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Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Arlecchino, Op.50 (1917)
Kurt Gester (speaker) - Arlecchino; Elaine Malbin (soprano) - Colombina; Ian Wallace (bass) - Ser Matteo; Geraint Evans (baritone) - Abbate Cospicuo; Fritz Ollendorff (bass) - Dr Bombasto; Murray Dickie (tenor) - Leandro
Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra/John Pritchard
rec. Glyndebourne, 12 June 1954

I once owned a previous issue (long deleted) which featured this live Glyndebourne 1954 recording, but replaced it when Kent Nagano’s 2 CD set of Busoni’s two commedia dell’arte operas became available in 1993. The sound on the old issue was decidedly mono and inferior to Nagano’s digital traversal, but this newly re-mastered reissue gives a much better impression even though the placing of voices and instruments is very forward. Although it is described as a ‘live’ recording, there is no evidence of any audience - was it perhaps recorded under studio conditions in the opera house itself? The rather dry acoustic would lead one to conclude this.
When Busoni wrote Arlecchino, he intended it to be one half of a double bill of one-act operas based on plots derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte. He wrote his own texts in German, and clearly took the project very seriously - as indeed did Mascagni when he wrote his ill-fated Le maschere in the same vein - giving the characters more real depth and not just treating the plot as mere buffoonery. Unfortunately for him, he chose as the theme for his second opera Turandot, and a few years later Puccini with his very different style came along to set the same subject in a manner which comprehensively consigned Busoni’s effort to oblivion. The only thing about Busoni’s Turandot, if anything, which people remember nowadays is his peculiar delusion that Greensleeves was a Chinese folksong. Nagano coupled his recording with Turandot, but it has to be said that Busoni’s opera is never going to establish itself in the repertory given the competition. The oddest thing about Arlecchino is the fact that the title role is given to a speaker, not a singer - which Busoni clearly intended to highlight the fact that he stands outside the action as an ironical commentator as well as separating him out from the rest of the cast.
The first thing that must be observed about Pritchard’s pacing of the opera is that he takes very nearly ten minutes less time over the score than Nagano does. This is often to the advantage of the music, but the slower pace and more recessed recording of the Nagano issue gives a less relentlessly driven impression than the older live performance. For example, the opening narrative by Arlecchino is delivered with more sense of the words by Ernst Theo Richter for Nagano than the rather mechanical rattling-off of the text by Kurt Gester for Pritchard. At the same time it cannot be denied that Pritchard’s approach delivers considerable dividends in keeping the music lively. Oddly enough Archiv shows the Pritchard performance in the EMI reissue as being ten minutes longer than Nagano; I am certain this is simply a mistake. Nevertheless I feel that Nagano’s more considered approach pays dividends in its treatment of Busoni’s more lyrical sections of music; the approach of Pritchard underlines rather the influence that the music clearly had on Kurt Weill - and, oddly enough, Walton’s Façade in its treatment of rhythmically spoken recitation over instrumental accompaniment - did Walton even know the score? - Busoni was very rude about the young Walton’s music in 1920 when he was sent some of his early compositions. The love scene, for example, is delivered by Pritchard at a quickly flowing tempo but the music is more luxuriantly and romantically treated by Nagano.
The singing on the Glyndebourne set is interesting in particular for featuring the voices of Ian Wallace and Sir Geraint Evans in their younger days. Wallace, nowadays remembered principally by British listeners for his singing of Flanders and Swann’s Mud and his appearances on radio game shows such as My Music, shows a more serious side of his personality and sings with real involvement - he was of course a Glyndebourne regular at this date, and can be heard in Rossini operas recorded at around this time as well as in Sargent’s later ‘Glyndebourne’ sets of Gilbert and Sullivan. Evans sounds very bass-oriented in this 1954 performance, evincing some surprising sense of strain in the higher baritone register which would certainly not be present in his later performances and recordings. On the other hand, as one would expect from such accomplished character singers, both he and Wallace deliver the text with point and humour - indeed, with greater definition than the German singers in Nagano’s version.
As the two young lovers, we have here Murray Dickie and Elaine Malbin. Dickie was a Scottish singer who based his career in Vienna as a permanent member of the State Opera company there; his German delivery is of course impeccable, and he has a less strenuous and more impetuous voice than Nagano’s Stefan Dahlberg who seems to have been engaged principally for his stentorian Kalaf in the accompanying Turandot. Dickie’s honeyed tones suit the role well, but one has reservations about the rather matronly Malbin, an American soprano who performed only rarely outside the States. She is no match for Suzanne Mentzer on the Nagano set, but on the other hand the part is not large - neither of the lovers appear until half way through the opera - and this is not a problem that need loom large in consideration.
Nagano’s version no longer seems to be currently available on disc, any more than is a 1994 version conducted by Gerd Albrecht on the now defunct Capriccio label. The latter takes even longer over the score than Nagano, and a full quarter of an hour longer than Pritchard; it is more closely recorded than Nagano, but is no longer to be had except as a download. The main objection to this new reissue of the 1954 recording must be that we are given no texts, translations, or indeed anything other than a listing of the tracks - and in such a complex plot this really requires an effort by the purchaser to obtain such; although the score is available on line, I could find no text or translation available for download; I used the translation provided with the Nagano set for the purposes of this review. The EMI reissue of this same recording is shown by Archiv as including full text and translation, and this would inevitably lead to a firm recommendation for that version of the reissue; but it is only available as part of a double album coupled rather oddly with Cornelius’s The Barber of Baghdad, and if the latter is not required then there is no currently available option to this Andromeda CD. A Naxos reissue of this Glyndebourne performance is only available for streaming and download, and is in any event not available worldwide because of copyright restrictions. What we really need is a reissue of the more modern Nagano or Albrecht recordings; in its original issue, the Nagano included a very substantial booklet containing full essays on the music as well as the text with translations into English and French. And while we’re at it, we also need Nagano’s complete recording of Busoni’s masterpiece Doktor Faust restored to circulation - the heavily cut CD versions currently available conducted by Boult and Leitner are no substitute at all.
Of all recordings of Arlecchino the Nagano probably remains the best representation of Busoni’s score - Albrecht is really rather too slow and laid back despite some excellent singing, Pritchard really rather too fast - but this Glyndebourne performance has more sheer spark and dramatic life than either of its rivals. If you can survive without texts or translations, and just want a recording of Arlecchino without coupling, then you may well find it the most enjoyable of all.
Paul Corfield Godfrey