Debussy, Johann Strauss II, Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Wagner

COMPOSERS: Debussy,Johann Strauss II,Mozart,Strauss,Verdi,Wagner
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Great Recordings of the Century: Karajan’s Emi Operas
WORKS: Pelléas et Mélisande; Die Fledermaus; Così fan tutte; Ariadne auf Naxos; Der Rosenkavalier; Falstaff
PERFORMER: Various soloists, choirs & orchestras/Herbert von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: see text for catalogue numbers
The critical backlash that followed Karajan’s death 10 years ago still resounds. People whisper of Faustian pacts with the devil of sonic perfection that, in later years, dragged him down into a musical hell of Beauty without Truth. So the three Mozart opera sets here are timely reminders that back in the 50’s Karajan was producing sounds very close in spirit to those we now associate with period instrument bands: light textures, prominent winds and sprung rhythms. This is particularly true of his light-as air recording of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ (CMS 5 67068 2): the polar-opposite of his smoothed-out remake for Decca. The ‘Magic Flute’ (CMS 5 67071 2) has real fizz and a charming Papageno in Erich Kunz; but it is let down by Anton Dermota’s unsteady Tamino and the wooden Sarastro of Ludwig Weber. ‘Così fan Tutte’ (CMS 5 67064 2) boasts one of the most stylish Ferrandos on disc in Léopold Simoneau. It also has the towering Fiordiligi of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. In fact she appears on 6 of these reissues and it has to be faced head-on that she can be an acquired taste. ‘It’s hard to believe that the little pufflets of sound she puts out here give pleasure even to her ardent admirers,’ complains one American reviewer. Well, I know what he means; it never was a particularly big voice and the arch manner can bring some people out in hives. But the microphone loved her and picked up every catch of breath, every tremulous quaver in the voice and she used her artistry with absolute integrity.

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She is at her very best in the classic recording of Strauss’s ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ (CMS 5 67077 2) where, as Ariadne, she moves effortlessly between outraged dignity and high-minded musings on Love and Death; it’s a wonderfully detailed performance and anyone allergic to the mannered meowing and whimpering of some of her other recordings should not be put off. Irmgard Seefried is incomparable as the Composer but it is the Zerbinetta of Rita Streich that steals the show – the tart with a heart of gold. Elsewhere she can come across as something of a Heldensoubrette: too pert to live. But here that is tempered with warmth and vulnerability. Karajan articulates a performance of sparkling waltz rhythms and spikey woodwind solos that steers well clear of Schmalz.

Schwarzkopf’s dry manner is perfectly matched to Karajan’s echt-Viennese reading of Johann Strauss’s ‘Die Fledermaus’ (CMS 5 67074 2). (Again the overblown Decca remake is a step backwards.) The ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (CMS 5 67061 2) was the first and in some ways still the best recording of Humperdinck’s masterpiece, though I confess to being more frightened in places of Gretel (Schwarzkopf again) than the witch.

With Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ (CMS 5 67083 2) we come to one of the all-time great ensemble performances, scrupulously prepared, and the only ‘Falstaff’ to be spoken of in the same breath as Toscanini’s version made for NBC in New York (on RCA). Where Toscanini is all raw energy, the operatic equivalent of bawdy Shakespeare comedy, Karajan is witty and pointed, more Restoration drama. Tito Gobbi’s fat knight is a wonderfully rounded interpretation. He certainly ‘lards the lean earth as he walks along’ but there is also a certain amount of nimble capering: he manages to convey the precise and even dainty movements of someone at home in his overweight frame. Karajan’s unsentimental speeds suggest a sense of ‘carpe diem’ in the quickly snatched exchanges between Nanetta and Fenton, love’s young dream.

In ‘Die Meistersinger’ (CMS 5 67086 2) Karajan draws deep autumnal colours from his Dresden forces. If Theo Adam isn’t the ideal Hans Sachs, the whole recording is lit up by the silvery soprano of Helen Donath, one of the most radiant Evas on disc. The super-refined ‘Salome’ (CMS 5 67080 2) always suffered from slightly odd sound with the orchestra too far forward but this has been substantially improved by the remastering engineers.

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‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ (CMS 5 67057 2) is probably the most controversial interpretation of the batch and certainly the most gorgeous as far as sheer sound is concerned. If stylish French performance means for you out-of-tune woodwinds and vinegary sopranos then stick with the classic Desormière set (also on EMI). However, if you can be persuaded by a Mélisande (Frederica von Stade) who is not an asexual waif but all flesh-and-blood; and if you can be seduced by a vision of the piece that comes out of the Wagnerian sound world without being a total repudiation of it, Karajan’s recording may well be the one for you.