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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Recording Review: The Living Colossus

Otto Klemperer conducts Don Giovanni.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Old school Otto Klemperer made batons and bow ties look cool.
Photo © EMI Classics.
This classic 1966 recording of Mozart's Don Giovanni has recently returned to the catalogue as a budget stand-alone or as part of the EMI Otto Klemperer Edition, a series of budget boxed sets reissuing classic recordings by this brilliant (and today, somewhat forgotten) conductor. Klemperer's measured, meticulous approach to Mozart may seem dated (and tortoise-slow) compared to today's "historically informed" conductors. This performance delivers precise, powerful conducting, perfectly suited to the light and shade of this opera, and the slow tempi add greater weight to the big moments.

The genius of Don Giovanni is that it is neither tragedy or comedy. Da Ponte and Mozart crafted a kind of immorality detail, giving it the twist of a distinctly moral ending. The sense of dread starts with the opening chords and the slow, textured approach to the scales of the overture, with each detail of the orchestration carefully examined. Klemperer has been criticized for his slowed-down Mozart, but the glories of the score emerge time and again, with little trumpet and flute voluntaries emerging, delicate filigree that quicker conductors sometimes miss.


The cast here is not quite as starry as the 1959 EMI recording by Carlo Maria Giulini, but it's loaded with young singers who were already on their way to impressive international careers. Claire Watson is a powerful Donna Anna, with impressive command of the dramatic arc in "Or sai chi l'onore." She is well matched with Nicolai Gedda's Don Ottavio. Gedda was already in place as the record company's go-to lyric tenor. (Klemperer, ever the traditionalist elects to include both of Don Ottavio's arias.)

The cast features husband-and-wife Christa Ludwig (Donna Elvira) and Walter Berry (Leporello) who are each captured at the peaks of their respective careers. The lead-up to the Catalogue Song contains the chemistry that made them such a potent pair on stage. Nicolai Ghiaurov is the Don, supple and virile throughout the opera. His performance is helped by Klemperer's expert conducting in his big scenes, including a bubbling Champagne aria and a surprisingly tender "Deh vieni all finestra."

Mirella Freni is an ideal, dulcet Zerlina, sweet on the surface and simmering beneath. The orchestra seems to fawn over her in the character's two arias. She lightens the tone of the proceedings considerably, and makes major contributions to the sensual "La ci darem la mano" shared with Ghiaurov. (The two singers would marry in 1978.) Paolo Montarsolo is a bluff, surly Masetto. "Ho capito" is all the funnier because he plays Zerlina's husband as an angry young man who doesn't get the joke.

To hear the high level of playing from the New Philharmonia Orchestra  one need only to look to the Act I finale: a complex scene involving three onstage orchestras (plus the one in the pit) all playing different melodies. Not only does Klemperer differentiate all four musical lines, but he makes each banda sound different and distinct. The engineers space the ensembles out across the wide stereo picture, creating the illusion of stage depth and making sure the listener always knows where all the characters are in this complex scene.

Da Ponte's libretto calls for supernatural interference in the second act to put an end to the Don's sexual hijinks. This comes with the return of Franz Crass' Commendatore. His appearance in the Graveyard Scene is eerie and impressive. The Damnation that follows is even more so, one of the most impressive to be committed to disc. Berry expertly plays the fool (that sardonic "Servo!" and  singing at one point with his mouth full!) and Nicolai Ghiaurov is the world-weary libertine, tired and ready to meet his fate.

Then the statue enters, and Klemperer lets all hell break loose in the orchestra. His granite-like conducting is all thunder and fire, leaving enough space for the listener to hear the tiny miracles of orchestration that constitute the licking flames and swirling vortex that awaits the hapless Don. Crass' Stone Guest is scary and implacable, sounding as if he is singing from a great height (or perhaps a hellish depth.) The Don himself is properly scared, but not enough for him to alter his destiny. The very last scene (conducted slowly with an ear for detail in the complex vocal ensemble) is all the better for the painstaking detail.
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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.