Mozart: Don Giovanni

COMPOSERS: Mozart
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Don Giovanni
PERFORMER: Tito Gobbi, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Josef Greindl; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna PO/Furtwängler
CATALOGUE NO: CHS 5 66567 2 ADD mono
‘Recorded in forty-eight parts’, says the booklet, and sure enough when Henri Büsser’s 1923 ‘78’ set of Massenet’s Manon – the work’s recording debut – was first released, it occupied as many shellac sides. Büsser directs a spirited, atmospheric and occasionally ragged performance: the sound is boxy and mono-dimensional, but the singing mostly delightful. Best is Léon Ponzio’s stylish and beautifully sung Lescaut, though the Belgian-born soprano Fanny Heldy brings plenty of brilliance to the title role, and the whole is so vivaciously idiomatic that one can forgive the odd casting inadequacy. Furthermore, American remastering wizard Ward Marston has surpassed himself with transfers from notoriously difficult originals, and his own label provides exemplary documentation.

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Leap five years forwards and recording standards improve dramatically, the microphone having taken over from the acoustical horn, a real boon for opera. Ravel’s one-act comedy L’heure espagnole must have been a godsend to engineers bent on making an impact, what with its ticking clocks, transparent scoring and varied vocal requirements. Ravel himself is said to have supervised the HMV recording conducted by Georges Truc; he certainly favoured Jeanne Krieger (as Truc’s Concepción), and must have delighted in the clarity, ardour and overall attentiveness of Truc’s performance. Pearl’s excellent CD transfer shares its disc-space with a characterful Ma mère l’oye Suite under Piero Coppola and a lustrous Rapsodie espagnole under Stokowski – both dating from 1934.

Turning to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s riveting Salzburg performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (July 1950) marks a levelling off rather than an improvement in sonic standards: although recorded on tape, Austrian Radio’s live relay suffers peak distortion and congestion, faults that the guys at EMI could only partially counter. But what a performance! Tito Gobbi is a beguiling Don, Ljuba Welitsch a scorching Donna Anna, Irmgard Seefried a seductive Zerlina (just try ‘Là ci darem la mano’), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf an intense and focused Donna Elvira – and then there’s Furtwängler, initially slow-burning but with endless reserves of power on hand for the big moments. Forget Furtwängler’s better-recorded 1954 Salzburg Don Giovanni (also on EMI), an altogether less gripping experience.

The latest crop of recital discs is dominated by two Romophone twin-packs, each a ‘volume one’ of a planned ‘complete edition’. The first features Mattia Battistini, ‘the oldest great singer who made records while still in the plenitude of his powers’ (I quote Michael Scott’s expert annotation). The opening track returns us to Don Giovanni with a cocky, off-the-cuff ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’, agile, vocally resplendent and enthusiastically applauded by a small but game gathering. Still, the best is yet to come: a remarkable Eugene Onegin aria, music from Rubinstein’s The Demon (Chaliapin territory, nobly declaimed), plus Verdi, Massenet, Wagner, etc – always ample of breath, interpretatively free, tonally mellifluous and truly bel canto. The contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink is rather more of an acquired taste, although the voice itself is quite extraordinary (Brahms admired her Alto Rhapsody) and her tragic biography even more so. This first selection includes a plethora of songs and a Rheingold fragment (Schumann-Heink had sung in The Ring under Mahler’s baton). Both Romophone collections feature first-rate Ward Marston refurbishments.

Preiser records are continuing their admirable vocal ‘quartet’ selections, each devoted to four German singers in a particular voice range. Four German Contraltos of the Past is particularly interesting in that it features Eva Liebenberg, a glamorous presence in Berlin during the Twenties and a one-time guest at Bayreuth who, because of her Jewish origins, disappeared from view until after the Second World War. Liebenberg’s vibrant singing graces Gluck, Handel and Wagner, though when it comes to Gluck I’d find it difficult to choose between Liebenberg in Orfeo ed Euridice (1929) and Margarete Klose in Alceste (1938). Klose was a supremely sensitive artist with an acute feeling for verbal nuance, and her contribution (largely Verdi) shines even within a programming context that also includes Luise Willer and the admirable Maria Olszewska.

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From Testament comes vivid reportage of young Giuseppe di Stefano, a major operatic star of the Fifties and Sixties who had been drafted into the Italian army in 1941, but whose fragile health meant singing for the MO and a relatively early discharge. The collection includes Italian ‘pop’ songs of the day and operatic arias, with a couple of unpublished items thrown in for good measure. The voice itself was sweet as a nut in the Forties (the period most heavily represented), though a 1955 Puccini sequence represents di Stefano’s early maturity. Andrew Walter’s Abbey Road transfers are all one could wish for, and Testament’s documentation is usefully comprehensive.