Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni (1787) [168:11]
George London (baritone) – Don Giovanni; Ludwig Weber (bass) – Il Commendatore; Hilde Zadek (soprano) – Donna Anna; Léopold Simoneau (tenor) – Don Ottavio; Sena Jurinac (soprano) – Donna Elvira; Walter Berry (bass) – Leporello; Eberhard Wächter (baritone) – Masetto; Graziella Sciutti (soprano) – Zerlina
Vienna Chamber Chorus
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Moralt.
rec. 2-11 May, 1955; Brahmssaal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria. Mono
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 7181 [64:56 + 59:41 + 43:34]

I part company with my esteemed MusicWeb colleague Göran Forsling regarding the merits of the eponymous anti-hero of this 1955 recording, released the following year as part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. In his review of the Preiser issue of this performance, he finds George London’s Don Giovanni to be generally “blustery and unlovable” and his singing “rather crude and unrelenting”, with a champagne aria which is “breathless and badly articulated”, but concedes that George London does on occasion “soften his tone” and produce some “honeyed phrases” in the canzonetta.

To some degree one’s reaction depends on how likeable one wants a Don Giovanni to be; the Gobbi school of Don snarls and bites as well as purrs, whereas the Siepi-Wächter type of Don is more elegant and seductive. All those singers have superb voices, so this is a question of characterisation and, for me, a more dangerous Don works. London has a big, burly voice, perhaps ultimately better suited to Wagner and villains, but my preferred Don Giovanni is more of the latter type and I don’t mind the bully-boy affect. London does indeed often sing quietly, as in a mellifluous “Là ci darem la mano”, nor do I agree that the champagne aria is poorly sung; it is certainly taken very fast but London keeps up and his Italian is always pellucid; he was a first-rate linguist.

That one difference apart, we are mostly in agreement over the merits of this set, although I find Ludwig Weber’s cavernous-voiced Commendatore to be a bit unwieldy. However, I find the ghostly distancing of his almost murmured imprecation of Don Giovanni in the churchyard to be chillingly effective, different from the usual thunderous denunciation. I also agree that “the little recorded” Hilde Zadek’s Donna Anna is “intensely dramatic though slightly squally at times” and concur that “Non mi dir” is “superb and [that] she sings with steady tone and fine legato.” Her intonation is spot on and her vibrant, occasionally shrill soprano is not inapt for the distraught and even hysterical Donna Anna, although the edge in the sound is not ideal for the high tessitura of “Or sai chi l’onore”. Léopold Simoneau’s Don Ottavio is a dream: he, too, has perfect Mozartian legato and is invariably sweet of voice without sounding wimpish. Equally fine is Sena Jurinac’s Donna Elvira, making much of a beast of a role. Rather than the “firebrand” or “wildcat” type of Elvira presented by Schwarzkopf in the same era, hers is a powerful but creamy-voiced assumption, more in the young Te Kanawa style, with flawless technique in the coloratura passages and totally even tone throughout her range. Graziella Sciutti is not as meltingly charming as Mirella Freni as Zerlina but she is still very good: pert, pretty and agile. The duo of young baritones singing Leporello and Masetto acquit themselves magnificently: Berry is humorous, sardonic and clean-voiced, as he was in Klemperer’s studio recording eleven years later, his tone well differentiated from London’s fruitier sound; Wächter is fresh and precise, not one of those “fruffly”, ageing bass-baritones too often cast in what should be a youthful part.

Rudolf Moralt was a stalwart of the VSO and will be known to some collectors as the conductor of an excellent, complete, studio “Ring” from 1948-49. To call his conducting “unobtrusive” might be to damn it with faint praise, but everything he does is apt and right; he paces the progression towards the climax of the opera perfectly and some key moments, such as the trio “Protegga il giusto ciel” (misprinted as “Pretegga” in the booklet) in the ball scene, are sublime. The orchestra is fleet and neat, the chorus excellent. The mono sound is very acceptable: slightly tubby but full and clean, at times almost fooling the ear to sound like early stereo. The harpsichord accompagnato is rather too prominent, however. A bonus is the fact that the whole cast sings in excellent Italian rather than the “qvesto-qvi” Teutonic variety too often encountered in recordings of this period; the exchanges between Don Giovanni and Leporello sparkle.

The notes provide track listings, a cast list, a plot synopsis and a historical-biographical essay; no libretto, of course.

Ralph Moore

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