Well, this is a fascinating listen for many reasons. Firstly, a mention should be made about the provenance of the source, which derives from the domestic archive of Richard Itter, an early home-recording taken from the Third Programme made by an enthusiast onto magnetic tape and then transferred to acetate discs that remained unplayed. ICA Classics has obtained the rights.
As far as this Karl Böhm-conducted Figaro is concerned, at the start of the Overture the sound initially feels somewhat boxy and congested, particularly for the lower-ranged instruments, but the upper strings ring out strongly and clearly. Then when the voices enter the balance is very much in their favour – you get a real sense of the singers’ qualities and also dramatic immediacy. Many readers will know Karl Böhm’s late-1960s’ Deutsche Grammophon version starring Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Gundula Janowitz, Edith Mathis and Tatiana Troyanos. By that time Böhm’s Mozart was more relaxed. What surprises is that in 1954 he leads an account that is fleet, almost driven at times, yet he emerges as a singer-friendly conductor and very sympathetic to the story. The whole fizzes along with enormous energy and there is a masterly understanding of Mozart’s setting of Da Ponte and his orchestration, and one quickly becomes aware of felicities and passages buzzing out with freshness and individuality, although the usual cuts in Act Four are made.
The cast is internationally renowned with strong associations to the Vienna State Opera and makes a dazzling ensemble, performing with great cohesion. Figaro is sung by Erich Kunz, highly characterful, his singing sappy and the delivery of the text full of nuance, clarity and charm. As the Count we have a voice far bigger and bass-centric than one ever hears today. Paul Schöffler was famous for Wagner and Strauss roles. His singing has a macho open-throated quality that is immediately engaging and yet not at the expense of flexibility and focus. His Count is a very dominant, dangerous adversary, and he has great timing as well. Susanna is Irmgard Seefried. Her voice is light and she has personality in abundance to make a tireless alliance with Figaro. Much of her recitative sounds amazingly improvisatory and her arias and duets are delivered with poise. The creamy-voiced Lisa della Casa is a gorgeous Countess, bringing a fine sense of line, but she’s not afraid to emphasise certain words, and her duets with Seefried are enchanting. Cherubino is Sena Jurinac, aurally illustrative of adolescent contradictions and very amusing.
Oskar Czerwenka’s Dr Bartolo is of vigour as well as youthful-sounding. Rosette Anday’s Marcellina has a more effortful vocal production but is full of spikiness, and Murray Dickie’s classic Don Basilio makes this slyly oleaginous intriguer unusually present at every turn of the plot. The young Walter Berry appears as Antonio! It is curious to hear the audience responding with laughter, despite there being no surtitles in those days – extraordinarily engaged by and receptive to the goings-on. With these artists providing an evening of such forthright immediacy, spirit and above all fun, that’s understandable and the theatrical gains are evident. Decades later, the listener becomes a part of it.