl Meusburger (third boy) Hans Beirer (first armed man) Franz Bierbach (second armed man)
Vienna State Opera Chorus,
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Zauberflöte), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (symphony)/Wilhelm Furtwängler
No libretto included
rec. live, 8 February 1944, State Opera House, Berlin, Germany (Zauberflöte) 6 August 1951, Salzburg Festival, Austria (symphony)
PRISTINE AUDIO XR PACO 075A-B [3 CDs: 75:02 + 45:40 + 79:32]

Experience Classicsonline

All 3 CDs in this set have been transferred by Andrew Rose using Pristine Audio’s 32-bit XR re-mastering system. There is a great demand for Furtwängler recordings. Widely accepted as one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth-century he has a large legion of admirers. There’s a fascinating and substantial legacy of recordings, mainly from live performances and this is cherished by a large and enthusiastic following.
This live performance from the Salzburg Festival of The Magic Flute took place on 6 August 1951. Although Furtwängler had a long association with the VPO at the time he had not long undergone his successful de-Nazification in 1947. It seems that the performance was broadcast by Austrian Radio but the master tapes have not survived. Remarkably this recording has been reconstructed from the secondary source of off-air recordings. Restorer Andrew Rose states that he is pleased with the results but less so with the material that he had to work with for the speech sections. 
At this point it seems pertinent to explain a little about the origins of The Magic Flute. Its composition partially overlapped with his writing of the Requiem a score he never lived to complete. A couple of months before his death Mozart conducted the première of The Magic Flute in September 1791 at the Theatre auf der Wieden, Vienna. The opera, Mozart’s first for public consumption rather than for court use, was an immediate success. It is testimony to Mozart’s creative capacity that at a time close to the end of his life, full of torment by failing physical and mental health, and mounting debts, he could write music of such vital energy, japery and fantasy. Its success was such that following its première it was staged over 230 times in its first ten years at impresario Emanuel Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden.
The best description I have seen of The Magic Flute is, “An exotic fairy tale with mystical elements.” (The Penguin Concise Guide to Opera, ed. Amanda Holden, Penguin Books, Reprint edition 2005, pg. 281, ISBN: 0-141-01682-5). With its Masonic subplot, not always highlighted by some directors, The Magic Flute is one of my very favourite operas. I have been fortunate to have attended several productions. I have fond memories of attending a splendid contemporary staging in September 2009 by director Günter Krämer at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. In May 2010 I attended a captivating production directed by Rosamund Gilmore at the splendid Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich.
For this live 1951 Salzburg Festival production Furtwängler had at his disposal a fine cast of mainly experienced singers many associated with the Vienna State Opera. Things get off to a decent start with the VPO providing an appealing Overture; if a touch lacking in vitality. The March of the Priests that commences the second act continues to the same high standard. Any temptation to take the score too fast is avoided and a sturdy rhythmic pulse is maintained throughout. For a conductor so heavily associated with dynamic vivacity, excitement seems strangely lacking.  

Eminent Viennese coloratura soprano Wilma Lipp garnered considerable admiration as the Queen of the Night a role she played around 400 times. Lipp graced many of Europe’s major opera houses and was associated with the Vienna State Opera for almost 40 years. Her Queen of the Night is imposing and in her aria O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn! (Don’t be afraid, dear son) there is little evidence of strain. Her bottom to mid-range is smooth with a creamy timbre. Justly celebrated, the Queen of the Night’s act two aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (My heart is afire with hellish vengeance) known as the ‘Vengeance aria’ makes considerable coloratura demands. Here Lipp provides a controlled rendition with a highly convincing coloratura if perhaps a touch lacking in excitement. Papageno the loveable if ridiculous feather-suited, bird-catcher is played by Erich Kunz, the Vienna-born bass-baritone. In Papageno’s arias Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja (My profession is bird catching, you know) and Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (I’d like a young wife to comfort me) Kunz is sure and fluid. I sensed the fragility of the bird-catcher’s character which is smartly conveyed. Anything but miraculous are Tamino’s magic flute and Papageno’s magic bells which sound extremely workaday.
Taking the part of the Pamina is the renowned Bavarian soprano Irmgard Seefried who was to go on to become a member of the Vienna State Opera for over 30 years. As Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, Seefried does not sound especially girlish yet still proves a fine choice. With good diction Seefried has a relatively smooth, fluid timbre that comes across effortlessly in the mid-range. With its lyrical vocal line probably the most beautiful aria in all opera is Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden (Ah, I feel that it has vanished). In a moving performance the heartbroken Pamina, yearning for her Tamino, is compassionately portrayed. Seefried is nicely in tune and seems most comfortable in her mid-range. That said, I noticed a slight shrill to her top register when forced and at times she has to snatch to reach. Anton Dermota the Slovenian tenor knows The Magic Flute well having made his opera début as the first Man in Armour some fifteen years before this performance. A stalwart of the Vienna State Opera he was associated with the company for over four decades. The love-struck Tamino was one of Dermota’s favourite roles. The Slovenian gives a compelling, bright and cheerful account of Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This image is captivating and beautiful). I was moved by his appealing aria Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton (Now I see your powerful magic spell) when he sings his sweetly tender love song for Pamina with real conviction and admirable diction.
Experienced Cologne-born tenor Peter Klein as Monostatos was a regular at the Vienna State Opera and appeared at several Salzburg festivals. One of my favourite set-pieces is the act two air Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden (Everyone feels the joys of love) when Monostatos, a Moor creeps into the garden and lovingly gazes upon Pamina who is asleep in a moonlit arbour. A fluid and expressive lyric tenor Klein is a good actor and is able to add a dark edge to his smooth timbre. The deep bass Josef Greindl is remembered primarily for his Wagnerian roles and impressive stage-presence. Here as Sarastro, Greindl is rock-like, deep and commanding - a true highlight of the set. Greindl delivers Sarastro’s act two aria with chorus, O Isis und Osiris (Oh Isis and Osiris), a prayer to the Gods in the temple, with a chocolate-rich fullness yet conveying a chilling hint of menace. During the extended vocal line I was impressed by Greindl’s outstanding breath control and clear diction. Also from act two Sarastro’s air In diesen heil'gen Hallen (Within this holy place revenge is unknown) is sung with such solid confidence. 

The three ladies Christel Goltz, Margherita Kenney and Sieglinde Wagner in their act one quintet ‘Hm, hm, hm, hm’ with Papageno and Tamino give convincing performances. The voices blend splendidly. A much celebrated set-piece of fantasy opera is Pamina and Papageno’s first act duet Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen (The gentle love of man and women) singing of the bliss and selflessness of the unison of two lovers. The delightfully-toned Seefried as Pamina is well matched with bass-baritone Kunz a very downtrodden Papageno. From 5:39 the much loved duet ‘Pa-pa-geno! Pa-pa-pagena!’ between the reunited Papageno and Papagena sung by Kunz and soprano Edith Oravez comes across agreeably without being exceptional. But what a glorious melody and such memorable music. Disappointingly the important flute part sounds rushed and piercing. The act two trio Soll ich dich, Teurer, nicht mehr sehn? (My love when we part, will I not see you again?) between Pamina, Sarastro and Tamino contains much splendid music as well as a wonderful dash of drama. Sung impressively by Seefried, Greindl and Dermota this trio is a splendid example of excellent voices extremely well contrasted.

My two favourite accounts of The Magic Flute are both played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) and were splendidly recorded at Berlin in 1964 and 1980 respectively. I greatly admire the compellingly performed double set that Karl Böhm recorded with the BPO and the RIAS-Kammerchor in Berlin in June 1964. The starry cast is highly characterful and features: Fritz Wunderlich (Tamino), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Papageno), Roberta Peters (The Queen of the Night), Evelyn Lear (Pamina), Franz Crass (Sarastro) and Lisa Otto (Papagena). I have the analogue set digitally re-mastered with original-image bit-processing technology and full texts with English translations on Deutsche Grammophon 449 749-2. Another fine version for its elevated sense of drama is from Herbert von Karajan conducting the BPO with the Choir of the Deutschen Oper, Berlin and soloists of the Tölz Boys Choir. Recorded in 1980 at the Berlin Philharmonie Karajan uses a stellar cast of soloists right down to the minor roles: Francisco Araiza (Tamino), Gottfried Hornik (Papageno), Karin Ott (Queen of the Night), Edith Mathis (Pamina), José van Dam (Sarastro), Gottfried Hornik (Papageno) with Anna Tomowa-Sintow (first Lady), Agnes Baltsa (second Lady) and Hanna Schwarz (third Lady). My set is on Deutsche Grammophon 477 9115 - a reissue with no libretto provided but there is a concise and well written synopsis. 
Included on this Pristine Audio set is a recording of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. On the night of 29-30 January 1944 the home of the BPO the Philharmonie (a former ice skating rink expanded into a concert hall) on Bernburger Strasse was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. Undaunted the BPO used whatever buildings they could find for their performances including the State Opera House on Unter den Linden which was still standing - it was later destroyed by bombing. Recorded on 8 February1944 at the Berlin State Opera House this is one of a number of Furtwängler’s wartime performances that were broadcast live on radio by the state-owned Reich Broadcasting Corporation and recorded on magnetic tape; many of these reels survived. These were part of a batch seized by the occupying Soviet Russians and were taken to Moscow. Some of the performances were released in Soviet Russia on Melodiya. Thanks to the prevailing spirit of Glasnost the tapes were returned to Germany in 1987. It is these recordings, returned after over forty years, that Andrew Rose has used for many of the recordings released on Pristine Audio.
Furtwängler is best known for his long association with the BPO whom he first conducted in 1917. He became their principal in 1922 aged 36 and remained until his death in 1954; a tenure that was interrupted between the years 1945-47. This Mozart symphony was given in the midst of the terrors of the Second World War Berlin. It is worth mentioning the title that music writer Peter Gutmann uses in the excellent ‘Classical Notes’ website “Wilhelm Furtwängler:Genius Forged in the Cauldron of War”. This title for me encapsulates Furtwängler’s complex and severely challenging situation so perfectly. Hitler’s Third Reich under Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry used the BPO and Furtwängler its chief conductor as the crown jewels in their cultural campaign. Furtwängler’s controversial wartime role with the players of the BPO and the considerable advantages they gained from working for the Third Reich still divides opinion today. Few conductors can have worked in such a severely pressurised situation as Furtwängler did through 1933/45, the years of National Socialism. All that said I found Furtwängler’s conducting and the playing of the BPO from February 1944 at the State Opera House generally lacking in spirit and vigour. Everything feels heavy with the speeds coming across as sluggish; especially in the third movement Menuetto - Trio. The playing of the Finale, Allegro flows rather better and is definitely more alert but it fails to redeem what has gone before. Also hindering the overall impression is the slightly muddy sound and issues with peak distortion.
There is a plethora of recordings of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in the catalogues and many of them are superbly played, certainly worthy of inclusion in any serious collection. My reference recording is a powerful and highly compelling account conducted by Karl Böhm and the BPO; one might describe it as ‘big band Mozart’. Maestro Böhm recorded the work in 1966 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon 447 416-2 (c/w Symphonies Nos. 35, 36, 38 Prague, 40, 41 Jupiter). Another admirable account from the BPO is conducted by Claudio Abbado and was recorded in 1992 also at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin. Abbado is sparkling yet highly stylish with a beautiful sound that is lighter in weight; lucid with less vibrato than Böhm. I have the Abbado recording as part of a 7 CD all-Mozart box set on Sony Classical 88697761522 (c/w Symphonies Nos. 23, 25, 28, 29, 31, 35, 36, 40, 41, Serenades, Marches, Divertimenti, Sinfonia concertanti,Masonic Funeral Music, Marriage of Figaro Overture). Abbado conducts most of the works and some are conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and Zubin Mehta.
The quality of the Furtwängler recordings on this Pristine Audio release will undoubtedly be a determining factor for many prospective purchasers. Recorded live at the 1951 Salzburg Festival the sound quality of The Magic Flute is lacking in definition, leaving a rather limited orchestral sound. Given the circumstances of its transfer from off-air recordings the unsatisfying audio comes as no surprise. I was even more disappointed with Symphony No. 39 recorded live in 1944 at Berlin’s State Opera House. Less than gratifying, the congested sound lacks clarity throughout and peak distortion makes for uncomfortable listening. Applause has been left in the live performance of the opera but not the symphony. Curiously, at times, the audience sounds as if they are clapping underwater. Having said all that I appreciate that talented audio restoration engineer Andrew Rose can only work with the material that he has at his disposal. Pristine Audio seems geared up for downloads and streaming but when customers such as myself want an actual CD please can the company start providing professional quality artwork and high quality paper for the paper insert. The inserts in my set have already started to tear and the rather shabby effect looks like a homemade effort. No libretto is included in the set. On the whole the performances of both The Magic Flute and Symphony No. 39 feel rather uninspiring with unflattering sound. Apart from historic significance and their value to the Furtwängler completist I’m unsure why anyone would choose these recordings over the many splendid, superbly performed and excellently recorded alternatives.
Michael Cookson  



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