Recordings of the Mozart-da Ponte operas recently crossed my desk; two of them are long out of print and the remaining, Don Giovanni, is hard to find. These were recorded in London in the early 1970s, toward the end of the extraordinary life and career of their conductor, Otto Klemperer. Today they are considered old hat, unfashionable. I doubt these operas would be sung today in performance as Klemperer conducts these recordings. Why unfashionable? We'll get to that. First things first.
Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) was a German with a self destructive streak fueled by
bi polar disorder. In his manic moods he would take off, wander the earth, set himself on fire, sleep around, alienate musicians on and off the stage and generally be uncontrollable. His condition worsened after surgery for a brain tumor left half of his face paralyzed. He was quite the ladies man: his elopement with the married prima donna Elisabeth Schumann scandalized Germany eighty years ago. He had a long suffering wife and two children: His son Werner became famous as Colonel Klink in "Hogan's Heroes"-there was a lot more to Werner Klemperer than that, but I spent some time with him about ten years ago and he always spoke of "HH" with affection. Klemperer's daughter Lotte spent her life taking care of Papa; without her he might have been institutionalized, much less been able to work.
Werner and Lotte have since died. (Klemperer also founded the Kroll opera, one of Europe's most important companies, in Berlin in the 1920s: here he introduced new operas by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Weill and Janacek. Put me in a time machine and take me back there; I would have loved to have experienced the Kroll opera.)
Klemperer came into a golden period in the early days of stereo, when he made a large number of recordings with the magnificent Philharmonia Orchestra, in London. Most of these are now available on CD; everything from Bach's B minor mass to symphonies of Bruckner and orchestral works of Richard Strauss. Klemperer's style is large, just short of ponderous, and intensely dramatic. His Bach and Mozart can sound overwhelming and too, well, too too...to today's ears. Repeated listening will reveal as much orchestral detail as today's historically informed peformances. Mozart and Bach as played today give us the lighter textures and greater clarity we think the composers intended. Certainly we have performances of great beauty-and most importantly-great energy from conductors like Jacobs, Herreweghe,Rifkin, Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner. Klemperer can be thought simply....slow. Even Werner Klemperer told me "Father's Cosi fan Tutte really is very slow."
Yes, maybe it is. The fizz and wit in all of Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte are harder to find in Klemperer's recordings. Some think with today's ears he has loved the music into stasis. I just obtained these recordings and cannot stop listening to them. Finding a balance between joy and sorrow is a terrible burden, and is critical, especially in Cosi fan Tutte. I expect Klemperer did not understand casual listening. He was working for audiences who listened over and over, who paid attention, and who allowed his performances to really get under the skin. The Cosi fan Tutte has an exquisite cast: the soprano Margaret Price (Fiordiligi) sings with a warmth and a glow recalling Eleanor Steber
(you voice students should know Steber) Teresa Berganza, Lucia Popp, and the wonderful tenore di grazia Luigi Alva, and Geraint Evans-too little recorded-all sing for the beauty of their own voices and they allow Klemperer's loving approach to the music to tell the story. This is a case of "just sing" but what singing!
This Cosi sounds to me both romantic and sad, but never slow.
The "Figaro" is on the heavy side even for me; but after all not much of this show should be played strictly for laughs. The irony and yes, some of the cruelty is more forward in this approach. I can still marvel at the simple beauty of the finale ("Contessa, perdono") but for the first time we get the hint that all will not end well(and it doesn't). Another great cast, especially one of my favorite artists, the soprano Elisabeth Soederstroem (Countess--voice students write that name down) Geraint Evans (Figaro) Reri Grist (Susanna) and Gabriel Bacquier (Conte).
There's a lovely story told about these recording sessions. The first scene, with Susanna and Figaro had just been recorded. Klemperer lit is pipe and was content. The recording producer, Suvi Raj Grubb asked that the scene be repeated. Klemperer was surprised. "Vy repeat?!...Miss Grist, are you satisfied?" "Yes, maestro" replied Reri Grist. "And Mr.Evans, are you pleased?" "I am maestro." Klemperer then turned to the orchestra and said "I too am pleased, but since Mr. Grubb is not pleased, we will do it again."
I haven't heard the Don Giovanni yet, but stay tuned.
These recordings have been a joy with which to launch this Mozart year.
And let's all read up on the Kroll Opera. REALLY stay tuned!