The 50 greatest Mozart recordings - part 4

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Our traversal of the greatest Mozart recordings continues, from the Requiem to Idomeneo...

Verdi's Macbeth

Requiem

Joanne Lunn, Rowan Hellier, Thomas Hobbs and Matthew Brook (soloists) Dunedin Consort / John Butt

(Linn)

Purely on grounds of performance alone, this is one of the finest Mozart Requiems of recent years. John Butt brings to Mozart the microscopic care and musicological acumen that have made his Bach and Handel recordings so thought-provoking and satisfying.

As with all of Butt’s recordings, however, this Mozart Requiem is something of an event. The occasion is the publication of a new edition – by David Black, a senior research fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge – of the ‘traditional’ completion of this tantalisingly unfinished work, of which this is the first recording. Süssmayr’s much-maligned filling-in of the Requiem torso has lately enjoyed a resurgence in its acceptance by the scholarly community – not that it has ever been supplanted in the hearts and repertoires of choral societies and music lovers around the world. The vogue for stripped-back and reimagined modern completions is on the wane and Süssmayr’s attempt, for all its perceived inconsistencies and inaccuracies, is once again in favour in the crucible of musicological criticism. After all, as Black points out in the preface to his score, ‘Whatever the shortcomings of Süssmayr’s completion, it is the only document that may transmit otherwise lost directions or written material from Mozart’.

Black has returned to the earliest sources of the work: Mozart’s incomplete ‘working’ score, Süssmayr’s ‘delivery’ score and the first printed edition of 1800, which even so soon after the work’s genesis was already manifesting accretions and errors that place us at a further remove from Mozart’s intentions. For all the textual emendations this engenders, the actual difference as far as the general listener is concerned is likely to be minimal; while we Requiemophiles quiver with delight at each clarified marking, to all intents and purposes what is presented here is the Mozart Requiem as it has been known and loved for more than two centuries.

It is Butt’s minute attention to these details, though, that makes this such a thrilling performance. He fields a choir and band of dimensions similar to the forces at the first performance of the complete work on January 2, 1793, little over a year after Mozart’s death, and the effect is, not unexpectedly, to wipe away the impression of a ‘thick, grey crust’ that was felt so palpably by earlier commentators on the work. Listen, for example, to Mozart’s miraculous counterpoint at ‘Te decet hymnus’ in the Introit or Süssmayr’s rather more clumsy imitation in the ‘Recordare’, and hear how refreshingly the air circulates around these potentially stifling textures. Butt’s outlook on the work is apparent from the very beginning: the gait of the string quavers is more deliberate than limping in the first bar, and this purposefulness returns in movements such as the ‘Recordare’ and ‘Hostias’. The extremes of monumentality and meditativeness in the Requiem are represented perhaps by Bernstein and Herreweghe respectively; Butt steers a course equidistant between the two without compromising the work in its many moments of austerity or repose. Paradoxically, Butt’s fidelity to the minutiae of the score allows him the freedom to shape a performance of remarkable cumulative intensity, so that the drama initiated in the driving ‘Dies irae’ reaches a climax and catharsis in the ‘Lacrimosa’ and is recalled in the turbulent Agnus Dei.

The choir is of only 16 voices, from which the four soloists step out as required. Blend and tuning are of an accuracy all too rarely heard, even in this golden age of British choral singing. Soprano Joanne Lunn’s tone is well nourished, with vibrato deployed judiciously to colour selected notes or phrases; of the other soloists, Matthew Brook’s bass responds sonorously to the sounding of the last trumpet (in German ‘die letzte Posaune’ – the last trombone) in the ‘Tuba mirum’. Instrumental sonority, too, is meticulously judged: hear especially the voicing of the brass-and-wind chords during bridge passages in the ‘Benedictus’ or the shifting orchestral perspectives of the ‘Confutatis’.

The couplings are also carefully considered. The first is Misericordias Domini, an offertory composed in 1775 of which Mozart had a set of parts copied in 1791. Sharing with the Requiem its key and a gleeful exploitation of contrapuntal techniques, it piquantly demonstrates the advance in Mozart’s church style during the last 16 years of his life.

The disc closes with what purports to be a re-enactment of an even earlier ‘first performance’ of the Requiem. While the 1793 Vienna concert is well documented, recent research has suggested that the Requiem (or at least some of it) was performed in a memorial to Mozart on December 10, 1791 – only five days after his death. Given the partial state of the work (only the Introit was complete in Mozart’s hand), it is supposed that this performance consisted of the Introit and the ensuing Kyrie fugue, for which an amanuensis filled in the doubling woodwind parts. That performance is hypothesised here with slimmed-down vocal and string parts, and with trumpets and drums missing from the Kyrie (on the presumption that the parts hadn’t been provided by that time). Starker still than the larger performance, this telling appendix offers a tantalising glimpse of the music that might have been played by Mozart’s friends and students as they struggled to come to terms with their loss. David Threasher (May 2014)

 

Requiem

Margaret Price, Trudeliese Schmidt, Francisco Araiza, Theo Adam; Staatskapelle Dresden / Peter Schreier

(Philips)

Instrumentalists often become conductors, and great ones; yet the number of singers who have successfully taken up the baton is remarkably small; but on the evidence of this recording of Mozart's Requiem, the distinguished German tenor Peter Schreier (who was born in 1935) ranks high in that select company. He is, of course, closely associated with the tenor roles in Mozart's operas, and he must have sung as a soloist in the Requiem on countless occasions (he recorded it for Erato with Michel Corboz on STU70943, 6/67), but although he has been active as a conductor since 1970 he has rarely featured in this capacity on records issued in this country.

The fact that he knows the score inside out and that he loves the music passionately, shines through the whole performance: I can think of few, if any, live or on records, that have struck me as being so totally committed to the spirit of this great work, or have made it sound like a finished masterpiece—despite the fact that Mozart did not live long enough to write the score out in full, and that it was completed by his pupil Sussmayr. He is, as every singer should be, especially sensitive to the words, as well as to the music: one instance is his quite extraordinarily perceptive handling of the Recordare, in which the four soloists for once sing as if they really understand every word and inflection of the Latin text. The solo quartet is unusually fine and well balanced, and if I say that Margaret Price sings the prominent soprano part better than I can ever remember having heard it sung, this is in no way meant to disparage the equally beautiful singing of Trudeliese Schmidt, Francisco Araiza and Theo Adam. The Leipzig Radio Chorus and the Dresden State Orchestra provide splendid support and Philips's digital recording is uncannily vivid.

There is no shortage of recordings to compare this new one with. Of the two listed above, Barenboim's on HMV is the more dramatic, Marriner's (Argo) the more restrained. Both have their good points, and both have first-rate soloists, chorus and orchestra (Barenboim has Sheila Armstrong, Dame Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the John Alldis Choir and the ECO; Marriner has Ileana Cotrubas, Helen Watts, Robert Tear, John Shirley-Quirk and the ASMF Chorus and ASMF). But, for me, Schreier's performance is a revelation, and his recording is the one that I would take to my desert island if I had the choice. Robin Golding (March 1984)

 

Così fan tutte

Sols incl Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Giuseppe Taddei; Philharmonia Orchestra / Karl Böhm

(Warner Classics)

Così fan tutte is the most balanced and probing of all Mozart’s operas, formally faultless, musically inspired from start to finish, emotionally a matter of endless fascination and, in the second act, profoundly moving. It has been very lucky on disc, and besides this delightful set there have been several other memorable recordings. However, Karl Böhm’s cast could hardly be bettered, even in one’s dreams. The two sisters are gloriously sung – Schwarzkopf and Ludwig bring their immeasurable talents as Lieder singers to this sparkling score and overlay them with a rare comic touch. Add to that the stylish singing of Alfredo Kraus and Giuseppe Taddei and the central quartet is unimpeachable. Walter Berry’s Don Alfonso is characterful and Hanny Steffek is quite superb as Despina. The pacing of this endlessly intriguing work is measured with immaculate judgement. The emotional control of the characterisation is masterly and Böhm’s totally idiomatic response to the music is arguably without peer.

 

Così fan tutte

Sols incl Miah Persson, Anke Vondung, Ainhoa Garmendia, Topi Lehtipuu; Glyndebourne Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer

(Opus Arte DVD/Blu-ray)

Since 1934 when Glyndebourne revived this then-neglected work and began its run of success it has presented a succession of exemplary stagings all within the parameters of da Ponte’s libretto. When this, the latest, was produced it was universally hailed: as faithful a representation of the equivocal comedy as one could wish. That’s confirmed by this DVD.

Both Despina and Alfonso are played traditionally and with notable brio by Garmendia and Rivenq. The delightful Persson and Vondung make a wholly believable and vocally attractive Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and deliver their music in ideal Mozartian tone and style. Similarly Lehtipuu is a charming and wide-eyed Ferrando and Pisaroni a warm-voiced and personal Guglielmo. They both woo with seductive charm.

As reviews at the time reported, Fischer conducts with an unassumingly correct sense of timing and has the inestimable advantage of the OAE’s period instruments. Alan Blyth (June 2007)

 

Don Giovanni

Sols incl Rodney Gilfry, Luba Orgonasova, Charlotte Margiono, Christoph Prégardien, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(Archiv Produktion)

Gardiner’s set has a great deal to commend it. The recitative is sung with exemplary care over pacing so that it sounds as it should, like heightened and vivid conversation, often to electrifying effect. Ensembles, the Act 1 quartet particularly, are also treated conversationally, as if one were overhearing four people giving their opinions on a situation in the street. The orchestra, perfectly balanced with the singers in a very immediate acoustic, supports them, as it were ‘sings’ with them. That contrasts with, and complements, Gardiner’s expected ability to empathise with the demonic aspects of the score, as in Giovanni’s drinking song and the final moments of Act 1, which fairly bristle with rhythmic energy without ever becoming rushed. The arrival of the statue at Giovanni’s dinner-table is tremendous, the period trombones and timpani achieving an appropriately brusque, fearsome attack. Throughout this scene, Gardiner’s penchant for sharp accents is wholly appropriate; elsewhere he’s sometimes rather too insistent. As a whole, tempos not only seem right on their own account but also, all-importantly, carry conviction in relation to each other. Where so many conductors today are given to rushing ‘Mi tradì’, Gardiner prefers a more meditative approach, which allows his soft-grained Elvira to make the most of the aria’s expressive possibilities. 

Rodney Gilfry’s Giovanni is lithe, ebullient, keen to exert his sexual prowess; an obvious charmer, at times surprisingly tender yet with the iron will only just below the surface. Suave and appealing, delivered in a real baritone timbre, his Giovanni is as accomplished as any on disc. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo was the discovery of these performances: this young bass is a lively foil to his master and on his own a real showman, as ‘Madamina’ indicates, a number all the better for a brisk speed. Orgonasova once more reveals herself a paragon as regards steady tone and deft technique – there’s no need here to slow down for the coloratura at the end of ‘Non mi dir’ – and she brings to her recounting of the attempted seduction a real feeling of immediacy. As Anna, Margiono sometimes sounds a shade stretched technically, but consoles us with the luminous, inward quality of her voice and her reading of the role, something innate that can’t be learnt. 

Nobody in their right senses is ever going to suggest that there’s one, ideal version of Don Giovanni; the work has far too many facets for that, but for sheer theatrical élan complemented by the live recording, Gardiner is among the best, particularly given a recording that’s wonderfully truthful and lifelike. Alan Blyth (August 1995)

 

Don Giovanni

Sols incl Waechter, Sutherland, Schwarzkopf; Philharmonia Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini

(Warner Classics)

At last. The 1959 Giulini Don Giovanni has been digitally remastered and made available on CD. Philip Hope-Wallace, reviewing the original release, thought that it was worth a year at a foreign university. Well, I don't know if I'd go that far; but it is extremely difficult to choose between this and the Davis performance on Philips for non-stop momentum born of deep understanding of the musical expression of character and dramatic motivation.

There is no doubt that the orchestral playing here is unsurpassed. From the depth and precision of the opening chords to the fugitive spirit of dance which no one else quite captures, the Philharmonia under Giulini become a second cast on their own. So often the tiniest detail – the weight of a chord, the length of a silence, the linking curve of a phrase, the parting of the inner voices of the strings – stage-manages the drama more shrewdly than a good many theatre directors ever do. That having been said, I find Davis's pacing marginally more exciting. Giulini does, one feels, occasionally hold back to allow a voice its moment of glory; and the Act 1 finale hasn't quite that thrilling inexorability as the dance hurtles from form to chaos.

The presence of Dame Joan Sutherland does have its drawbacks as well as its glory. Her Donna Anna is never quite a ''furia disperata''; the comparative weakness of her lower register and her lack of real impulse in phrasing make her as a weak match for Schwarzkopf's Elvira as Te Kanawa's Elvira is for Arroyo's superb Anna for Davis. Only Haitink on EMI, it seems, with Vaness and Ewing, has a pair equally matched, at least in dramatic credibility: Glyndebourne's team casting is, of course, its great strength.

Schwarzkopf's Elvira, together with the orchestral playing, is the glory of this Don Giovanni. Listen to their relationship in ''In quali eccessi'': it could hardly be more potent, more intensely Mozartian. She understands the rhythmic and melodic psychology of her every second on stage. So does this Don Giovanni: though Waechter's thrusting physicality and diabolic laughter leave us just short of the sheer fascination of Wixell's hunter (Davis) or Allen's chilling seducer (Haitink).

The casting of the smaller parts doesn't make for such vibrant theatre as in either Davis or Haitink; but the care originally lavished on the production by Walter Legge is celebrated in remastering which cuts out glare and distortion, while losing none of the depth and perspective which belong uniquely to Giulini's reading. Hilary Finch (December 1987)

 

Don Giovanni

Sols incl Allen, Verness, Ewing; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bernard Haitink

(EMI/Warner Classics)

By general consent, the performances of Don Giovanni in Sir Peter Hall's production at Glyndebourne in 1982 were considered profoundly satisfying, and therefore a special achievement in a work so hard to bring off both on stage and on the gramophone. Now that achievement is mostly confirmed in a recording that is definitely the peer of those that have gone before and possibly their superior in several respects. Giovanni is certainly the most recorded of Mozart's operas, so the work must be much in demand among collectors who, like Giovanni in his search for women, seem unsatisfied by the available choice.

They ought to find the new version solving many of their difficulties. In the first place, as with so many recommendable ones of operas these days, it has the best of both worlds: the experience of recent stage performances refined under studio circumstances – including one significant change of cast. Then it has in Haitink as cogent a conductor as any who have gone before. In many respects he recalls the direct, unaffected, judicious conducting of Fritz Busch, one of his predecessors as Glyndebourne's Music Director (Busch's famous 1936 recording is still to be had – EMI, 3/83). He is as much aware as Bohm of the importance of rhythmic impetus and natural flow, also of vital detail – such as the wind gurglings in ''Meta di vuoi''.

Tempos, with the possible exception of a sluggish ''Vedrai carino'', are well judged, and the dramatic impact of Giovanni's damnation scene is quite as earth-moving as with Davis (Philips) or Bohm. I wouldn't rate the LPO strings quite on a par with Bohm's VPO or Giulini's Philharmonia, but as a whole the orchestral playing is as taut as the direction. A special word of praise must be given for the handling of the recitative, which really has the feeling of a live performance and is accompanied with just the right amount of embellishment by Martin Isepp. Many appoggiaturas are now allowed by Glyndebourne.

This is a cast dominated, as much as was its live Glyndebourne predecessor, by its protagonist. Thomas Allen conveys, by voice alone the saturnine quality of his Giovanni, even without the help of his leering, daemonic portrayal. Yet the charm is there as well, both in a seductive Serenade (excellent mandolin) and a confident, easily declaimed Champagne (so-called) aria. His clear baritone contrasts distinctly with the darker timbre of Richard Van Allan's Leporello, so that there isn't the confusion between two baritones found on the Solti set (Decca), or between two basses on the Maazel (CBS, 10/79). Van Allan makes the character a likeable ruffian, and sings the part as well as any rival on record. I particularly like the way he distinguishes in recitative between asides and conversation by a clever use of mezza voce, a technique he also uses in ensembles. The partnership between him and Allen has become intuitive through the experience of the Glyndebourne run, and is much appreciated.

Lionel Salter has pointed out in the past the difficulty in deciding the precise situation of the two donne. On this occasion both are very positive ladies. Carol Vaness's Anna, so imposing in the theatre, is both bold and impassioned, hardly an inexperienced girl yet properly outraged by Giovanni's behaviour. Her singing is forceful and risk-taking, not so smooth and efficient as Margaret Price for Solti (Decca), sometimes glaring at the top, but more responsive to emotional predicaments. Both her arias are firmly contoured and involving –  ''Rammenta la piaga'' she declaims, and we know this Anna still feels the pain of her father's death. Vaness is an important soprano whom we shall hear more of on record.

Maria Ewing is the newcomer to the cast I referred to earlier, but you would hardly know it from her involving, often poignant singing, particularly in the recitative before ''Mi tradi'', itself sung with the runs made part of the worried expression. Her tone sometimes has a roughish edge to it, which rather impairs the Mask trio, and that may be because the role lies a little high for a voice poised between mezzo and soprano. You won't hear the full, creamy tone found in either of Te Kanawa's Elviras (for Davis and Maazel), but I think the dimension of hurt pride and intense determination tells us a lot about Elvira that more placid, better-equipped singers, such as Zylis-Gara (Bohm), can miss.

Keith Lewis, the Ottavio, carries on the accomplished line of British Mozartian tenors that runs from Heddle Nash through Richard Lewis to Stuart Burrows. Mellifluous is the word for his delivery of both arias, the voice lighter and smoother than Schreier's (Bohm), sweeter too, but less positive, and not negligible in characterization (Hall portrays him as rather elderly). Elizabeth Gale's Zerlina, impetuous and confused on stage, conveys those attributes on record, but the voice itself hasn't the charm of Popp (Solti). John Rawnsley is a Masetto very well worth Zerlina keeping, with more obvious presence than most. Kavrakos sounds a little too gentle for the Statute, ideal though for the opening scene's Commendatore.

As in all Glyndebourne performances, the sum is often greater than the parts, and the cast works together as a team better than any save Walter Legge's assembly for Giulini (HMV). For that, for Haitink's interpretation, for the most lively delivery of the recitative since Giulini's version, and for at least four of the principals, I would make this my Giovanni choice, not to overlook a well-balanced, unobtrusive (and therefore typically EMI) recording.

Bohm, whose version is about to be reissued by DG, may in some respects be more mature and magisterial than Haitink, but this theatre recording is hampered by stage noises, while Solti, in contrast, sounds studio-bound, and his version spreads over four records. No, I shall now keep Haitink close by Giulini (at medium price) for regular listening: both take you deep into this opera's world of dark tensions and make you aware of the subtleties of orchestral texture and the symphonic stature of the musical forms. Alan Blyth (July 1984)

 

Don Giovanni

Sols incl Finley, Samuil, Royal; Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment / Vladimir Jurowski

(Warner Classics DVD)

Jonathan Kent follows up his superb Fairy Queen with a gripping account of what some people consider to be Mozart’s “problem opera”. It is set in 1960, the world of La dolce vita, all scarves and dark glasses; but the location is Franco’s Spain (where the Fellini film was banned until after the monster’s death). In the context of his production Kent rarely puts a foot wrong.

There’s a geniality about his stage presence that makes Gerald Finley more suited, I suspect, to Figaro and Leporello than to the Count and Don Giovanni. But his assumption of Giovanni is completely convincing. He can be a vicious thug – no gentlemanly fencing for him, he smashes the Commendatore’s face with a brick – and of course he can turn on the charm. His most important relationship, as Finley puts it in one of the two bonus features, is with Leporello, each character both irritated by and dependent on the other. Finley’s embarrassed grins, as he tries to convince Donna Anna and Don Ottavio that Donna Elvira is mad, are a joy to behold; and his fear before the confrontation with the Commendatore in the supper scene is palpable. Finley sings as well as he acts, apart from an oddly unhoneyed Serenade.

Kent’s direction of the women is telling. Prim, middle-aged Ottavio doesn’t stand a chance against Anna’s obsession with her father. At the end, the besotted Elvira touches the corpse of Giovanni, who lies in the same position as the murdered Commendatore – a nice touch. But I think that Kent is wrong to have Giovanni humping Zerlina against a wall before her rescue by Elvira, an important feature of the opera surely being Giovanni’s signal failure to seduce anyone at all. Vladimir Jurowski chooses the Vienna version: so out goes “Il mio tesoro”, in comes the duet where Zerlina threatens Leporello and ties him up. The singing is fine and the OAE play like angels. Richard Lawrence (August 2011)

 

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Sols incl Schäfer, Petibon, Bostridge; Les Arts Florissants / William Christie

(Erato)

This ebullient, beautifully co-ordinated reading began life in a production at Strasbourg at the end of 1995 when Andrew Clark reported in Opera that ‘rarely have Mozart’s exotic textures sounded so feather-light, or the instrumental obbligatos so naturally in context’. Christie sets ‘brisk but flexible tempos, and builds the ensembles into a fever of musical jubilation’. That is all amply confirmed in this finely balanced, intimate recording. In the Overture and some of the early numbers, Christie is inclined to clip his rhythms with accents almost brusque, but once the Pasha and Konstanze appear on the scene, he settles into an interpretation that evinces the elevated sensibility that informs his Rameau, Handel – and indeed Die Zauberflote – on disc, strong on detail but never at the expense of the whole picture.

But then he has by his side a Konstanze to stop all hearts. Having delivered herself of a fleet, easy ‘Ach, ich liebte’, Schäfer (who wasn’t in the original cast) pierces further than does any other interpreter into the soul of the woman who is both physically and emotionally imprisoned. From the deeply felt, vulnerable recitative leading into ‘Traurigkeit’ she pours out Constanze’s woes in that pure, plaintive, highly individual tone of hers and, above all, offers a wonderfully fresh and inward execution of the text. With Christie going all the way with her, musically speaking, ‘Traurigkeit’ itself is heart-rending in its G minor sorrowing, ‘Martern aller Arten’ the epitome of determined defiance and resolution. Try the final section from ‘Doch du bist entschlossen’ – have you ever heard it sound so resolute, so detailed?

In the great Act 2 Quartet and the last-act duet, where Mozart peers into his musical future, she is just as moving and inspires Bostridge to equal heights of tender inflexion. At first you may, as I did, find Bostridge lightweight for Belmonte. Ears accustomed to Wunderlich (Jochum), Schreier (Bohm) and Heilmann (Hogwood) need to get accustomed to Bostridge’s less refulgent tone, but in the context of this period-instrument performance, with a small band (smaller, I would judge, than Gardiner’s), his silvery voice and Mozartian know-how carry the day, though his voice sometimes sounds disconcertingly similar to the nimble, ingratiating tenor of the Pedrillo, Iain Paton.

Like her mistress in her role, Petibon gives us a Blonde to make us forget just about every other soprano in the part on disc. She plays with and smiles through her opening aria with a delightful freedom of technique and expression, nothing daunted by its tessitura, even adding decorations to the already-demanding vocal line (the whole recording is literally adorned by small embellishments, naturally delivered). She maintains this high standard throughout in a winning performance.

As Osmin, Ewing’s vibrant, individual bass-baritone is attractive on its own account but, as on the other period-instrument performances, one does rather miss a true bass voice in such a low-lying part (listen to Bohm’s Moll to hear what’s missing), and Ewing proves a benevolent, homely Osmin rather than a threatening one. But, like all the other singers and the keenly spoken Pasha of Low, he fits easily into the performance’s overall and likeable concept, so I am not inclined to labour this slight drawback.

Christie includes all the recently rediscovered music, as does Gardiner, but the choice of dialogue is markedly different, with Christie opting for a shorter script than Gardiner; Hogwood includes most of all. Its delivery is easy and idiomatic. As I have suggested, the recording is excellent.

By and large, Christie steers a sensible course between Gardiner’s over-brisk performance and Hogwood’s rather relaxed effort. In the all-important role of Konstanze, Orgonasova for Gardiner is vocally and technically as accomplished as Schafer, but when it comes to delving into the role’s meaning, she is nowhere beside her new rival, who surpasses even Bohm’s exemplary Auger.

Christie is now my recommendation if you want a period-instrument recording, with Bohm still there as a benchmark on modern instruments. At the bargain level Jochum is just back in circulation (but his Konstanze leaves something to be desired) on DG, and at super-bargain don’t overlook the excellent Linz issue on Arte Nova, but just now I am going back to listen to Schäfer, Bostridge et al in that Quartet, Mozart performance on the highest level of achievement. Alan Blyth (March 1999)

 

Idomeneo

Sols incl von Otter, Rolfe Johnson, McNair; English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(Archiv)

Unless and until further research proves otherwise, this version will remain the definitive recording of Mozart's early masterpiece for a long time to come. That is not to say I shall make a bonfire of the sets listed above, each of which has special features to commend it, merely that Gardiner—who has written how much he owes to Mackerras and Harnoncourt in finding the right route to interpreting the work—has given us a reading that seems to accord as closely as can at present be discerned with both a performance of Mozart's time (of which he gives ample evidence in his accompanying notes though nothing is conclusively proved) and one that sounds thoroughly authentic in the best sense. Those who attended any of the three live performances from which this set has been made will confirm that they were evenings of thrilling music-drama. On those occasions Gardiner experimented with mixtures of the various plausible arrangements of the existing music. Then at a further concert, he performed alone the fullest version possible of the opera's final scenes, a fascinating experience, though one that in context of a stage performance might tire both singers and audience alike.

Here we have the best of all worlds. In the main recording we have a composite version of the surviving music for Munich 1981. In practice Gardiner's choices seem the right ones. Thus we have the longer, more elaborate ''Fuor del mar'', the shorter of the sacrificial scenes, the briefer of the two brass versions of Neptune's pronouncement and the ballet music. Included are Arbace's second aria, Elettra's ''D'Oreste e d'Aiace'' and Idomeneo's ''Torna la pace''. All were cut by Mozart before the premiere but make sense in the context of a recording. In the appendices (on the end of CD2) are bits of recitative from Act 2, the longer of the sacrificial scenes, the longer of the brass versions of Neptune's pronouncement (plus the setting with wind—marvellous), and the scene in Act 3 for Elettra that replaced her aria. This complete recording (minus only the simpler versions of ''Fuor del mar'' and the shortest version of Neptune's music) offers the intending buyer three, very well-filled discs.

So much for the (quite important) nuts and bolts. All this thoroughness of approach would be of little avail were the performance in any way inadequate, but Gardiner's reading is in almost every respect profoundly satisfying. As he avers, he came to the piece having traversed on disc this work's two great progenitors Jephtha and Iphigenie en Tauride, both operas about parental sacrifice and obviously influential on Idomeneo. Then he brings to the work, as does his orchestra, the experience and knowledge gained through recording the Mozart concertos and late symphonies on period instruments. In matters of phrasing, articulation, melodic shaping, they here benefit from their previous achievement: this is a taut, raw, dramatic reading, yet one that fully allows for tenderness and warmth. You can judge these things as well as anywhere in the March before ''Placido e il mar'', then in that chorus itself, the one clean in texture, brisk in articulation, the other suave and appealing in its 6/8 rhythm. You can also hear there the advantage of the right-sized band and choir. Listen, too, to the control of dynamics in the great Act 3 Quartet.

Throughout Gardiner and his team recognize what he indicates in another note, the fact that Mozart conceived the work as through-written without any breaks in the piece's forward movement. As at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this creates the correct sense of internal tensions within external formality. Once or twice in Act 1 I felt that Gardiner's penchant for fierce accentuation was getting the better of him and calling attention to the podium rather than to the music, but the impression soon passed and one listened to the new revelations of the reading without let or hindrance. Tempos are admirably judged.

Although some roles have been as well or better sung on rival sets, none is so consistently cast. Sylvia McNair sings Ilia's grateful, sensuous music with eager, fresh tone and impeccable phrasing even if she can't claim the warm appeal of Jurinac (Pritchard/EMI). Hillevi Martinpelto, the Swedish soprano who made such an impression in the last BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year, is a properly impetuous Elettra who has no trouble with either the eloquent (''Idol mio'') or crazed side of the character and whose vocal allure will take her far. Even so the interpretative honours go to Anthony Rolfe Johnson's deeply felt, mellifluously sung and technically assured Idomeneo and to Anne Sofie von Otter's ardent, impetuous, and in the end touching, Idamante: the sacrificial scene between father and son is rightly the moving centrepiece of the whole opera, where the two singers' skill in recitative is finely exemplified. Nigel Robson copes splendidly with the concerned Arbace, most touching in his recitative before his second aria (usually omitted) and then sure-voiced in the difficult divisions in that aria itself. Glenn Winslade is a firm High Priest but Cornelius Hauptmann's bass is too woolly for the deus ex machina.

As I have implied, the playing of the English Baroque Soloists is as accomplished and fluent as ever and the balance of the very immediate recording between them and the soloists is just right. Some edits are just audible and I had the feeling that some of the set numbers were recorded without an audience present, but that doesn't detract from the sense of unity and vividness available from recording a work, by and large, in the right order thus ensuring histrionic truth.

This new set emphatically replaces the startlingly innovative but sometimes eccentric Harnoncourt (Teldec/Warner Classics). The Bohm (DG), in no way authentic, remains the work of a great Mozartian, and the Pritchard (EMI) is a historic document, recalling the early days of rediscovery in this field. But those who want the full Idomeneo story and a profoundly satisfying musical experience must have this new set. Alan Blyth (June 1991)

 

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