Vienna State Opera Live Recordings (sampler)
The attics are empty, the cellars are bare and the voices of ghosts from the stage of the past will be silent for ever. Or so we thought. But now comes a cache, a hoard of treasures so rare that expectation quickens and a glow of interest shoots into the eye of the old collector who has long concluded that there is nothing which is both new and old under the sun. Briefly, these are live recordings from the Vienna Opera made between 1933 and 1943; 24 double CD boxes are planned (which include 1944); and this before us now is a sampler, which should also be an appetizer.
Now, far be it from me to pick ungratefully at the food set before me. Nevertheless, it is in the interests of all concerned to risk spoiling the fun of the feast by issuing a few elderly cautions about romance and reality. Letting ourselves be transported (as Karl Albert puts it in his introductory essay) ''back to one of the most brilliant periods in the history of the Vienna State Opera'' might seem to be like accepting a ride on the magic carpet, floating above dream-cities in an age of gold. But in fact we are submitting to ''History'' (he used the word), and History itself submits to the hard discipline of evidence. Evidence, moreover, has a habit of being frequently unexpected, unwelcome and inconvenient. So, in this 'appetizer', a search for musical value does not, in my experience, yield much in the way of hard evidence that this was a particularly brilliant period at all. Here, for instance, is a vocally uneven, pallid Marschallin (Ursuleac), an unsteady Brunnhilde (Anny Konetzni), a Radames with tone and style equally unsuitable for the music (Lorenz), a Renato or whatever the production calls him (the baritone in Un ballo in maschera) who is still less aptly cast as far as voice and style are concerned (Ahlersmeyer). Others have merit but also faults which would not escape censure today: Hilde Konetzni's habit of taking notes from below, Schoeffler's admittedly entertaining treatment of ''Non piu andrai'' as more or less a buffo aria, Jerger's admittedly animated portrayal of Galitsky without a Galitsky voice. And all of these, of course, are in German, whether that is the original language or not.
There are, however, moments if not of glory then at least of sudden illumination. Brightest, and indeed unforgettable, is the glimpse of Jeritza, no longer studio-bound but out there in public projecting voice and personality in a way that for just those few minutes shows why she was Jeritza. As Santuzza she needs stronger chest notes, but the few phrases of quiet singing are genuinely beautiful and much of the rest is electrifying. Fascinating too is the glimpse of the Bulgarian tenor Todor Mazaroff, rarely found on records but a famous Arnoldo in his time, here sampled as Don Carlo and risking Bruno Walter's wrath with a naughty high C at the end. Reining in Pamina's aria gives the first performance that is consistently beautiful; Volker, as Rienzi, fully lives up to his reputation; and Klose gives what evidently was an annihilating account of Ortrud's invocation to the dark gods.
That brings us to the question of recorded sound. The Lohengrin excerpt is given twice, the second time as a demonstration of the state of these recordings before their technical preparation by Christian Zimmerli. I found several puzzling aspects in this and applied to the technical experts, who analyse as follows: the original mono recordings have been transferred with a stereo pickup, thus creating additional surface noise which is also spread between the two speakers; the technician has thus been obliged to suppress more noise than needed. More comment will be required as the effects become clearer in subsequent issues. It is also to be hoped that speeds and pitches will be scrupulously tested. Svanholm's ''Wintersturme'', Lorenz's ''Celeste Aida'', Ahlersmeyer's ''Alla vita'' come out roughly a semitone high, as does the ''Wach auf'' chorale from Die Meistersinger in what is already a mesmerically slow and rapt performance under Furtwangler. As I say, some cautionary remarks have to be made, but the material promised looks rich; and at the end of it the name of Hermann May, who made the original recordings, will surely live alongside that of Lionel Mapleson who in 1901 introduced himself and his Edison cylinder apparatus into the Prompter's box at the Metropolitan and proceeded to record Dame Nellie Melba.'