Verdi's final opera has had a sadly indifferent recording history during the stereo era - with only Solti's Geraint Evans matching the legendary Falstaff of Tito Gobbi (Karajan, 1956). Fischer-Dieskau for Bernstein (in what might have been an incandescent reading) is under-nourished tonally - although Bernstein is elemental. Inconsistent casting blemishes Toscanini's legendary performance from 1950, too (even though Giuseppe Valdengo is perhaps the most Verdian of all Falstaffs). Yet what is striking about his recording is the orchestral palate, how every sinew is explored and uncovered. It is as finely done as you will ever hear in Verdi's masterpiece of parody, and one of the greatest examples of dynamic control in any opera. Abbado's new set, recorded after extensive rehearsals and live performances at Salzburg (minus Terfel, however), is absolutely masterly - one of the finest things he has ever done in the recording studio. The Berlin Philharmonic, in their first opera recording for DG since Karajan, are everything and more. This is truly glittering playing, with woodwind that fizz like champagne, feather-light string figurations and brass that trill like birds (listen to the opening of the second act on track 10 to hear how splendid the articulation is).
In Falstaff everyone is a star - it is one of the great ensemble operas. Walter Legge got his 'merry wives' exactly right for Karajan's Philharmonia version, but Abbado has achieved wonders too. The quartet are fabulous at the start of Part 2 (track 5, disc one) just as they are at the start of the Presenteremo (track 1, disc two). The voices are basked in an Italianate light and tinted with magisterial inflexions - listen (track 3, disc two) to Terfel's Falstaff as he serenades Alice during the lute episode to get an impression of how Abbado lightens the textures to emphasise the blissfulness of the libretto. Terfel himself has made the role of Sir John Falstaff his own - and in this recording, certainly not his last word on the role, he is magnificent. Terfel's range as a bass-baritone makes him, in tone, nearer Gobbi than Evans yet it is surprising how different their performances are. Gobbi is more sensuousness as well as more serious, even if there is an underlying simplicity to his assumption of the part which makes him appear to act the fool. Terfel, who respects and understands the role's vocal demands, is indeed highly subtle in his characterisation - this is at times a more brooding Falstaff (track 8, disc 2) yet it is also one that takes the comedy to the brink of what is possible. The influence of Don Giovanni is at times telling. Certainly neither Evans nor Gobbi made Falstaff as human and personable as this - Terfel's is almost a tactile performance. As you hear his voice (take track 9, disc two, for example) you can almost see the facial expressions, the lyrical dancing of his fingers, the gestures being absolutely as febrile as the words. His colouring, the way the voice is articulated goes beyond anything that his predecessors achieved. The elements of vanity, jealousy, failure and passion are all there. Pronunciation is immaculate - as is his adherence to the punctuation and musical markings Verdi took such care to place. Where Terfel might prefer to sing a line legato he does so staccato because that is exactly how it is written. Other singers in this recording in their own ways match Terfel's achievement: Dorothea Röschmann as Nannetta is utterly memorable, her lyricism, particularly when playing the role of the Fairy Queen, of an unusually pure radiance. Thomas Hampson is a furious Ford, purposeful of voice throughout. Adrienne Pieczonka, Larissa Diadkova and Stella Doufexis make a delightful trio of wives.
Abbado has an impressive record as a Verdi conductor (great recordings of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra as well as the Requiem are all amongst the finest available). This Falstaff is also very special - and, oddly, for much the same reasons that Karajan's (EMI) and Toscanini's are: for giving us a sparkling mosaic of the score's crystalline brilliance. Karajan's Philharmonia play like angels for him, and Toscanini's NBC SO are equally magnificent at conveying this score's endless kaleidoscope of colour, albeit under somewhat nebulous recording conditions. There is still a sense of claustrophobia in Karajan's imperious EMI recording which tends to close in on the delicate scoring (contrasted with the somewhat glutinous atmosphere of his Vienna remake). Abbado's Berliners, in contrast, (in what must be a slimmed down orchestra) are resoundingly successful at giving us chamber music of delicacy and refinement. The playing in every department glistens like dew - and in the fastest sections of the work the Berlin Philharmonic never sound rushed or in the slowest never sound leaden. It is in every respect ideal, captured in magnificent sound that opens up the sound like blooming pistils. Those microcosms of scoring are like living corpuscles. In at least this respect, Abbado's interpretation comes directly from Toscanini's. The contrasted scenes of the first act are all individually patterned, the different rhythms which Verdi uses to highlight masculinity and femininity (both from within and outside the orchestra) and the original use of instrumentation are all crystal clear clear. At the close of the opera we almost feel as if Abbado has taken us into a forest, so imagistic is his conducting. As Abbado says in his illuminating booklet note, 'Just as Shakespeare before them, Verdi and Boito...create an ingenious and original fusion of fairy tale and comedy, that reveal life's most serious, profound truths in the context of magic and laughter'.
Few opera recordings of recent years have earned the privilege to be called great but this all-encompassing performance of Falstaff, where just about every thing seems right, comes very near real greatness. Terfel has time left to grow even further into the role - and it will indeed be fascinating to hear how he sings Falstaff in ten years time. He has said he wants to make his mark as Falstaff in every major opera house in the world. Like another great Falstaff, who nurtured his interpretation over more than thirty years, Giuseppe Taddei, the omens look most promising. For Abbado it is one of the milestone recordings of his Berlin legacy and sets the mark on a Falstaff that should dominate the catalogues for many years. For listeners, we at last have a great recording of this great opera in fine sound. And it has never sounded better.