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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Le nozze di Figaro (1786)
Sesto Bruscantini (bass-baritone) – Figaro; Graziella Sciutti (soprano) – Susanna; Ian Wallace (bass) – Bartolo; Monica Sinclair (mezzo) – Marcellina; Risë Stevens (mezzo) – Cherubino; Franco Calabrese (baritone) – Count Almaviva; Hugues Cuenod (tenor) – Don Basilio; Sena Jurinac (soprano) – Countess Almaviva; Gwyn Griffiths (bass) – Antonio; Jeannette Sinclair (soprano) – Barbarina; Daniel McCoshan (tenor) – Don Curzio
Harpsichord continuo: Raymond Leppard
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra/Vittorio Gui
rec. 4-9, 11-12 July 1955, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Bonus: Symphony No. 38 in D ‘Prague’ K504 [26:36]*; Symphony No. 39 in E flat K543 [27:31]†
Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra/Vittorio Gui
rec. 21-22 September* 1953, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London; 16 March 1953† at Kingsway Hall, London. DDD
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 2126812 [3 CDs: 70:43 + 73:08 + 76:14]


Experience Classicsonline

The Mozart celebrations in 1956 lead to an outpouring of recordings hitherto never beheld. In the field of opera Decca issued four luxuriously cast sets with the Vienna Philharmonic: Figaro under Erich Kleiber, Don Giovanni under Josef Krips, and Così and Zauberflöte, both under Karl Böhm. Philips were active in the same city but with the somewhat less prestigious Vienna Symphony Orchestra: Figaro under Böhm, Don Giovanni and Così under Rudolf Moralt. Deutsche Grammophon set down Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte in Berlin under Ferenc Fricsay. The EMI catalogue could boast a masterly Così fan tutte under Karajan and the Nozze di Figaro, now under consideration. There may have been others. Thomas Beecham’s Entführung (see Colin Clarke’s review) was in fact recorded during the autumn of 1956 but was only issued a year later.

That Beecham set was recorded in stereo – as were all the Deccas – and so was this Figaro. EMI were late-starters in the stereo field and the reason was reportedly Walter Legge’s scepticism about the then new technique. The veteran Lawrance Collingwood, who produced Figaro, was obviously more far-seeing - thus we have this lively and theatrical production in two-dimensional sound. I could even say three-dimensional, since there are scenes where the singers are positioned at varying distances from the microphones. The Almaviva–Susanna encounter that opens the third act is one such instance.  Collingwood has included some extra-musical sound-effects – in agreement with Carl Ebert, the director of the Glyndebourne production on which this performance was based. Thus the hot-tempered Susanna smacks Figaro’s face with smarting realism during the third act sextet and again so insistently in the final garden scene that one feels sorry for poor Figaro. The flow of the action is enhanced by the fact that recitatives hook on preceding musical numbers without delay. The recording is warm and acceptably clear but ensemble numbers – especially the sextet – tend to sound congested.

The Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra – which was in fact the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – play well under Vittorio Gui, whose Mozart and Rossini readings at Glyndebourne were a well-known quantity for many seasons. Springy rhythms and a rather light touch are two of his hallmarks. These can be heard to the full in the rousing overture. Tempos throughout are sensitive and musical and the best judgement I can give on his reading is that there is nothing that stands out and draws the listener’s attention to this accent or that ritardando – everything feels completely natural. Having worked so intimately with singers for so long, Maestro Gui knows exactly how to pace the music for the best vocal and dramatic effect.

At his disposal he has an eminent cast of international and British singers, some of whom were obviously imposed upon the production by the record company for commercial reasons. Centre-stage in several respects is Sesto Bruscantini’s mercurial and many-faceted Figaro, always singing with vocal ‘face’. He was one of the great character singers of the post-war era. In addition he was the possessor of one of the finest bass-baritone voices in the business. He liked to be classified as a bass but his basic timbre is decidedly baritonal. In his act 4 aria, Aprite un po, when he is seriously upset – this is no buffo aria! – he darkens the timbre to true bass tones. His singing of the set pieces as well as the opening duets with Susanna has no superiors among recorded competitors and few equals. Cesare Siepi on the contemporaneous Decca recording is in the same league.

The young Graziella Sciutti is a sparkling Susanna, also one of the best on any vintage recording. She is more genuinely uproarious in a charming way than Hilde Güden on the Decca set. There are few readings of Susanna’s aria in the last act to complement her emotional inwardness.

The other couple, the Count and Countess Almaviva, are also well matched: beautiful, rounded voices and noble utterances. It is a pleasure to hear Franco Calabrese’s assured and steady singing. Even in his more dramatic outbursts – far from inexpressive – he retains both nobility and warmth. There is no hectoring in his third act aria. His Contessa, Sena Jurinac – at the time married to Sesto Bruscantini – had recently been upgraded from Cherubino and was singing her first Countess in 1955. Her creamy, slightly occluded tone and exquisite phrasing places her on a par with Decca’s Lisa Della Casa, who has been my favourite Countess since I bought the Kleiber set in the 1960s. Her two arias are lovely and the Letter duet in act 3 with Sciutti is truly enchanting.

The American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, then in her early forties, was one of the imports to the 1955 season for this recording. She had been very successful as Cherubino at the Metropolitan, which was her home-stage for many years. She sings well but sounds somewhat matronly and would have been a better choice for Marcellina. On the other hand Monica Sinclair is a splendid housekeeper and it’s a pity she wasn’t granted her aria in the last act, even though musically it isn’t a very inspired piece. It’s often cut even today and so is sometimes Don Basilio’s aria in the same act. But this is a fine character piece and with the inimitable Hugues Cuénod in the role it would have been a shame to exclude it. He is superb in the role with his thin, reedy tone and exquisite word-pointing. Ian Wallace is an uncommonly genial and noble Bartolo and sings a sonorous La vendetta. Gwyn Griffiths is a less boisterous – and presumably more sober – gardener than one often hears and Jeannette Sinclair a suitably naïve Barbarina.

For anyone wanting a vintage recording of Le nozze di Figaro the choice is between this Gui recording and the Erich Kleiber on Decca. Both suffer from recordings that may have been state-of-the-art in their time but today sound undernourished. In most other respects they also run each other close. Risë Stevens’s Cherubino is probably the weakest point of casting on the Gui set but Susanne Danco for Kleiber also lacks the teenage boy’s anxiety and overheated rut. Alfred Poell’s Count on Decca is well sung but rather one-dimensional while Fernando Corena on that set is a booming Bartolo, whose La vendetta is spine-tingling. The two conductors are each other’s equals and honestly I can’t recommend one of the readings over the other. Suffice to say that if you buy the present one you will probably be tempted to have Kleiber as well for comparison. You won’t be disappointed with either.

If there is a deciding factor for the budget-minded it is the ‘fillers’ on the Gui set. And no mean ones either: two full symphonies, Nos. 38 and 39, recorded a couple of years earlier with the same orchestra. The sound is mono but the recordings are clean and the playing expert. No one buys this set on account of the symphonies, but since they were available and there was space on the discs it was a clever idea to issue them. Otherwise they might have continued to collect dust in the EMI vaults. They are ingeniously placed, No. 38 on CD 1 after act one of Figaro and No. 39 on CD 2 after act 2. This means that all four acts can be heard unbroken. Naturally, there is no need to listen to the symphonies just because they are there.

Synopsis and libretto with translations can be found on the EMI classics website and they are also available on CD 1 in pdf form. I still think this is a bit inconvenient since you either have to listen through your computer and read the text on the screen or print it out which isn’t free and your shelves will be even more weighed down than they already are.

Whatever the objections may be: this is a classic set that is worth anyone’s money.

Göran Forsling


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