ALBUM TITLE: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1950
WORKS: Così fan tutte (excerpts)
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 1040 ADD
Two prize Butterflies sing ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ (One Fine Day) with a mixture of innocence and presentiment: Geraldine Farrar in sequence with other memorable extracts from the same opera (some with Caruso), and Grace Moore – who died in an air crash, aged just 48 – in the context of a varied and touching retrospective. However, there’s a third species, rarer still but with a purity and tenderness that mark her as truly exceptional. In fact, it was Puccini himself who prompted Missouri-born Edith Mason to ‘sing from the heart’. That was in 1921, two years before Mason sang Mimì under Toscanini, and 14 before the Maestro chose her to sing at Salzburg. Between times, she made a number of glorious records – primitive-sounding, yes, but vocally exquisite, whether of Tosti’s ‘Serenade’ or Gounod’s ‘Jewel Song’.
‘Primitive’ recording techniques held relatively few fears for Leopold Stokowski, whose cinematic imagination and re-creative ear combined for a Pictures at an Exhibition that makes Ravel’s sound blandly ineffectual. There are cuts, crudities and a recording that occasionally threatens to explode; but to hear Stokowski’s hideous gnome, his garishly decorated ox-wagon, or his Spielberg-style catacombs is to experience something of a shellac tour de force – certainly by 1939 standards. An even greater miracle hailed from the Vatican the following year, when Mieczyslaw Horszowski (a Roman Catholic of Jewish descent) played for Pope Pius XII and broadcast over Vatican Radio. By then, the Germans had already supplanted shellac with tape, and a recently discovered archive trawl includes, among many treasures, one of the greatest ever recorded performances of Liszt’s St François de Paule Walking on the Water – watery-sounding, to be sure, but a document of incalculable historic interest.
So, for parallel reasons, is Georg Kulenkampff’s eloquent 1935 Berlin recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, originally issued ‘for export only’ (Mendelssohn having been branded a degenerate at home) and reissued on CD with Schumann’s long-suppressed, desperately pleading D minor Violin Concerto, a work that Kulenkampff – a wonderful player, by the way – premiered both in concert and on record.
France having fallen to the Nazis, Wolverhampton-born Maggie Teyte (our own pre-eminent interpreter of French song) was occupied at home, although still able to make some wonderful 78s – Duparc’s Extase (recorded on 1 August 1941) being one of her most memorable. Three months later, the great French violinist Jacques Thibaud skipped Nazi passport control, crossed the Swiss border and broadcast Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. Fortunately for us, his creaking technique was still versatile enough to deliver a supremely stylish reading, while the dry-as-dust November 1941 recording does partial credit to his winsome, velvety tone. It was the following December that the Vienna State Opera mounted a performance of Richard Strauss’s profoundly interventionist version of Idomeneo, complete with Wagnerian intermezzo – a curious but effective example of Strauss’s supple way with ‘Mozart’, although you’ll need to brave heavy surfaces to hear it.
A great era was drawing to a close, but there were survivors, violinist Louis Kaufman being one, a master fiddler with a penchant for the new – Achron’s touching Stimmung draws forth a glorious effusion of tone. And there was Dinu Lipatti, felled by leukaemia in his early 30s but never for a moment defeated: his last recital is a miracle of inspired endurance and untainted musicianship. Barely a week after that, Alda Noni was in London to record Despina’s arias from Così fan tutte, now incorporated into Glyndebourne Così extracts from the same period, and sharing a CD with rehearsal fragments where Sena Jurinac curses her own lack of breath. It’s comforting to know that even the immortals occasionally felt their limitations.