The Marriage of Figaro – Bruno Walter (Andante)

0 of 5 stars

Le nozze de Figaro

Figaro – Ezio Pinza
Count Almaviva – Mariano Stabile
Countess Almaviva – Aulikki Rautawaara
Susanna – Esther Réthy
Cherubino – Jarmila Novotná
Don Basilio – William Wernigk
Bartolo – Virgilio Lazzari
Marcellina – Angelica Cravcenco
Antonio – Viktor Madin
Barbarina – Dora Komraek
Don Curzio – Giuseppe Nessi

Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruno Walter

Recorded on 19 August 1937 at the Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Reviewed by: Tim Ashley

Reviewed: July 2003
CD No: ANDANTE 3981 (3 CDs)

This is one of the most famous – as well as being, perhaps, one of the more controversial – recordings of Le nozze di Figaro. Its source is a radio broadcast from the Salzburg Festival during the jittery summer of 1937, and both the performance, and one’s response to it, is inevitably coloured by awareness of contemporary events. The Nazi Anschluss of Austria was looming. The ethos of the Festival, founded to preserve the continuity of western culture in the face of political devastation, was essentially under threat. The roster of performers that year reads like an artistic microcosm of the convulsions that were about to shake Europe. The presence of Walter andToscanini, anti-fascists both, was balanced by that of Hans Knappertsbusch, the details of whose involvement with the Third Reich is only now, thanks to the research of musicologists such as Michael Kater and Erik Levi, becoming clear.

It was Knappertsbusch who, acting from anti-Semitic motivations, had manoeuvred Walter out of Munich in 1922, and who, in 1933, had drawn up the horrific petition that led to Thomas Mann being deprived of German citizenship, an episode into which Richard Strauss, one of the Festival’s founders, had been drawn. That the festival’s atmosphere was nerve-ridden is more than once apparent from the surviving broadcasts made during its course, which include Toscanini’s Zauberflöte and Meistersinger and Walter’s Figaro, re-issued here in an exemplary re-mastering by Andante. All three were essentially fierce statements, at once humanitarian and political, and consequently one shrinks, on occasion, from making a full critical evaluation.

Yet it must also be stated that Walter’s 1937 version, whatever its importance as a political or historical document, is not among the greatest performances of Figaro to survive in sound. At best, it can only be described as unevenly sung, and Walter’s conducting also, on occasion, leaves a certain amount to be desired, a statement which might be deemed blasphemous in some quarters given his reputation as one of the greatest of all Mozart interpreters.

This is a performance that primarily crackles with urgency and rage, sometimes at the expense of humanity and tenderness. John B. Steane, assessing Walter’s achievement in “The Grand Tradition”, writes of his performances of Mozart’s operas as being “an exhilarating scramble,” which broadly holds true here, though ’scramble’ in this context implies a sense of the performance being rushed as opposed to ensemble coming adrift. There’s a nervous speed throughout. Walter seems unwilling to release the tension, and when he does – in the Countess’s “Porgi Amor”, for instance – you’re suddenly aware of a certain stodgy solemnity.

The over-arching ebb and flow of the score seems to elude him in ways that at times are disquieting. One is ultimately forced to wonder, however, whether, within the Mozartian canon, Figaro itself was work with which Walter felt, for some reason, ill atease. This is not, by any means, his only performance of the opera to survive in sound. A number of Met broadcasts of Figaro – from 1941, 1942 and 1944 – reveal comparable inequalities.

The Salzburg nerviness had, by and large, dissipated itself by then, though the furious energy and speed, offset by that awkward driven, unyielding quality, remained. That he may never have been ideally happy with the work is born out by Eleanor Steber’s autobiography, posthumously published in 1991. Steber, who sang with every major conductor of the 30s, 40s and 50s with the exception of Karajan and Furtwängler, deemed Walter the greatest musician she had ever worked with, and readily admits that her own career as a Mozartian – she was one of the greatest – was largely the result of his coaching. Discussing their performances at some length, she writes, more than once of the unique ’exaltation’ she felt singing with him. Yet the autobiography is notable for one curious omission, namely that she never once describes his conducting of Figaro, even though she sang the Countess with him on numerous occasions. One is forced to wonder whether she too had doubts about his interpretation, though her book, I think, definitely gives us a clue as to why Walter’s Figaro was less than ideal.

The ’exaltation’ that Steber felt implies some sort of spiritual or metaphysical experience in performance. Here, of course, we come up against the fact that Figaro is, in essence, not a spiritual or metaphysical work, but an angry, compassionate social comedy, based on a play deemed subversive and atheistic in its day. That Walter’s whirling approach to Mozart worked best when spirituality was part of the equation is born out by his 1942 Met broadcasts of Don Giovanni (on Naxos Historical) and Die Zauberflöte (on Walhall – Steber sings the First Lady). The operas deal with the metaphysics of damnation and salvationrespectively, and in Walter’s hands they receive performances that are second to none.

This is not to say, by any means, that his Figaro lacks insight. At his best, he was in some respects before his time. The culminating reconciliation between the Count and Countess is done with the painful awareness that their relationship will ultimately withstand neither the Count’s promiscuity nor the tests of time. The downbeat final chorus hints at both unresolved political and social issues and emotional uncertainty. Many interpreters shied away from the implications of Figaro in the 30s and 40s. Walter, to his infinite credit, confronted them headon. Place this set beside Fritz Busch’s famous 1935 Glyndebourne recording (Naxos Historical has the best re-mastering), and its deficiencies are apparent. Busch, also an exile from Nazi Germany, has all of Walter’s rage, but none of his intransigence, and he also has a more consistent cast, albeit a less obviously starry one.

The two recordings have their Countess in common in the form of the Finnish soprano Aulikki Rautawaara. Busch finds her in considerably better voice, whereas Walter gets a marginally more incisive performance from her dramatically. This is purchased, however, at the price of an awkward rendition of “Dove sono” where his hectoring speeds for the second section cause her to fracture the aristocratic nobility of the line and awkwardly fudge the ending. A great artist, she adjusts her characterisation to suit her respective Counts, braving Roy Henderson’s cowardly tantrums for Busch, though cowering in genuine terror before Mariano Stabile’s altogether more dangerous figure for Walter. Stabile, probably best known for his legendary 1951 La Scala performances of Falstaff under Victor de Sabata, was very much a singing actor, more than compensating for occasional dryness of tone with a remarkable flair for verbal nuance. His Count remains one of the most psychologically complete on disc as well as among the most alarming, coldly sadistic and bullying until he turns on his charm with Susanna and we find ourselves surrendering to him as he does so. At the end, we don’t believe his “Contessa perdono” for a second, though we’re put in the terrible position of understanding exactly why Rautawaara’s Countess does.

Walter’s Figaro, here as at the Met, is Ezio Pinza, in what is arguably his best recorded performance of the role, though there’s a 1943 Met broadcast, conducted by Walter’s assistant Paul Breisach this time, that runs it close. As always with Pinza, the sheer beauty of the voice takes your breath away, and in 1937, his characterisation was impulsive and vividly angry – by the 40s, his Figaro had become an altogether more detached, calculating and knowing figure. In 1937, his fourth act aria was the pained outburst of a man whose world has suddenly collapsed around him. By 1943, a note of world-weary resignation had crept in. Both interpretations are perfectly valid and convincing, though I prefer him here.

The real stumbling block as far as the 1937 performance is concerned, however, is Esther Réthy’s Susanna. Hungarian-born, she was based until 1949 in Vienna, where she was admired both as an operetta vamp and as a Straussian of some importance. Photographs in the accompanying book show her to have been an exceptional beauty, and contemporary accounts testify that she and Pinza generated a considerable sexual charge on stage together. Her singing, however, is less than remarkable in this instance. She makes Susanna stroppy in her assertiveness, which is fine, and some might prefer the fullness of her tone to the softer-grained Audrey Mildmay (for Busch) or the twittering of Bidù Sayão (ubiquitous on all the 40s Met broadcasts, I’m afraid). Yet there are too many imperfections. Her intonation is wayward with a tendency to pitch too sharp too often for comfort. She has a fondness for descending portamenti that becomes mannered and wearing in the extreme, and she clearly didn’t like Walter’s speeds, dragging against his beat for most of Act One.

Problems with tempi also initially beset Jarmila Novotna’s Cherubino, and she and Walter seemingly take a while to adjust to each other in “Non so piu cosa son”, though elsewhere this proves another remarkable performance. Like Irmgard Seefried in the immediate post-war era, Novotna could suggest a genuineboyishness when it came to trouser roles and the sound at times comes over as disquietingly male, like an unbroken treble voice.

The usually reticent Salzburg audience clearly loved her as well, breaking into spontaneous applause at the end of her arias. The rest of the cast varies from the impressive to the adequate. Virgilio Lazzari is a thoroughly nasty, very vengeful Bartolo. Angelica Cravcenco, wayward above the stave, is very much the stereotypical battle-axe as Marcellina. Walter observes the standard cuts, typical of the time, in Act IV, which means the loss of a substantial part of Marcellina’s music. Nowadays, of course, conductors tend to restore it, giving us an altogether more rounded, sympathetic and troubling figure than the one we are presented with here.

Overall, the set left me with mixed feelings. As a historical document that captures the atmosphere of Europe in 1937, it is of immeasurable importance. As a performance of Figaro, meanwhile, you need to hear it, though more for Pinza and Stabile than for Walter. Those familiar with the classic performances by Busch, Erich Kleiber or Karl Böhm may well find it wanting, however.

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