An exceptional Dokumente, indeed
Discophage | France | 09/13/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As the liner notes aptly point out, Mozart wasn't at the core of Furtwängler's repertoire: too simple, not enough fodder for the kind of monumental expression he strove for. But The Magic Flute, intimately linked to the conductor's post-war activity at the Summer Salzburg Festival, was an important exception, and we are fortunate to have this testimony.
It is a live recording from August 1951, deriving not from the discarded original radio tapes but essentially from a private copy owned by Elisabeth Furtwängler, the composer's wife (other sources were used and some differences in sonic perspective can be heard between some dialogues and some arias). The sound is distant - you are sitting in the balcony in the Felsenreitschule -, sometimes even frayed, and that is the main drawback of this recording - a document, indeed.
From the first bar on, one hears that this is an interpretation of immense power - Beethovenian more than mozartean, I would say. If you expect Furtwängler's tempos to be full of grandeur, but deliberate, you won't be disappointed: the two Tamino-Papageno-Ladies Quintets, or the Priests Duet at the beginning of Act II don't exactly sparkle. The beginning of both finales, with the Three Kids, sounds like solemn religious processions - and that is probably what Furtwängler indeed had in mind. Pamina-Papageno's "Schnelle Füsse, rasche Mut" is neither schnell nor rash - you can hear it as a kind of cautious tip-toeing, I guess. Tamino sounds like he's cautiously practicing scales on the flute in the first finale - and after all it is the first time he's supposed to be playing the magical mystery thing, so why not? but he hasn't improved much when the Fire and Water trials occur: how remarkably placidly he sustains them! The man should have been a test pilot. Papageno isn't breathlessly looking for his Papagena either in the second finale. Yet Furtwängler can also be full of theatrical verve and nerve (try Papageno's first aria, or the Queen of the Night's second). The orchestra is not always well disciplined - "Furt" was famous for his unclear baton technique.
The cast is stellar - mostly. Dermota is a fine Tamino, with a powerful, valiant voice but capable of softness. I'm not sure I wouldn't find him too forceful in the studio (he sings forte above the stave), but in the context of the Felsenreitschule it is just right. Erich Kunz is also a great Papageno, with a full-bodied voice and an irresistible characterization of the warm-hearted, cowardly, carefree bird-catcher. His cowardly duet of "hu!" with Monostatos is irresistible. Speaking of whom Peter Klein is also perfect, firm in voice and suitably nasty in character (but often sounding distant). Paul Schöffler as a speaker is full of nobility, and Josef Greindl has the big, deep-grained voice you expect from Sarastro, and also a fine characterization, not only kind and noble also pretty frightening in his hatred of women in the first finale or the dialogue at the beginning of Act II? But the two Priests at the beginning of Act II are so appalling as to be comical - you'd think you were in Weill's Dreigroschenoper! The two armoured men are OK - but it's hard to hear anyone after Böhm's James King and Marti Talvela (Mozart: Die Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute], a version I am otherwise not so crazy about).
I am not so convinced with the ladies. Wilma Lipp as the Queen of the Night acquits herself well of her vocalises in the first aria, but she is a bit too soft-grained and plangent, portraying a rather placid, almost meek Queen, with no great determination when she sends Tamino to her daughter's rescue in the first aria ("Du! Du! Du!"). She also has an ugly tendency to attack some notes from under - possibly a consequence of the conductor's placid tempos. But the second aria is suitably dramatic and raging, and technically pretty good, despite unclear triplet runs (maybe the Queen is so overcome with emotion she is staggering).
I have mixed feelings about Irmgard Seefried here. Overall the voice is fine but the characterization, I find, is in places rather matter of fact and lacking some delicacy and a sense of intimacy - maybe an effect of singing in the Felsenreitschule and having to project for the person in the last row. Her octave leap on "Die Wahrheit" lacks ease and softness, but her dialogue with Sarastro is fine, and her "Ach ich fühl's", though the voice doesn't have the angelic quality of my favorite Paminas, is deeply felt and beautifully sung; her final duet with Tamino also has many beautiful moments.
The First Lady will pierce your ears with her Wagnerian shouts - it is Christel Glotz, and she seems to think she is singing Elektra. I am strongly opinionated against having women singing the part of the Drei Knaben - it is a downright betrayal of Mozart's message, by which only kids, and certainly not women, can act as messengers between the worlds of Women and Men. But here as a purely aural experience, as with Böhm's studio recording, I can accept it, as they sing with sufficiently vibrato-less voices to pass off for poorly trained boys. Still, they shriek a little too much to make the experience entirely pleasurable.
The chorus is unexceptional - surprising, considering that it is the great Wiener Staatsoper Chorus. Maybe their placement in the Felsenreitschule hampered their homogeneity. But the Priest's chorus in Act II and final chorus are conducted with great solemnity.
The dialogues are given fairly complete (except for those of the Queen of the Night, drastically cut), hence the 3 CDs required for this flute, and "Urtext" to boot, with all of Schikaneder's passé turns of phrases. They are delivered with great theatrical life - who says singers aren't good actors, and why do they have to actors speak the text in some of the studio versions?
Good notes, among other things vividly evoking the production in the Felsenreitschule, recently converted into an open-air opera venue and almost bare of installations.
The 1949 Salzburg performance is better
Theodore Shulman | NYC | 01/02/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"OK, this is a nice Furtwangler live performance. But the 1949 performance from Salzburg is better for several reasons:
1. Tamino. Here we have shrill Anton Dermota. In 1949 we had elegant super-intelligent Walther Ludwig, the true predecessor of Fritz Wunderlich, but more human-sounding, with a more variable vibrato.
2. The Three Ladies. Here we have irritating, wobbly Christi Goltz on top. In 1949 we had the most amazing Three Ladies, spearheaded by the Woman of Steel, Gertrud Grob-Prandl, who besides being the biggest of all Brunhildes (and Turendots, once mistaken for an fire-alarm siren by people outside the theatre) was a fine ensemble-artist. She could sing softly and on pitch, with a tight vibrato and zero wobble. Woman of PRECISION Steel. Who'da thunkit?
3. The second-act finale quartet with the Two Armed Men plus Tamino and Pamina. Here the tenor armed man (Hans Beirer) oversings, unbalancing the unison-anthem and threatening to steal the whole quartet. It's very important for the First Armed Man to understand that this part is not a warm-up for a Wagnerian heldentenor role. This ensemble is the climax of the whole opera and he's the softest voice in the ensemble--the Second Armed Man has the bassline, which includes responsibility for the variation in "Todes" from the first iteration to the second of "...froh durch des Todes dustrer Nacht" (introduction of a chromatic transitory note between the syllables). The First AM is just color. In 1949 we had no less a pair of future-superstars than Ernst Haeflinger and Hermann Uhde, both audibly and recognizably themselves but working together, supporting, rather than vocally upstaging, P and T.
The plus side: Papageno. Erich Kunz here has more humor and less whining than Karl Schmitt-Walther had in 1949. Sure Papageno's supposed to whine, but he's also supposed to be appealing, only occasionally annoying. KSW seems to have "annoying-mode" in his soul. It helps when he plays Beckmesser. This means that the "Mann und Weib und Weib und Mann" duet with Pamina is much nicer here with Kunz than in 1949. Kunz sounds gallant.
Printing: on my recording of the 1949 performance, the second disc ends just as Pamina enters in the second act finale. You have to change discs in the middle of the quartet, just before she sings "Tamino mein, O welch' ein Gluck!". Here, you don't. There's an earlier printing of the 1949 in which the music is not interrupted but the sound is much worse. Apropos of which...
Sound: Quite a bit better here. On my copy of the 1949 performance the mike rattles on all Irmgard Seefried's high notes. Josef Greindl's too. Speaking of whom...
About equal: Sarastro. In 1949 Josef Greindl is more present, in the role, especially when he speaks. But, here he sings the second verse of "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" very softly. Cool! Both these live Furtwangler performances are much better than his studio recording under Ferenc Fricsay. He knew how to make a friend of the theatre's or hall's accoustics and his studio recordings miss something even though some of them are fantastic anyway.
Wilma Lipp also delivers more or less equally. Paul Schoeffler, too.
For better ensembles, especially the ones with the Three Ladies, and for a far superior Tamino, go for the 1949 first."