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Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Die Zauberflöte
Kurt Streit, Barbara Bonney, Sumi Jo, Gilles Cachemaille, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Lillian Watson, Martin Petzold; Drottningholm Court Theatre Orchestra & Chorus/Arnold Östman

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Period-instrument performance has come a long way since the days when simply producing the right notes at the right time seemed an insurmountable hurdle. Standards of playing have risen enormously; yet this ease of execution has rarely led to a corresponding deepening of interpretative insight. Both John Eliot Gardiner and Arnold Östman are respected and successful Mozart conductors but, on the evidence of these two sets (both part of ongoing Mozart opera projects), the classic recordings of the past have little to fear.

The respective works are approached from strikingly similar vantage points, not least a desire to rob them of what they see as anachronistic and inappropriate 19th- and 20th-century accretions and recreate them from 18th-century perspectives, dramatic as well as musical (both recordings hail from staged performances, Gardiner’s from Ferrara, Östman’s from Drottningholm). Predictably they both offer neat, unfussy readings: tempi are brisk but not disconcertingly so, textures are clean if sometimes unbalanced, and expressive detail is rarely allowed to impede metronomic flow.

In many ways the results are attractive. But this music does after all grow out of dramatic situations and there is little discernible effort to enter into their spirit. What at first sounds refreshingly unpretentious and revealing turns out to be dangerously non-interventionist and routine. The voices emerge as simply another strand in the orchestral fabric (even singers such as Amanda Roocroft and Rosa Mannion, not normally regarded as early music specialists, sound curiously uninvolved), entering into only a casual engagement with the text (the spoken dialogue in Zauberflöte proves especially tedious).

Aficionados of both conductors will not be disappointed (Östman is marginally more flexible). But most readers, I imagine, will want to return to the tried and trusted ‘traditional’ readings of Beecham, the early Karajan, Klemperer and Böhm for Zauberflöte and Busch, Jochum and Böhm for Così, however anachronistic their style and ethos.

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Antony Bye