The Art of Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender
The Germans were so much better than the Italians or Americans at making operatic records during this period. They provided a conductor, chorus and orchestra who, for the most part, sounded as though they had thought about it afresh rather than going through old routine; and they also provided space. Instead of those dry Victor studios where everything is boxed-in, there was a sense of freedom, so that it is sometimes necessary to look again at the date to check that this is a pre- and not post-war recording. With that comes an awareness of intelligence: even so sensitive an Italian baritone as Giuseppe de Luca strikes one as a singer unenquiringly involved when compared with the quick-minded art practised by this generation of Germans. Domgraf-Fassbaender sees (or suggests) so much more clearly the irony of Figaro’s minuet-like tune in “Se vuol ballare” and then the waspish energy of its allegro. In the Italian repertoire itself the meaning is usually much more specific, so that (for instance) the aria “Alla vita” from Un ballo in maschera carries such conviction and urgency that the listener is drawn in to catch what the aria is about rather than sitting back to enjoy sound for its own sake.
One of the great pleasures here is to find once again how well the Italian tradition of beautiful song was upheld by Germans. Domgraf-Fassbaender is so much more scrupulous than most Italians in preserving the smooth line and observing the appoggiatura-like grace-notes of the “Di Provenza” in La traviata, or in singing genuinely con garbo (“with grace, style”) in the Pagliacci duet as the score directs. That, rather curiously, is recorded twice, and in the same year (1929), first with Xenia Belmas in Italian, then with Felicie Huni-Mihacsek in German (an interesting comparison in partners too, Belmas outward-going, with a certain glamour in the voice, Huni-Mihacsek so much more tender, and often exquisite). The Huni-Mihacsek duets (eight of them) are all delightful; and there is distinction, too, in the Rigoletto sequences with Hedwig von Debicka.
Most of the records here are rarities in this country (one doesn’t often see, for instance, the Aida duet with Belmas or Trovatore with Teschemacher on the dealers’ lists). Possibly best of all is one that does turn up occasionally, a Tannhauser coupling, with a performance of the “Abendstern” to rival Janssen or Husch or Schlusnus. Fine, too, are the solos from Undine and Der Zigeunerbaron, and throughout both discs the transfers are first-rate.'