Reviews for IPCD 1059-4
Mozart: DON GIOVANNI
• George Szell, cond; Ezio Pinza (Don Giovanni); Florence Kirk (Dona Anna); Eleanor Steber (Donna Elvira); Bidu Sayão (Zerlina); Charles Kullman (Don Ottavio); Mack Harrell (Masetto); Salvatore Baccaloni (Leporello); Nicola Moscona (Il Commendatore) (157:22) Broadcast: New York 12/9/1944 )
Max Rudolf, cond; Ezio Pinza (Don Giovanni); Regina Resnik (Donna Anna); Polyna Stoska (Donna Elvira); Nadine Conner (Zerlina); Charles Kullman (Don Ottavio); Lorenzo Alvary (Masetto); Salvatore Baccaloni (Leporello); Jerome Hines (Il Commendatore) (156:35) Live: New York 12/6/1947
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1059-4 (4 CDs - 313:57)
September / October 2016
For anyone who doubts the importance of a conductor in operatic performances, this extraordinary set will settle the question. While the female singers are different in these two Met broadcasts, the principal males are identical (and only three years older in the second one). Under Max Rudolf we have a fine performance of Mozart’s masterpiece, a performance that we would be very grateful to encounter in the opera house today. But when heard after George Szell’s 1944 rendition, the difference between good and great is made all too real.
Ezio Pinza was the Don Giovanni at the Met from 1929 to 1948, and can be heard in preserved broadcasts led by Bruno Walter and Paul Breisach as well as Szell and Rudolph. The Walter is considered a classic, heard best on Naxos in a restoration by Immortal Performances’ Richard Caniell (there is an earlier 1937 Walter-led performance on Legato Classics, but poor sound makes it a difficult listen). I refuse to engage in an argument as to whether Walter or Szell is preferable; each brings a unique interpretive profile to the score (and quite different ones). I would not be without either. Both demonstrate that Rudolf was a high level routinier, as opposed to a conductor of real genius.
The characteristics of Szell’s conducting here are quick tempos, crisp articulation of notes and text, and most of all an incredible sense of true ensemble throughout. Musicians in the orchestra clearly listening to each other, singers genuinely interacting instead of merely singing their individual parts well, and even orchestra and singers listening to (and interacting with) each other. The precision of orchestral attacks and the clean transparency of passagework in the strings and winds is astonishing. These are the traits that have made the Cleveland Orchestra one of America’s great ensembles, and here Szell creates it at the Met. But the charge of coldness, or lack of emotion, sometimes hurled at Szell is without merit here. There are many examples of actual tenderness (the orchestral introduction to “Non mi dir,” is one, the sensual conducting of “Là ci darem” another). The sharpness of contrast between the comic and the dramatic, so crucial to this opera, has rarely been as strongly made as it is here by Szell and his cast.
Pinza, already 52 years old, is still in magnificent voice and doesn’t sound in any way bored with the role despite having been identified with it for well over a decade. The sheer sound is, of course, one of the miracles of the vocal art in the 20th century. But as impressive is the relish with which he embraces every facet of the role: The seductive charmer, the evil schemer, the powerful overlord; all are present in this complex character. The balance between cruelty, wit, and sensuality is perfectly struck, and brought vividly to life through inflection, phrasing, and vocal coloration.
Baccaloni’s Leporello is another huge asset to this performance. He, like Pinza, is a master of every word of the text as well as every note of the music, and their interchanges are as close to real-life as opera can get. In addition, Baccaloni was a wonderful musician, with impeccable rhythm and pitch, especially when led by a conductor like Szell. With Pinza and Baccaloni one gets, as rarely happens in this opera, a vivid sense of a lifetime relationship between master and servant, with mutual respect based on their respective statuses in society but also on their intimate knowledge of each other’s characters.
The closest thing to a weak link in Szell’s cast is Florence Kirk as Donna Anna. She is clearly not comfortable with some of Mozart’s vocal writing, and even when accurate she seems cautious. Still, she is never unlistenable, and often truly engaging. After that it is quite remarkable. It may be that today we have singers more thoroughly trained in Mozart style, but we surely do not have voices of such rich beauty in this repertoire. And the truth is that they manage Mozart’s vocal demands quite well. Most successful is Bidu Sayão, whose Zerlina defines, for me at least, how to sing and act this role. Vocally exquisite, she also is the perfect lovable vixen. “Là ci darem” sung by her and Pinza is utterly believable and treasurable. Steber, Baccaloni, and Kullman are excellent in their roles too. Perhaps Kullman does not have the uniquely beautiful timbre or ridiculous breath control of McCormack, but his is a lovely lyric tenor that brings pleasure. He does struggle just a bit with the passagework in “Il mio tesoro,” but he is neither the first nor last to do so. Mack Harrell is a superb Masetto, believable rather than the usual cardboard rural dummy, and Nicola Moscona is luxury casting as the Commendatore.
The graveyard scene is truly chilling. Even without seeing them, one clearly distinguishes the voices of Pinza, Baccaloni, and Moscona, and the intense dramatic underpinning from Szell is positively gripping. Dewey Faulkner’s superb notes (one of many assets of the production of this set) quote contrasting contemporary reviews, two praising Szell’s musical and dramatic strengths, one complaining about the “Szell straight-jacket,” which leads to a feeling that “insinuates itself that the lifeblood of the work is seeping away.” I have listened to this performance through four times for this review, and I fail to see how anyone can find it lacking in drama. To my ears, this is one of the greatest performances, top to bottom, I have heard of Don Giovanni, one that even comes close to the HIP values that some value highly today, but which is not devoid of the more old-fashioned values of ravishing vocalism.
Going from that, as I implied above, to Max Rudolf’s performance is to drop a few rungs down the ladder. It is a valuable inclusion here—after all any Pinza performance of this role is worth having. Pinza, it must be noted, was 55 rather than 52, and even those three years can make a difference at that point in a long, active career. This performance was supposed to be led by Fritz Busch (how unfortunate we don’t have that!), but he was ill and Max Rudolf replaced him. He became a mainstay of the Met’s staff until 1947, but the truth is he did not have the unique qualities of a Szell, Walter, or Busch. His performance here, as Faulkner states in his candid notes, is far less dramatic and less precise than Szell’s. Interestingly, you might think that Rudolf would at least surpass Szell in the more lyrical passages, but you would be wrong. Rudolf’s introduction to “Non mi dir” is leaden and earthbound, lacking in the flow Szell brings to the passage. Rudolf doesn’t push the singers the way Szell does, but Szell’s pushing results in true drama and interaction; here they all seem like they are giving vocal concerts.
Pinza’s voice has lost a bit of firmness, but is still a remarkable instrument and he does bring the Don to life as few others have. The role consists of a great deal of recitative, and Pinza relishes every word in a way that most singers simply don’t approach. No phrase is thrown away; everything smacks of total involvement.
Baccaloni is again a fine Leporello, but it is clear that Rudolf allows him more freedom than Szell, and that doesn’t always work to Mozart’s benefit. Nadine Conner’s somewhat colorless Zerlina is no match for Sayào, and Polyna Stoska seems a hard-toned Elvira. She manages the music, even the passagework, but doesn’t sound at ease and doesn’t really bring the character to life. She always sounds like a soprano singing a concert.
The most interesting new voice here is Regina Resnick as Anna. We know her as a brilliant, dramatic mezzo-soprano, and may forget that she began as a dramatic soprano. She is believable and even thrilling as Anna, but the rapid notes in the second part of “Non mi dir” do seem to defeat her. Despite that, hers is one of the most impressive performances of this cast. Lorenzo Alvary’s Masetto is not as incisive nor cleanly sung as Mack Harrell’s, but Jerome Hines is every bit as impressive as the Commendatore as was Moscona.
As usual, Immortal Performances provides thorough and informative notes, and wonderful photos, including photos and brief biographies of every performer. The Szell performance has been available on Melodram, Archipel, and Walhall, but the sound here is significantly better. The sound, as Caniell himself points out, lacks warmth—it is dry and somewhat compressed. But he has opened it up considerably, and anyone with a tolerance for historic recordings will have no problem here. The Rudolf performance is basically a first release (a private tape has circulated); again, the sound is more than adequate.
This is a release of considerable value and importance. We don’t have a lot of Szell in the opera house, particularly in his earlier years. The opportunity to compare Szell and Rudolf, and dramatically see (and hear) the difference a conductor can make, is instructive, especially since Immortal Performances is selling the four discs for the price of three. Above all, the Szell/Pinza Don Giovanni is a treasure, sonically restored better than ever.