Reviews

GHCD 2317/18 – ORFEO ED EURIDICE – Gluck – Thorborg – Novotna – Metropolitan Opera – 1940

Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, ERICH LEINSDORF – Conductor, KERSTIN THORBORG – JARMILA NOVOTNA – MARITA FARELL – ANNAMARY DICKEY

To the CD in our Shop


Klassik Com. Monday December 26 05

So klang eine Aufführung am 20. Januar 1940 an der New Yorker Metropolitan Opera.Unter dem Motto ‘Immortal Performances’ bringt das Label ‘Guild Historical’ eine originaleRundfunkübertragung aus der Met. Das war vor 65 Jahren. Die Ätherwellen rauschen immer wieder und von besonderer Eindringlichkeit ist die Stimme des Rundfunksprechers, der die Übertragung ansagt, in das zu hörende Werk einführt, die Applausordnung kommentiert und den Eindruck, doch irgendwie dabei zu sein, vermittelt.

Am 20. Januar 1940 wurde in New York ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ von Christoph Willibald Gluck gegeben. Die Besetzung war erlesen, und am Pult des Orchesters der Met stand kein Geringerer als Erich Leinsdorf. Ich nehme einige Trübungen, die u.a. dem historischen Bandmaterial geschuldet sind, gerne in Kauf, ich akzeptiere, dass der Aufführungsstil so historisch erscheinen mag, wie die ganze Aufnahme, aber ich bin angetan von den Stimmen und der Stimmung, die dieses Dokument atmet.

Leinsdorf – soweit man das hören kann – sorgt für einen recht dramatischen Ton, da gibt es keine übermäßigen Weichzeichnungen, es geht um Leben und Tod, um die Kraft der Liebe durch den Ausdruck der Musik, insbesondere des Gesanges.
Hat man sich an die mal mehr oder weniger mitrauschenden Ätherwellen gewöhnt, dann hat man etliches in dieser Aufnahme zu hören, das wahrscheinlich sehr selten auch in heutigen Aufführungen an unsere Ohren dringt.
Der Chor der Metropolitan Opera ist präsent und den unterschiedlichen zu besingenden Stimmungen angemessen präpariert und sorgt für etliche Dramatik und Spannung.
Die Partie des Orfeo singt Kerstin Thorborg, und allein derentwegen ist die Aufnahme den Besitz wert. Ihr Gesang ist ein seelenwarmer dunkler Fluss, keine Sentimentalitäten, dafür große Linie und ausgeglichene Qualität des Tones in allen Lagen. Dazu kommt der große Atem einer Künstlerin, die zugleich mit den Fachpartien Richard Wagners überzeugen konnte.

Leuchtend, wie der Klang von edlem Silber ist die Stimme Jarmila Novotnas als Euridice. Die Eleganz ihres Singens ist von Kritikern in die Nähe Lisa Della Casas gestellt worden.

In der Partie des Amore ist die Stimme von Marita Farell dokumentiert.

Natürlich ist diese Aufnahme zunächst eine Referenz an die 1896 in Schweden geborene Altistin Kerstin Thorborg, die an der Met in über 350 Aufführungen sang, das in 20 Partien ihres Faches. Dafür wurde sie vom Publikum geliebt, aber wahrscheinlich vor allem wegen ihres Grundtones menschlicher Güte der zu Herzen geht. Als Zugabe bringt die CD noch ein Gespräch mit der 1970 verstorbenen Sängerin in englischer Sprache über ihre Tätigkeit an der Met. Dem Gespräch folgt ein Tondokument, in dem die Thorborg ebenfalls als Orfeo zu hören ist, allerdings in deutscher Sprache und sieben Jahre zuvor.

Es folgen Aufnahmen vom Mai 1940 mit den wichtigsten Wagnerpartien der Altistin. Erda, Fricka, Waltraute aus ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, Brangäne – nicht Isolde wie im Booklet aufgeführt – aus ‘Tristan und Isolde’ und Kundry aus ‘Parsifal’. Welche Sinnlichkeit, welche Linienführung, welche Verschmelzung von Wort und Ton, Musiktheater! Nicht mehr und nicht weniger.
Moris Michael Gruhl


MusicWeb Wednesday October 05 05

If you don’t mind 1940 sound and want an austerely tragic, but vital, view of this opera, this issue is a good deal more that a collector’s piece. … Christopher Howell
Since I have some reservations to make, I should like to start by saying that I put this on without great enthusiasm, supposing that primitive sound and old-fashioned performance practices would make it advisable to hear one act at a time. Instead, I listened to the whole opera without a break, and really enjoyed it far more than the “authentic” Naxos recording of the “pure” French version which came my way recently – review.
Here, then, is another piece of Met history. Following Toscanini’s performances with Louise Homer in 1914, Orfeo ed Euridice was not heard again there until 1938 when Bodanzky revived it with Kerstin Thorborg. Further performances followed in 1939. After Bodanzky’s death that year the young Erich Leinsdorf took over the German repertoire at the Met and consequently was at the helm for the present 1940 live broadcast. A year later the production was repeated for four performances directed by Bruno Walter, with whom Thorborg had already sung the role in Vienna and Salzburg. No Walter performance has come down to us, so our knowledge of Thorborg’s celebrated interpretation depends on the 1940 revival under Leinsdorf. It can be appreciated in sound which is mostly firm and clear and is really as good as we have a right to expect for this sort of thing.
Bodanzky was a notable cutter and adapter (he wrote his own recitatives for Fidelio) and, though Richard Caniell refers to Leinsdorf’s version of the score I should have thought it more likely that the young conductor was simply briefed to play Bodanzky’s score as it stood; certainly, the omission of the overture and the foreshortening of the first scene of Act Three sound more like Bodanzky ideas than Leinsdorf ones. When a conductor of Walter’s experience arrived a year later it was another matter and he opened out these cuts.
On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the shape of the music on this occasion was Leinsdorf’s own. He takes a powerfully tragic view from the outset, with slowish tempi which are nevertheless propelled forward inevitably by a purposeful rhythmic tread. When he lets fly in the Dance of the Furies the result is fearsome indeed. Caniell is pretty rude about this aspect of Leinsdorf’s treatment of the score but I must say I found it exciting. Here and in the Chaconne the conductor’s clear textures and sizzling articulation seem a blueprint for many of today’s “authentic” performances and, while an “original instruments” conductor today would probably take the Dance of the Blessed Spirits faster (Ryan Brown certainly does on the Naxos issue I mentioned above), the cool detailing of Leinsdorf’s response nonetheless seems closer to our own day than to his. My reservation, and this is where Leinsdorf still today divides opinion, is that while I was certainly gripped, my involvement remained intellectual rather than emotional, presumably because Leinsdorf’s own involvement was so. No doubt Bruno Walter infused the work with greater humanity, and if we can only guess at the results, maybe the audiences at La Scala heard something along the same lines, Gluck’s classical world illuminated by a romantic Claudian glow, when Furtwängler conducted the opera there in 1951, with Fedora Barbieri and Hilde Gueden, a recording of which has survived and was recently reviewed for the site by my colleague Jonathan Woolf.
Kerstin Thorborg was the Orfeo of her generation, only too briefly succeeded by the short-lived Kathleen Ferrier. Her powerful, dark voice carries chest resonances which mean that at times she can almost seem a male alto, while at others she takes on a more feminine hue. It is a stately, dignified interpretation with a notably clearer enunciation of the words than any of the other singers here provide – though in comparison with a native Italian like Barbieri she is perhaps too careful, and her “Rs” are decidedly Teutonic. Barbieri is much more overtly passionate. While Thorborg seems to fit admirably with Leinsdorf’s interpretation, a suggestion that she might have wished something different comes with her 1933 recording (in German) of the opera’s most famous aria. Here the conductor allows a slower tempo, about the same as the famous Ferrier recording in English; Leinsdorf is not as fast as Stiedry in Ferrier’s Glyndebourne recording, a tempo which Ferrier didn’t like at all, but he keeps things moving pretty purposefully. With this framework, Thorborg offers in 1933 a much more intimate, withdrawn and obviously heartfelt reading. But the sheer size of the Met, as well as the conductor, may have contributed to her more “public” manner in 1940.
The other parts in this opera do not have a lot to do; Novotna is an attractive Euridice, Marita Farell a soubrettish Amore. Chorus and orchestra are a good deal more precise than they tended to be in Europe in those days. The broadcast announcements at the beginning and end of each act have been preserved and the set is completed by a quite long interview with Thorborg and some Wagner extracts. The date of the interview is not known, and nor is the interviewer, though from the sound of her voice and the reference to a number of her colleagues in the past tense it must have been post-1962 (Thorborg died in 1970). The Wagner extracts show her wonderfully even voice, rich and gleaming in every register, her exemplary technical control and her fine musicianship. They also suggest, and the interview confirms, that she may have been a most professional singer and a considerate, hardworking colleague, but perhaps not aflame with inspiration, especially when inspiration is signally lacking in Karl Riedel’s accompaniments. With an inspiring presence on the rostrum it was no doubt another story, and she was by all accounts a striking presence and a fine actor.
One or two aspects of production call for comment. Firstly, it was reprehensible indeed not to name the conductors and orchestras of the 1933 Gluck and the Wagner extracts (I have reinstated them after an Internet search). Secondly, while Richard Caniell refers to the considerable research which took place to trace the version of the score and libretto used, obviously those concerned did not look at the libretto which accompanies the Monteux performance with Risë Stevens which, though recorded in Rome, actually documents the 1955 Met revival. Had they done so, they would not have needed to label CD1 track 6 lamely as “Ritornello” when Thorborg can be heard to sing “Restar vogl’io” with perfect clarity, nor to call track 14 “Si les doux accords de ta lyre” when Marita Farell’s Italian, though poor, is not so bad you could mistake it for French, or doubt that she is singing “Se il dolce suon de la tua lira”, nor to exchange “Vivr’Amore” for “Divo Amore”. Above all, they need not have given up the ghost at track 33, providing “E’ quest’asilo ameno e grato” from another source, when the words “Questo asilo di placide calme” can be heard without any difficulty. Textual variations between the Leinsdorf and Monteux versions are in fact minimal in the first two acts, more substantial in the third; it would appear that the Met was still using the same material in 1955, plus Walter’s reinstatements.
The origin of all this confusion lies in the fact that, while Jonathan Wearn and Professor Hugh MacDonald, on behalf of Guild, have correctly taken into account the three primary sources – the Italian version (Vienna 1762), the French version (Paris 1774) and Berlioz’s conflation of the two (Paris 1859) – they seem not to have borne in mind that most performances up to the mid-20th Century used neither of these but the so-called “Ricordi version”, or something like it, which was basically the Berlioz version back-translated into Italian. This was necessary because Gluck added new music for the French version, and revised other parts, so Calzabigi’s Italian libretto cannot e sung “straight” to the French version. Track 33 is a good example of this, since “E’ quest’asilo ameno e grato” is a literal translation of the French “Cet asile, aimable et tranquille”, which is in its turn a free rendering of “Questo asilo di placide calme”. So a range of variants grew up which basically accepted the Berlioz as their musical text, but fiddled around with the Italian words. Furtwängler’s performance is musically more or less the same as Leinsdorf’s (with the Overture reinstated and some variations towards the end), but often substitutes a different sung text.
Lastly, Guild claim that “Che farò senza Euridice?” is sung by Euridice herself, an unlikely state of affairs.
In spite of my comments, if you don’t mind 1940 sound and want an austerely tragic, but vital, view of this opera, this issue is a good deal more than a collector’s piece.
Christopher Howell

MusicWeb 12.09 05

The gravity and nobility of Thorburg’s assumption is tangible …
I finished my review of a competing transfer on Walhall WLCD 008 with the thought that this was natural Guild territory. And so it’s proved. If it’s belated that’s nonetheless worthwhile; it’s enabled the Guild team to collate some additional material, not least an eighteen minute, undated interview in English with Thorburg. And there’s a more-than-respectable pendant in the form of the commercial 1940 Victor Wagner extracts, all sung with Thorburg’s singular directness and power. It might be as well to reprise part of that review and set the scene for the Leinsdorf-led Orfeo.
This performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice comes live from the Met in 1940 and was the first staging at the house since Toscanini’s 25 years earlier. The star is Thorburg, better known as a towering Wagnerian but who had performed the part to acclaim under Bruno Walter. Her Euridice is the newly arrived Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna, who had only recently made her Met debut in La Bohème. She’d hurriedly left Vienna following the Anschluss having already inspired Lehár to write for her (Giuditta, 1934) and Toscanini, reputedly, to fall in love with her.
The acetate discs have suffered some damage with surface scuffing and some swishes, noticeable very early on; the Chorus is diffusely captured, but the orchestra under the young-ish Leinsdorf manages to be both expressive (with some old fashioned rallentandi) and forward moving – fortunately so as Leinsdorf tended to sprint through his Wagner nights at the Met – and he applies the same sort of solution to this most static and columnar of operas.
Thorburg is especially strong when the music sits in the middle of her voice; sometimes lower down she can lack a degree of projection. Her powers of histrionic impersonation are very much there but seldom, if ever, overdone and the gravity and nobility of her assumption is tangible. Che farò is taken at a very reasonable, non dirge-like tempo – she is, unlike Ferrier, conversational with it, though there is a massive slow down in the central section, as was the custom. Novotna had studied under Max Reinhardt in her Berlin days and was a consummate singer-actor, even this early in her career. She is expressive, less so than Thorburg perhaps, or less explicitly so, but affecting nonetheless. The voice itself is quite superb. As Amor, Marita Farell can be a bit “pipy.”
So yes there are some sonic limitations despite the two principals and Leinsdorf. Guild has gone to some trouble to rectify an abrupt side change between Deh! Placatevi con me and the passage beginning Mille pene; the alarming pitch drop in Che puro ciel and elsewhere which had previously troubled the transfers, not least Walhall’s, have been attended to as well. The sound is certainly generally very listenable.  The Wagner Victors are from commercial copies and in fine estate. There are some dropouts in the Thorburg interview but we can hear her talk about her admiration for Bodanzky and for Bruno Walter, of Traubel’s beautiful voice and her “nice colleagues” generally. She’s witty concerning the rise of American singers noting the main difference between them and European artists is the confidence of the Americans; “they’re not nervous” she says with incredulity. Part of the interview is off the cuff and part sounds heavily scripted.
Walhall’s single disc Orfeo has no notes, just a cast and track list, an inferior transfer, and an unlistenable extract of live excerpts as fill-up. Contrast Guild, with its well-researched notes, restored sound and apposite additional material. You’ll have to pay more for the two discs – but there’s no advantage in paying less.
Jonathan Woolf