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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte K620 (1791)
Kurt Moll (bass) - Sarastro; Peter Hoffmann (tenor) - Tamino; José van Dam (bass) - Sprecher; Herbert Becker (tenor) - Erster geharnischter Mann; Vladimir de Kanel (bass) - Zweiter geharnischter Mann; Edita Gruberova (soprano) - Königin der Nacht; Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) - Pamina; Helena Döse (soprano) - Erste Dame; Ann Murray (mezzo) - Zweite Dame; Naoko Ihara (contralto) - Dritte Dame; Damien Colin, Zürcher Sängerknabe - Drei Knaben; Kathleen Battle (soprano) - Ein altes Weib (Papagena); Philippe Huttenlocher (baritone) - Papageno; Norbert Orth (tenor) - Monostatos
Chœurs de l’Opéra du Rhin
Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/Alain Lombard
rec. June, July 1978, Palais de la musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg
Reviewed as download from digital press preview
DECCA 4855200 [2 CDs: 151:54]

Alain Lombard’s 1978 recording of Mozart’s final opera first appeared on vinyl in 1979 on the long defunct Barclay label (960 012-014). Possibly because of rights complications or some other strange reason it has remained unavailable ever since. Now, 42 years later it receives its first digital release via the Decca label and can be purchased on CD, FLAC or MP3 formats.

Hearing this set so many years later I was struck by how well the sound has held up over the years. The engineering team did a fine job of managing a more intimate sound stage than in some previous Zauberflöte recordings but not quite the constricted, boxed-in sound that featured so prominently in the DG opera recordings from that same period. The orchestra is recorded in a natural sounding acoustic and yet there is a feeling of some space around the singer’s voices.

Alain Lombard’s approach to the opera is a study in contrasts. When you listen to the overture it zips along at a very sprightly pace for a modern instruments performance, but whenever he encounters the scenes of gravity such as those with Sarastro’s priesthood he applies the brakes to a very slow pace indeed. The scene with the Speaker of the Temple in Act One is a good case in point. The singers chosen for this recording were some of the finest on the world stage at that time. This was the first of Kiri Te Kanawa’s two recordings of Pamina. In the 1970s her voice was both remarkably beautiful and had a certain fascination due to a flaxen-like core to her sound, which was leftover from her early years training as a mezzo. By 1980 her voice had shifted to a generalized creamy tone which was quite lovely but just not as interesting as she was during this period of her career. Her G minor aria in Act Two would bring forth tears from solid rock. All-round her spirited singing of Pamina for Lombard is generally preferable to her beautiful but bland account in 1989 for Neville Marriner on Philips.

Prince Tamino was given to the hotshot young heldentenor Peter Hoffmann who was garnering enthusiastic reviews at Bayreuth for Parsifal, Siegmund and Lohengrin at this time. He was a tenor with rock star looks and a voice to match. Mostly known for Wagner roles, his Mozart style does not quite equal that of the peerless Nicolai Gedda or Fritz Wunderlich but his scenes do show what all the fuss over him was about. He sings his music with a really heroic ring to the sound, in the upper range. His lower voice betrays some episodes of parched sounding tone but I would suggest that this recording and his Parsifal for Herbert von Karajan 2 years later are the finest examples of his art available.

The Swiss baritone Philippe Huttenlocher is a gentle and genial Papageno in a similar manner to Hermann Prey. Huttenlocher made several recordings of Bach and the music of various French composers. I have enjoyed his Golaud on the Armin Jordan recording of Pelleas et Melisande for Erato but Papageno is by far his best achievement on recordings, so it is good to be able to encounter him again.

Both Edita Gruberova and Kurt Moll recorded their roles in this opera several times. This was the 32 year old Miss Gruberova’s first recording of the Queen of the Night and already she is a Queen to be reckoned with. Her coloratura technique is formidable in both of her arias. The recording engineers have placed her in very close to the microphones, which make her voice sound just a little too fierce at times, but then this is not out of place for the character. Der Hölle Rache crackles with sheer excitement and she obviously was relishing acting the dialogue prior to the aria because she delivers it superbly.

Kurt Moll offers his customary vocal equivalent of velvet and a gentle fatherly approach as Sarastro. This was his second of the four outings he made of this role. He had recorded it a few years earlier for Wolfgang Sawallisch on EMI and would go on to do it again for Colin Davis on Philips and Georg Solti for Decca. His excellence is really only bettered by the marvelous René Pape, who encompasses all of the merits of Moll but in addition conveys more immediately a mildly threatening presence in Act One before we get to know Sarastro’s character better.

The trio of the Three Ladies is a superlative bunch led by the enchanting soprano of Helena Döse. As a group their sounds blend quite beautifully and they are fully engaged in their roles. In the smaller roles we have future American celebrity Kathleen Battle in one of her earliest recordings as an enchantingly doll-like Papagena, and German tenor Norbert Orth sings Monostatos with a pleasantly wistful quality in his little aria in Act Two, which almost makes him into a sympathetic character. José van Dam is a top-notch Speaker of the Temple and the role suits him rather more than did Sarastro which he recorded for Herbert von Karajan a few years after this. The Strasbourg orchestra and chorus don’t have the general acclaim to their name as those orchestras in Vienna, Munich and Berlin but they do give an admirable account of the score in general.

One of the real bonuses of this release is the extremely well-coached representation of the dialogue by all of the singers. This is something that doesn’t often get served up as expertly as it has been here. Unfortunately the one negative aspect of the digital release was that it came with no documentation of any kind. Many companies offer downloads with a PDF file of the booklet but this seems to be frowned upon by the powers that be at Decca. Presumably the CD release has some sort of booklet which really should have been included here.

Ultimately this is perhaps not the finest of Flutes but it’s certainly deserving of a new life in the digital era and a ranking somewhere in the upper echelons of the many recordings of this opera. Among the modern orchestra versions of a similar vintage I would rank it on an equal footing with James Levine’s Vienna-based version for RCA and Otmar Suitner’s underappreciated Dresden version for RCA/Eurodisc. Slightly ahead of this I would place Bernard Haitink’s Bavarian Radio recording for EMI along with Georg Solti’s earlier of his two Viennese recordings for Decca.

Mike Parr

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