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Monday, March 28, 2011

Old-School Mozart: The 1950 Karajan Vienna Recordings

The Man, the Maestro: Herbert von Karajan. © Universal Classics.
These two recordings of Mozart operas: Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte, rank among the earliest LP recordings of an entire opera in a recording studio. (Decca recorded Die Meistersinger in 1950 with Hans Knappertsbusch, but that's another column.) They are also the first two complete recordings led by Herbert von Karajan, at the start of his long association with the EMI label.

Both of these sets were made in Vienna in 1950. They are from the early days of LP records, and are in mono sound. (Stereo recording was invented in 1952)

As such, they offer the listener the chance to hear the Austrian conductor at his warmest and most innovative.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 1950)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Photo by Fayer © EMI Classics

Le Nozze di Figaro
Figaro: Erich Kunz
Susanna: Irmgard Seefried
The Countess: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Count Almaviva: George London
Cherubino: Sena Jurinac

Die Zauberflöte
Sarastro: Ludwig Weber
The Queen of the Night: Wilma Lipp
Tamino: Anton Dermota
Pamina: Irmgard Seefried
Papagena Erich Kunz

Figaro was made in June and October of 1950. Erich Kunz is a dark-timbred, sardonic valet, who switches over to warm tone in his intimate scenes with Irmgard Seefried's terrific, pert Susanna. Selena Juranac is a fully embodied Cherubino. It is not an insult to say that this trouser role is sung with boyish enthusiasm. The ensembles bloom with warmth, especially in the second act.

An excerpt: Selena Juranac sing "Non s piu cosa son, cosa faccio" 
from Act I of Figaro. © 1950, EMI Classics

George London sings the Count with real menace in the early acts, which melts away at the opera's climax in Act IV. Karajan slows down the tempo for their reconciliation scene, allowing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to really shine in the final ensemble. She is a marvel here, helped by Karajan's choice of dead-slow tempos whenever she sings.

The Flute was laid down in November of that same year. Karajan takes an even slower tempo here, especially with the three stately chords that launch the Overture. Other key moments in the score: the March of the Priests, the Two Men in Armor scene are rendered in vivid color by the Viennese forces. The choral singing is firm and well-caught.

This set features essentially the same cast (with the subtraction of Ms. Schwarzkopf and the substitution of Wilma Lipp as the Queen of the Night.) And it's a good one. Anton Dermota and Ms. Seefried are an engaging, ideal pair as Tamino and Pamina. He really sounds panicked in "Zu hilfe," and his fine characterization continues throughout. She is warm in "Bei Mannern", reunited (temporarily) with her Figaro, Erich Kunz, now in the role of Papageno.

Mr. Kunz may be no match for later bird-catchers (the role became a favorite of lieder singers in the stereo era) but he is bluff and good-natured. (I'd love to hear him in the opera's comic dialogue.) Ludwig Weber is an authoritative, but not authoritarian Sarastro. This recording captures the Wagner veteran in fine form just before the re-opening of the Bayreuth Festival the following year.

Both recordings feature the Vienna Philharmonic in top post-war form, playing with warmth and their unique, characteristic timbre. And despite being six decades old, the engineering is excellent, from the rattling tone of the timpani to the warm tone of the singers. The distinctive Vienna brass and wind are also captured with clarity on these CD remasters.

There are a few drawbacks. Figaro is missing ALL of the recitatives, which means you have to know the opera to follow the plot. The same goes for Zauberflöte, as no attempt is made to record the spoken dialogue between scenes. A libretto is helpful when listening if you don't know the operas.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.