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Verdi: Falstaff
Giuseppe Verdi, Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra of London
Verdi: Falstaff
Genre: Classical
 
  •  Track Listings (20) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (26) - Disc #2


      
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CD Reviews

STILL AN ATHLETE IN HIS OLD AGE
DAVID BRYSON | Glossop Derbyshire England | 01/29/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"That's Verdi, not Sir John Falstaff. It was Shaw's tribute to the octogenarian prodigy, said admiringly while he still hankered after his beloved composer of Trovatore and Un Ballo. Believe if you like what Verdi said about Falstaff being written for himself. He was one for putting up smokescreens such as his claim to be unlearned, he was still developing as a composer at age 80, he knew Falstaff would baffle most of its early audiences (I doubt that Shaw ever really got the hang of it), but the idea of Verdi in an ivory tower without a thought of applause in the opera-house does not come to me at all.

This reissue is admirable in every respect, but be aware that at this price no full libretto is included. Unless you know the work by heart, a full libretto is an absolute essential, and if you are new to the piece I strongly recommend becoming thoroughly familiar with the libretto before you listen to a note. Not only is it one of the best, cleverest and subtlest libretti ever, the action is complex and moves at a scorching pace, and unless you know exactly where you are you will miss not only the intricacies of the plot but the mandarin refinement of the music. The vocal style is lyrical throughout with no suggestion of recitative, but it rarely slows down sufficiently to be lyrical in a sustained way (and then mainly in the last act), and the mistaken impression can be gained that Falstaff lacks melody. Nor has the aged athlete lost his sheer physical power, and for all the quicksilver delicacy of much of the orchestration you will still hear, at the end of the scenes and in the orchestral refrain at `Va, vecchio John', the kind of Verdian orchestral writing that Shaw called, not unfairly and not in any critical sense, `brutal'.

From an early age Karajan had admired Toscanini's interpretation (small wonder), and it was a pleasure to replay that by way of comparison. In all essentials, Karajan follows Toscanini's lead, and although the recording of Toscanini's live performance is far from bad, it's not comparable with what Karajan is given, and it's also probably true to say that the NBC orchestra is not quite the equal of the Philharmonia at the height of its glory either. Above all, the casting is better in the Karajan set. Valdengo as Toscanini's Falstaff sings superbly and most beautifully, but his voice seems to me slightly youthful -- better to err on the side of musicality rather than of buffoonery for sure, but I prefer the extra weight to Gobbi's tone. The two tenor parts of Gabor Carelli as Dr Cajus and Antonio Madasi as Fenton seem very strangely allocated on the Toscanini version - they would have each been better in the other's part. Nan Merriman as Meg is actually in both versions, but I'm with the liner-note writer in thinking she sings better for Karajan. Herva Nelli as Alice and particularly Teresa Stich-Randall as Nannetta are no match for Schwarzkopf and Moffo respectively. Moffo and Luigi Alva as Fenton make a heavenly partnership as the young lovers on this set, and if anyone decides to find Schwarzkopf's voice too German for Verdi or her artistry and workmanship too precise, let him. I was also delighted with the casting of Fedora Barbieri as Mistress Quickly here. This part is that Verdian rarity a genuine contralto role, and Barbieri has the voice for it.

I should not suggest that this set is absolutely perfect, whatever that is. Other great interpreters have taken on the challenge of this great work, and to be frank Karajan has never been an enormous favourite of my own. Whether the shadow of Toscanini over his interpretation has something to do with the matter or not, if I had to name the best thing, in my opinion, that Karajan ever did, this might be my nomination. I love his tempi, I love the lightness of his touch in the `patter' ensembles, I love the contrasting Verdian brutality here and there where required, and I love the slightly eerie ambience in the scene in the midnight forest. This is not Weber but a comedy of course, but it's a Shakespearean comedy, expertly stitched together by Boito from the Bard's various plays involving Falstaff. It is neither cynical nor escapist, and there is always the sense that the merriment is only a hair's breadth away from tears and worse. Practical jokes can have deadly consequences, and they nearly do in this story, what is funny to their instigators may be very unfunny at the receiving end, and of course midnight woods are creepy places on any scenario. It is all quite `funny' in one sense, but to me it is `fun' in no sense. This is the Shakespearean view of humanity, with all the participants genuine characters and not caricatures or stick-men. Their jokes and stratagems are dangerous because such carrying-on is dangerous, and the jealous Ford for one, while uneasy about his wife's fidelity, starts to remind me of the Otello that Verdi had burned into music not long before.

He was no innocent, this composer, and he was fully equal to a theme like this. It must all be wonderful if exhausting to perform, and the performers here are wonderful without betraying a trace of exhaustion. It only requires from the listener the modest effort of obtaining and mastering that indispensable libretto, and at this price there must be some change to spare for that."
Libretto for Karajan's EMI Falstaff
A. B. Mendillo | Kingston, Rhode Island | 02/10/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"David Bryson's review of this great recording emphasizes the need to have the libretto in hand when listening to Falstaff. This Karajan/EMI Falstaff issue comes without a printed libretto--but the EMI website does provide the complete Italian text for this issue along with English, French, and German translations, in PDF format. I've hesitated to print a copy, however, because it runs to 228 pages.
This same recording is also available in a 1999 EMI "Great Recordings of the Century" (GRC) series at somewhat higher cost, but in a deluxe packaging including a 278-page booklet with the Italian libretto and German, English and French translations. This 1999 GRC release carries catalog number EMI 7243 5 67162 2 3. I believe the 2007 release contains the same remastering as the 1999 GRC release---but comes with no libretto."