GHCD 2303/04 – COSI FAN TUTTE – Mozart – Busch – Glyndebourne 1951

Chorus & Orchestra of the Glyndebourne Festival, Fritz Busch – conductor, Sena Jurinac, Richard Lewis, Sesto Bruscantini, Alice Howland, Isa Quesnel, Marko Rothmüller

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Classic Record Collector, Autumn 2005

As this is one of those live performances that have acquired legendary status, its release should command considerable interest. Richard Caniell, the guiding hand behind it, writes in the notes that he searched 30 years for a recording of it. His ordeal might have been shortened – the Editor tells me there has long been a version in the Busch archives (Brüder-Busch Archiv Tapes T89/92); and there is surely one at Indiana University, where Fritz Busch’s son Hans taught. Be that as it may, Caniell located a set of acetates and a tape and, using the best from Bach – and occasionally patching in snippets from elsewhere, including Busch’s 1940 live performance at the Royal Opera, Stockholm, with the same delightful Despina – produced this most welcome set.

Several caveats should be noted. As the overture started, I thought: ‘It sounds just like the 1935 Glyndebourne version.’ Well, it is that one, as the 1951 overture was apparently

not in a good enough state an either of Caniell’s sources. The sound of the set is variable, never good, at best typical of a mediocre AM transmission compromised by some surface noise, static and varying emphases of high frequencies. Then, too, reflecting what now seem anachronistic practices, it features a piano for the recitatives and makes a few admittedly minor cuts that were once common but are frowned an today (the conductor was all too aware that most of his Glyndebourne audience had to catch a special train back to London alter the performance). Here, however, is one case where the spirit of authenticity triumphs over the letter of historical rectitude in a reading that goes to the heart of the Mozartian matter, projecting the opera’s profound humanity, sensuality and dramatic power.

I should confess to writing from a biased point of view: Cosi is not only my favourite opera, it is possibly the score I value above all others, one that through its music alone conveys so much of the ambiguity, sexuality and frailty that stamp our very being. In the many recorded and live performances that I have heard, only three conductors have captured the essence of the opera – Karajan in 1955 (EMI 7 69635-2), Colin Davis in 1974 with a variable cast (Philips 476 633-2) and, of course, Busch in 1935 in that other Glyndebourne production, which marked the work’s initial recording (EMI 7 63864-2).

To judge from this live account, Busch’s conception had not changed radically in the 16 years that separate it from his studio version. There is the same care with detail and his awareness of how Mozart’s orchestra provides not merely an accompaniment to the singers, but a commentary an the unfolding action. His pacing, too, is not all that varied from what it was in 1935. Yet key differences exist. For one thing, all the recitatives here have an animation and conversational life that were not conveyed in the studio. Furthermore, their greater theatricality is complemented by a far more imaginative realisation of support from the keyboard – Busch himself plays the piano, as before, but he is more keyed up by the live Occasion. And good as the 1935 cast was, that of 1951 is

even better, with a famous exponent of Don Alfonso. The star is perhaps Sena Jurinac. Even through the mediocre sound, one grasps the power of her Fiordiligi, her stunning Act 2 ‘Per pietà’ sung with even greater sustained intensity than in the excerpts recorded at Glyndebourne the year before under studio conditions. As then, her partner in this tour de force is Dennis Brain – at the dress rehearsal Busch was so pleased with the aria that he asked Jurinac and Brain: ‘Do it again, please, just for me.’ Incidentally, Caniell is mistaken in stating that of the artists in the 1950 album (Testament SBT1040) only Jurinac, Lewis and Busch had been involved in the stage performances – HMV recorded all the cast except Alda Noni, who was not required for the excerpts but later set down her two arias under another conductor.

A salient feature of the 1951 stage performance is the attention to clarity in the ensembles, a clarity that reminds us of Mozart’s mastery in creating a contrapuntal texture in which each character retains his or her identity. (Occasionally textures blur in what sounds like a slightly rushed ensemble, but this flaw may well be sonic rather than interpretative.) Most importantly, perhaps, the Performance suggests a repertory company where each member of this international cast knows his or her place in the whole and avoids a misguided attempt at being a star. Despite its sonic limitations, those who care about Cosi should certainly consider this set as a supplement to their primary one. Hats off to Richard Caniell and Guild for building what is becoming one of the most distinguished catalogues of live historical performances. A final thought: the last act of the 1951 Glyndebourne season was a BBC telecast of Cosi. Perhaps Caniell should be sent off an another 30-year quest.

International Record Review – January 2005

Italian libretto and English translation included. Website

Remastering Engineer Richard Caniell. Date Live performance at the Opera House, Glyndebourne on July 5th, 1951.

Its hard to know which to begin with, the raves or the caveats. The caveats, I think, so that the celebrations after can be the final note. A bit of background: the admirable, indefatigable, undauntedly, inexhaustibly enthusiastic Richard Caniell, who also writes excellent notes, gives an account, hardly less than hair-raising, of how this recording came into existence. It was no simple matter. The 1951 broadcast of Così fan tutte from Glyndebourne was not officially recorded, or more likely the BBC recorded and lost it, as was its wont. After years of searching, CanieII found two collectors, one in the UK and one in Germany, who had recorded the performance, one on acetates, the other on tape. Both recordings, not surprisingly, suffered from many grave defects, and it must have been an appalling labour of love for Caniell to extract the best bits from each. Even then, some parts of the opera weren’t accessible. So the Overture was taken from the pre-war recording, wonderful as that is – but the sound is made as similar to the main body of the opera as possible. And Caniell had to find other means of filling in four-plus minutes from Act 1 , and nearly nine minutes from Act 2. Even then, the sound is subject to fluctuation of all kinds, in volume, pitch, level of distortion, and so on. Only hardened historic recording enthusiasts need even bother to try listening.

If they do, they will hear the performance of a lifetime, literally. I have never heard what I consider to be as fine an account of Così as this, and I think there have been some extremely good ones over the years. Previously I had thought the finest were under Böhm, Colin Davis, and recently Yves Abel at Opera North, while best of all has always been the Busch set from Glyndebourne, recorded in 1935. This is superior to all of those, in particular to Busch’s own earlier effort, by virtue of the superb cast and Busch’s even deeper grasp of the score. This is a piece of teamwork of the highest order, and I notice that the orchestra included Dennis Brain, Jack Brymer and Gwydion Brooke. In an opera where the winds are all-important, that certainly helps. The star of the show, though she blends in perfectly with her colleagues, is unquestionably Sena Jurinac as Fiordiligi. This, together with her Leonore in Klemperer’s Fidelio, released last year and reviewed in January 2004, is the finest thing I have heard of hers on disc – she always seemed greater in the opera house than when one just listened, but here she is her radiant self. Normally I find that both of Fiordiligi’s arias, with their strong elements of parody, outstay their welcome, but Jurinac has so profound an understanding of the character that she balances the seriousness of her feelings with her drama-queen tendencies so that every element in the arias is alive.

The rest of the cast, though some of them are less familiar , is on this level too, though of course Jurinac has by far the toughest assignment. Her then husband Sesto Bruscantini sings Alfonso wonderfully, presenting him as a genial but unillusioned buffer, without the sheer rancour that contemporary singers of the role like to find in it. Isa Quesnel is the Despina of my dreams, with an almost creamy voice, and no tendency to ham things up until her appearance as the Notary. Richard Lewis’s Ferrando is aristocratic, warm, ardent, metling; while Marko Rothmüller plausibly plays Guglielmo as more of a rough diamond. Alice Howland, a name new to me, contrasts and blends admirably with Jurinac. Some of the ensembles are so irresistibly enchanting that I did something I almost always forbid myself when on duty, and repeated them before going on.

I know that when sound is this variable it is impossible for many people to enjoy the performance. Perhaps worse, perhaps not, is the fact that periodically the veils of distortion disappear, and the singing and playing are so vivid that it seems as if the performance is taking place in one’s room. Don’t be seduced – things will soon get rough again. But if you can bring yourself to cope with these disadvantages, you’ll be rewarded with something that makes them seem trivial.
Michael Tanner