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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Don Giovanni, K527
Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass) – Don Giovanni; Claire Watson (soprano) – Donna Anna; Walter Berry (bass-baritone) – Leporello; Franz Crass (bass) – Commendatore; Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano) – Donna Elvira; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Paolo Montarsolo (bass) – Masetto; Mirella Freni (soprano) – Zerlina
New Philharmonia Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Bonus (CD 4) Klemperer’s Don Giovanni. Behind the scenes
rec. 15, 17-19, 22-25, 27-30 June, 3-4 July 1966, No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 7044832 [4 CDs: 67:51 + 62:43 + 40:13 + 59:18]

In part the reason for the re-release of this set can be found on the bonus CD. EMI have issued for the first time tapes from the rehearsals and playback auditions, all newly re-mastered. They give fascinating insight in the octogenarian Otto Klemperer’s slow but precise instructions and also his wit. The opera proper has not been re-mastered; this is the from 1991 re-master.
 
We expect slow tempos from Klemperer at this stage of his career and that is what we get, sometimes extremely so. Set against that the weight, the clarity and the care he takes over nuances. For the most part this combination pays dividends. The overture, without being really monumental, has a gravity and nobility that doesn’t exclude drama. Rather it tells the listener that what is to follow will be more dramma than giocoso. Leporello’s opening arietta is more stern than mercurial but Berry points the text excellently and he was an experienced Mozartean. In his recorded legacy there are two more Leporellos, a Masetto (for Krips), Don Alfonso for Böhm and no fewer than three Papagenos: Böhm, Klemperer and Sawallisch. He sang Figaro too, and I saw him on TV in the sixties from Salzburg. Also there is a complete German-language Figaro on Electrola.
 
The cast is strong overall and to match Klemperer’s weighty reading the producers, Peter Andry and Suvi Raj Grubb, picked dark voices for the male roles. Ghiaurov - on one rehearsal sequence Klemperer carefully tells the orchestra that his name is pronounced Ghiaurov - fairly early in his international career, had a powerful but flexible voice and his sexy Don Giovanni often sings with seductive velvety tone. Franz Crass - Böhm’s Sarastro a couple of years earlier - is a somewhat anonymous but sonorous Commendatore. No match though for Gottlob Frick’s thunderous reading on the Giulini set. Paolo Montarsolo, one of the finest buffo basses for many years, is a lively and expressive Masetto. In this company it is more than fitting to choose Nicolai Gedda as Don Ottavio. He was Klemperer’s Tamino somewhat earlier, and with more steel in the voice than the average Mozart tenor, he stands up well against his colleagues. There is no lack of finesse and elegance – always his hallmark. You only need to listen to his honeyed Dalla sua pace (CD 1 tr. 21) to see what I mean. He is also the equal, voice-wise, of his Donna Anna, Claire Watson, who is strong and expressive. Her female colleagues are not a notch behind in excellence. Few singers have managed to invest poor Donna Elvira with so many multi-faceted feelings and is there a lovelier Zerlina than Mirella Freni?
 
There are places where Klemperer’s speeds are problematic. The Catalogue aria would have benefited from a higher gear. On the other hand Berry has time to point his words without stumbling. Donna Anna’s Non mi dir is uncomfortably slow and the trio Ah taci, ingiusto core is extremely slow. It has tremendous power and is magnificently sung but it stands still. The recitative that follows is very swift – a remarkable contrast. I wonder how Mirella Freni felt when she sang Vedrai carino. I fully understand Klemperer’s slow tempo – he wanted to hear Freni for as long as possible!
 
The sextet has almost Wagnerian weight and Il mio tesoro lacks the lightness of Leopold Simoneau, though he sings it just as well. Elvira’s Mi tradi may be the true highlight of this recording. The churchyard scene is eerie, the entrance of the Commendatore not quite as frightening as with Frick but the whole finale is the thriller it should be.
 
There are many outstanding recordings of Don Giovanni on the market and in my collection Ferenc Fricsay (with Fischer-Dieskau in the title role), Josef Krips (with Siepi), Giulini (with Waechter), Colin Davis (with Wixell) and in more recent times Arnold Östman (with Hagegård) and René Jacobs (with the very young Johannes Weisser) have a lot to offer. Klemperer is controversial for his choice of tempo in places, the harpsichord accompaniments in the recitatives are very bare and I wouldn’t have regretted a re-mastering of the original tapes. Allowing for that, he has his own concept, marvellous singers and this music can stand all kinds of treatments – as long as there is a creative mind at work. This set will now get a honoured place on my shelves close to the ones listed above.

Göran Forsling

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