Reviews for IPCD 1015-2
Boyd Pomeroy - FANFARE, May / June 2012
• Birgit Nilsson (Elettra); Sena Jurinac (Ilia); Richard Lewis (Idomeneo); Léopold Simoneau (Idamante); Alfred Poell (Arbace); Alexander Young (High Priest); Bruce Darvagel (Voice of Neptune); Fritz Busch, cond; Glyndebourne Fest Ch; Royal PO • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1015 (2 CDs: 137:46)
Live: Glyndebourne 28 June 1951
Bonus - & MOZART Ch’io mi scordi di te?…Non temer amato bene, K 505, rehearsal • Sena Jurinac (sop); Folmer Jensen (pn); Fritz Busch, cond; Danish RO (13:34) Live: Copenhagen 1/18/1951
Glyndebourne’s 1951 production of Idomeneo finally put Mozart’s opera seria masterpiece on the 20th-century operatic map. (The booklet essays go into its prior performance history, mainly in German, most famously [or notoriously] in Richard Strauss’s free arrangement, much of which amounts to a radical recomposition.) Coincidentally, the opera was also staged at Salzburg that year, conducted by the young Georg Solti; unfortunately, a recording of it does not seem to have survived.
The Glyndebourne production used a new performing edition by the Viennese emigré composer and musicologist Hans Gál, in collaboration with conductor Fritz Busch and stage director Carl Ebert. As was usual until quite recently (the last 20–30 years), the castrato role of Idamante was for dramatic reasons reassigned to a tenor. Theatrical effectiveness was their paramount consideration, and by all accounts the production flowed very well on stage. To this end, however, much of the score was cut—not only judicious pruning of the acreages of recitative, but often radical truncation of Mozart’s unprecedentedly subtle and complex arias, ensembles, and choruses, many of which are seriously disfigured in the process. Arbace’s three arias were completely excised.
From the perspective of a home-listening experience today, such excessive cutting renders the performance non-competitive with modern recordings. Which is a pity, given its very considerable musical strengths. I’ll go out on a limb and say that Busch was the best Mozart conductor of his generation—his direction is lean but supple, indeed a model of Classical style, refinement, and dramatic thrust. The orchestra, Beecham’s hand-picked Royal Philharmonic, is superbly responsive and polished (wind solos consistently a joy, as in Ilia’s “Se il padre perdei,” with its obbligato quartet of flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn).
The cast is an exceptionally strong one: Sena Jurinac’s Ilia is simply a dream, in tonal beauty (with her unique iridescent quality), technical command, suppleness of phrasing, and subtlety of expression. Richard Lewis rises impressively to the title role’s considerable technical demands, and sings with dramatic conviction and intelligence, enhanced by much artful varying of his tone color. Léopold Simoneau’s Idamante is fully his equal in technical control and tonal beauty, with a metallic gleam to the voice that makes an effective foil to Lewis’s softer-grained tenor. More controversial—both vocally and, by all accounts, dramatically—was Busch’s choice of the young Birgit Nilsson as Elettra: her huge distinctive sound was not a natural fit for Mozart, but she gives a performance of blistering intensity (if a rather one-dimensional one, but then so is the character), navigated with a surprising degree of technical finesse. Deprived of all his arias, Arbace becomes a far more negligible role than Mozart envisioned; Alfred Poell is reliable, if a little Germanically heavy. Alexander Young sings the brief but musically substantial role of the High Priest with real distinction.
In the pit, the harpsichord continuo is played by Busch’s assistant John Pritchard, who would go on to conduct EMI’s studio recording of the same production in 1956 (again with Jurinac and Lewis; indeed the latter was still in the title role for the 1964 revival with Pritchard, recently released on Glyndebourne’s own house label).
The recording’s source is an off-the-air dub from the BBC’s broadcast of the event. Richard Caniell’s new restoration derives from a copy in the Busch Brothers Archive in Karlsruhe. The sound quality has always been problematic: high background noise; pitch problems (largely corrected here); a compressed dynamic range (now opened out); and some missing music, which Caniell has substituted from an unspecified “later Glyndebourne performance.” The results of his labors are very impressive, comprehensively outclassing a previous transfer on Symposium.
The Copenhagen rehearsal of the concert aria with Jurinac makes a valuable bonus. The majority of it actually consists of a complete run-through; although the sound is a little dim, Jurinac’s performance is stellar, richly expressive, and of flawless technical mastery.
Documentation is excellent as usual from this label: two substantial essays on the production in its historical context, as well as Caniell’s informative notes on issues encountered in the sonic restoration. An indispensable historical document, and a mandatory upgrade if you have the old Symposium edition.