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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Die Zauberflöte (1791)
Tamino - Helge Roswaenge (tenor)
Papageno - Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (baritone)
Königin der Nacht - Julia Osvath (soprano)
Sprecher - Alfred Jerger (bass)
Pamina - Jarmila Novotná (soprano)
Sarastro - Alexander Kipnis (bass)
Monostatos - William Wernigk (tenor)
Papagena - Dora Komarek (soprano)
1er Geharnischter - Anton Dermota (tenor)
2er Geharnischter - Carl Bissuti (baritone)
Erste Dame - Hilde Konetzni (soprano)
Zweite Dame - Stefania Fratnikova (mezzo-soprano)
Dritte Dame - Kerstin Thorborg (contralto)
Erster Knabe - Kurt Pech (treble)
Zweiter Knabe - Albert Feuhl (treble)
Dritter Knabe - Fritz Mascha (treble)
Erster Priester - Richard Sallaba (bass)
Vienna Staatsoper Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
rec. live 30 July 1937, Festspielhaus, Salzburg
No libretto
XR remastering Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO146 [79:49 + 75:44]

Prior to receiving this new Pristine release for review, I read a review from a respected source which essentially advised that this was one of those rare Toscanini recordings best avoided; indeed, Inspector Morse declared, “I wouldn't allow it in the house.”. Having now listened to it, I can see why: tempos are extreme and some of the singing is poor; furthermore, the recording is rough and very unbalanced, as the microphone must have been placed very close to the timpani and the singers are often way off in the distance. I quote from the Pristine sound engineer Andrew Rose: “Dating from the Salzburg Festival of 1937, it was recorded not onto disc but onto film, using a device called a Selenophone. Whilst this hardly offered any great advantages in terms of sound quality over more conventional methods at the time, it did allow for much longer recording times of up to 30 minutes at a time.”

Naxos did what it could to correct the shatter and clatter in its previous issue and Andrew Rose has as usual here applied his full range of corrective techniques but, as he himself says, “A single, badly placed microphone some 80 years ago cannot be moved today; a frequency range of around 6kHz cannot be magically extended.”

Regardless of its sonic and artistic deficiencies, its historical importance is as the first complete recording of “The Magic Flute”, a souvenir of one of the three operas that Toscanini conducted in Salzburg in his penultimate season there and a record of one of the last times he conducted a staged opera; subsequent opera performances in New York were in concert form. It also “represents the sole example of Toscanini conducting a full opera by Mozart”, all of which should be enough to attract devotees.

It must also be said that some commentators thoroughly enjoy Toscanini’s volatile Mozart, which oscillates between passages of frenzied pace, fluid grace and sections marked “Adagio” which are played “Lento”. Personally, I like the breathless semiquavers of the Overture but am much less keen on the swooping of the trio of Ladies, who seem incapable of singing their music straight; every note is swelled, cajoled and bullied in a most irritating manner. Fritz Wunderlich has spoiled me for any other tenor as Tamino, least of all the beefy Helge Roswaenge, whom Beecham also employed in his classic studio recording completed a year later. He sings well enough given the inaptness of his vocal set-up but his is simply the wrong voice for the role and he “tears a passion to tatters” instead of caressing the music, belting his high notes and like the Ladies preceding them with a most inelegant slide. Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender made a fine Guglielmo and Figaro for Busch in the 1935 studio recordings but is rather lacklustre here as Papageno. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Toscanini’s casting of a dramatic soprano as the Queen of the Night and Julia (not Julie) Osvath’s recitativo promises well enough – then she falls apart embarrassingly in the coloratura, losing rhythms, missing notes and ending on two excruciatingly flat top notes. “Der Hőlle Rache” is a rather better but is shrieky and the aria has been transposed down a tone. The Monastatos is execrable – he has to be heard to be believed. Papagena is fine but Toscanini rushes her duet with Papageno, “Bei Männern”. It is rather forward-thinking of him to return to Mozart’s intention and cast three real boy trebles as “Die drei Knaben” rather than women but this is scant consolation for the generally disappointing singing. It is left to Jarmila Novotná and Alexander Kipnis to lend distinction and this they do: he is steady and imposing without necessarily displacing my favourite basses as Sarastro; Toscanini allows him to take the low E option at the conclusion of his second aria. She is pure, plangent and delicate, but Toscanini rushes her in “Ach, ich fühl’s”.

Ensemble is of course crisp and insofar as we can hear them, the VPO are excellent. Toscanini imposes a sense of unity on proceedings.

But will I want to listen to this very often? Not really.

Ralph Moore 

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