MOZART: Die Zauberflöte, K620. Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K543*.
Josef Greindl (Sarastro); Anton Dermota (Tamino); Wilma Lipp (Königin der Nacht); Irmgard Seefried (Pamina); Erich Kunz (Papageno); Edith Oravez (Papagena); Peter Klein (Monostatos); Christel Goltz (Erste Dame); Margherita Kenney (Zweite Dame); Sieglinde Wagner (Dritte Dame); Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; *Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler.
PRISTINE AUDIO MONO PACO 075A/B TT: 199:53 (3 CDs).
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Beautifully sung Zauberflöte; arch-Romantic readings. Often, they work. The opera recording comes from a performance at the 1951 Salzburg Festival. Apparently, Austrian Radio had taped it but destroyed the tapes. These were "off-site" recordings from a broadcast, so the original audio doesn't reach state-of-1951-art levels. Pristine has done what it can, but it hasn't quite eliminated the occasional peak distortion. Unfamiliar with Furtwängler's Mozart, I eagerly looked forward to hearing how he approached two of the composer's best and most effervescent works.

I'll report mixed results. The actual playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is wonderful. Furtwängler brings out inner voices and shapes phrases with care. Some reviewers have found that the conductor emphasizes the spiritual aspects of Zauberflöte, by which they mean the music of Sarastro and the priests as well as of Tamino's trial. In my opinion, the performance fails at precisely those points, and it begins with the overture. Furtwängler sits on the "Masonic" chords so heavily that he can't get anything going in the quicker sections, which, after all, take up most of the time. He slows down both of Sarastro's arias to the point that Josef Greindl can't really sing them: he's too occupied with just making it to the end of the phrase. George Bernard Shaw wrote that these arias were "the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God." Furtwängler makes Sarastro sound as if he needs a Feenamint. However, most of the other numbers move fleetly and gracefully. Then again, I'm always a sucker for Papageno and his magic glockenspiel.

For me, the singers really make the performance, usually well-supported by the conductor. They're so good, I was hard-pressed to think of a comparable group of present-day singers. Not only do they produce beautiful sounds, but they possess individual timbres and can act with their voices. Their performances come over the microphone so vividly, you think you can see them on stage. Irmgard Seefried's Pamina will break your heart, she sounds so vulnerable. Wilma Lipp's Queen of the Night has flexibility, power, and, in her revenge aria, such uncannily accurate intonation in her stratospheric runs that she reminded me of Annie Oakley, "Little Miss Sure-Shot." Anton Dermota does well in a part where it's all too easy to phone in a wooden performance. Let's face it -- Tamino's a bit of a stick, a generic prince-hero. Josef Greindl has a beautiful bass, but as I've said, gets stuck in Furtwängler's glacial tempos. As Monostatos, Peter Klein, a singer previously unknown to me, has a flexible tenor with a bit of heft as well as a noteworthy musical intelligence. Indeed, he strikes me as a perfect Mozart tenor. However, the Papageno usually makes a Zauberflöte for me. Erich Kunz is one of the best I've heard - a genuine comic actor and superb singer.

The inflation Furtwängler is occasionally subject to infects the Symphony No. 39 with the Berlin Phil, as if ponderousness equaled profundity. This may be my favorite Mozart symphony, with a pyrotechnic excitement and sparkle. These two qualities Furtwängler's performance lacks. The scale is way too big, more suitable to a middle Beethoven symphony. This may be a reaction to the typical Nineteenth-Century opinion of Mozart as a petit maître of "tuneful little ditties" -- a view Shaw fulminated against. Furtwängler seems so defensive about the symphony's worth that he overcompensates, talks way too loudly. Indeed, he blusters. He sees Mozart through late-Romantic lenses -- a titanic hero rather than, in this work, a fabulous comic sensibility.

Pristine attempts to give you not only a clean sound, but a "live" one that conveys the ambience of the venue, mostly in "historic" recordings. Their success depends not only on their technical wizardry, but on the state of the original recording. Again, the Zauberflöte comes from an off-site taping made in the Fifties. The symphony performance comes from an early Forties recording which turned up in Russian archives. The circumstances don't contribute to an ideal result. However, Pristine has done what it can. The problems cited by the engineer, Andrew Rose, have mostly been overcome. Again, traces of fuzz at peak outputs remain in both recordings. I shudder to imagine how much more there was in the originals.

S.G.S. (January 2013)