Karajan at his peak with a superb cast
Ralph Moore | Bishop's Stortford, UK | 01/16/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Such is the quality of both cast and recording in this 1970 live Salzburg Festival performance that the most obvious comparisons must be with the 1966 Klemperer and the 1973 Colin Davis studio sets, the former also with Ghiaurov and the latter with a starry cast in which Stuart Burrows repeats his mellifluous Don Ottavio. Of course, the sound and balances are not as good here as in either of those studio recordings but they are good enough to dispel any audiophile worries - as long as you don't mind some audience applause intruding at the end of arias; otherwise, stage and audience noise is minimal.
The biggest choice you must make is between Klemperer's grand, grim, monumental approach (more like Fürtwängler) and the lighter, more flexible concept of the other two conductors. Klemperer's broad tempi and a certain moral sternness carry conviction, but for me both Karajan and Davis find a better balance between the deliberate and puzzling ambiguities of this great opera; I still need some element of the "giocosa" in the "dramma". And as much as I admire the Klemperer, Ghiaurov is just as good here and Janowitz, Zylis-Gara and Burrows are all markedly superior to Claire Watson (stretched), Christa Ludwig (a little out of her element and uncomfortable) and Nicolai Gedda (flat and nasal, on an off-day). Janowitz's fluting, silvery tone contrasts beautifully with the richer, darker, oboe-sound of Zylis-Gara. I was never a fan of Geraint Evans' hefty bass-baritone and even heftier clowning but I guess that he does his kind of Leporello well and he is very similar to Ganzarolli for Davis - though I prefer Walter Berry's subtler turn for Klemperer. Karajan has a more than adequate Commendatore in Victor von Halem even if he doesn't quite chill the marrow the way a Commendatore can, and we have stars such as Rolando Panerai in the comparatively minor role of Masetto. It's possible to regret that Olivera Miljakovic replaced Mirella Freni as Zerlina, but she sings charmingly, and I am certainly glad that Burrows took over from Alfredo Kraus as Ottavio; he is here marginally cleaner of attack and both sweeter and more virile, as the occasion demands, than for Davis; one of his finest performances, as long as his plaintive tone appeals to you. Ghiaurov's smooth bass yields only to Siepi as the Don and he is here caught in his prime.
Karajan took some time to admit "Don Giovanni" into his inner circle of favourite Mozart works, conducting "Le Nozze di Figaro" more often, but he seems by this stage to have worked out ideal tempi and pacing to accommodate both the drama and the lyricism of the music; everything hangs together perfectly. The VPO are of course virtuosic: fleet, fluid and mellifluous, with pungent woodwind to punctuate the smooth string sheen.
If you want the same production with the alternative casting of Kraus and Freni, there are various recordings available of a performance from a year earlier, but I believe, not having heard that one, that this later set is in better sound - though I am open to correction. Either way, these Salzburg performances were special."