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.'