Busch at Glyndebourne: Mozart Starts Here

Busch at Glyndebourne

FRITZ BUSCH AT GLYNDEBOURNE / MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro (abridged) / Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, bar (Figaro); Audrey Mildmay, sop (Susanna); Roy Henderson, bar (Count Almaviva); Aulikki Rautavaara, sop (Countess); Luise Helletsgruber, sop (Cherubino); Constance Willis, mezzo (Marcellina); Italo Tajo, Norman Allin, bs (Dr. Bartolo); Heddle Nash, ten (Don Basilio); Morgan Jones, ten (Don Curzio); Fergus Dunlop, bar (Antonio); Winifred Radford, sop (Barbarina); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Busch, cond

MOZART: Così fan Tutte / Heddle Nash, ten (Ferrando); Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, bar (Guglielmo); John Brownlee, bar (Don Alfonso); Ina Souez, sop (Fiordiligi); Irene Eisinger, sop (Despina); Luise Helletsgruber, sop (Dorabella); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Busch, cond / Così fan Tutte (Highlights) / Richard Lewis, ten (Ferrando); Erich Kunz, bar (Guglielmo); Mario Borriello, bass (Don Alfonso); Sena Jurinac, sop (Fiordiligi); Blanche Thebom, mezzo (Dorabella); Alda Noni, sop (Despina); Glyndebourne Festival Chorus & Orchestra; Fritz Busch, cond

MOZART: Don Giovanni / Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Leporello); Ina Souez, sop (Donna Anna); John Brownlee, bar (Don Giovanni); David Franklin, bass (Commendatore); Koloman von Pataky, ten (Don Ottavio); Luise Helletsgruber, sop (Donna Elvira); Audrey Mildmay, sop (Zerlina); Roy Henderson, bar (Masetto); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Busch, cond

MOZART: Idomeneo (Highlights) / Richard Lewis, ten (Idomeneo); Alexander Young, ten (Idamante/High Priest); Sena Jurinac, sop (Ilia); Dorothy McNeil, sop (Elettra); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra; Fritz Busch, cond / Warner Classics 0190295801748

Well, folks, here it is, finally put all together and properly cleaned up after more than 80 years: Fritz Busch’s complete Glyndebourne legacy, recorded between 1934 and 1951, the year of his death. None of the famous Busch brothers (violinist Adolf and cellist Hermann) lived much past 60 years old; they just had bad genes. But as someone who grew up listening to these recordings on the miserable RCA Victor Collector’s Series LPs and the even worse, muffled-sounding Turnabout Vox Historic Series (the 1930s operas, not the 1950-51 addenda), they come as a revelation. Not even Ward Marston’s meticulous restorations for Naxos’ Historical Series sound this good. The voices and orchestra practically leap at you out of the speakers with a clarity that not even the 78s probably had. And there’s a ton of natural hall reverb in these performances, which stuns me no end because “natural sound” was something you could never say about the LP issues or the earlier CD releases (such as those on Grammofono 2000). The restoration was done by “Studio Art & Son,” and whoever Art & his son are I can only say, Bravo, bravissimo!

Now that you can finally hear them clearly, the performances are, for the most part, surprisingly modern in concept, briskly conducted and mostly very well sung. Back in the day it was fashionable to dump on soprano Audrey Mildmay, who sings Susanna in Figaro and Zerlina in Don Giovanni, because she was the wife of Glyndebourne founder John Christie, but on relistening to her I find that she possessed a very fine soubrette voice, not at all third-rate or offensive. I’ve heard far worse on modern recordings of Mozart operas, Figaro and Don G included, and you can take that to the bank.

Not only were these the first complete recordings of any of the big three Mozart-da Ponte operas (although, technically speaking, Le Nozze di Figaro was more of an expanded highlights, with all of the dialogue omitted), but they set a standard that was hard to beat during the War Years and beyond until the late 1950s-early 1960s when conductors like Hans Rosbaud, Josef Krips, Carlo Maria Giulini and Colin Davis suddenly revived them with good recordings. (Of Karl Böhm I have little good to say; a superb Beethoven and Strauss conductor, he performed Mozart with a Romantic aesthetic and maddeningly draggy tempi.) More importantly, Busch, Christie, their artistic director Carl Ebert and general manager Rudolf Bing, firmly believed in ensemble casting, which led to perfectly-integrated performances—something the Metropolitan has yet to observe and Covent Garden, which employed a similar aesthetic in the 1950s and ‘60s, has since gotten away from. The exorbitantly high fees charged by quality singers, a jet-setting schedule, planning productions 8 to 10 years in advance and the rise of Crap Productions (Regietheater), have all contributed to the rotting decay that opera companies regularly throw on the stage and are pleased to call “challenging” productions.

At Glyndebourne, the base of the Mozart ensemble in the 1930s included seven key names: Mildmay, American soprano Ina Souez (who was one-quarter Cherokee Indian), Austrian soprano Luise Helletsgruber, Australian baritone John Brownlee, German baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (the father of the great mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender), British tenor Heddle Nash and Scottish baritone Roy Henderson. To these were added other Brits and Scots as needed (Norman Allin, Fergus Dunlop, David Franklin, Constance Willis, Winifred Radford, etc.) and as many “star” foreign singers as they could afford and were available and willing to buy into the concept, like Salvatore Baccaloni, a very young Italo Tajo, Koloman von Pataky, Irene Eisinger and Aulikki Rautavaara, the great Finnish soprano who was the mother of composer Einojuani Ratauvaara. This meant that sometimes you just had to bite the bullet and use who was available, which is why, for instance, we hear Henderson’s somewhat dry, oratorio-styled voice as Count Almaviva and Masetto and two different Dr. Bartolos (Tajo and Allin) in Nozze. By and large, however, Busch ran a tight ship, his philosophy was Mozart First, and the end result were performances that were amazingly modern for their time with little in the way of archness or constant rallentandos to suit prima donna singers. One need only compare Baccaloni’s Leporello here, for instance, to the one he did at the Met in 1943 under Paul Breisach, or Mildmay’s cleanly-sung Zerlina to the slop job done by Bidú Sayão in the same performance. Busch’s musical conception of Don Giovanni is in many ways the equal of that of Giulini and Colin Davis, no small feat in the depressed 1930s.

One feature of these performances that may irritate modern listeners is the use of a modern piano in place of a harpsichord (or period fortepiano) in the recitatives. Busch reportedly tried a harpsichord in rehearsals, but was dissatisfied with the instrument’s carrying power in live performance and didn’t want to put a microphone on it. (Fritz Reiner received criticism for doing the same thing in his Met performances of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in the early 1950s.) It doesn’t bother me too much because the piano is played crisply and cleanly, and the surrounding music is conducted at tempos very near those of historically-informed performances. Busch used a small orchestra, roughly corresponding to the one Mozart had, but used modern instruments. This doesn’t bother me either because of the wonderful transparency he achieved, although for some odd reason the bass always seemed to be a bit more thumping than it should have been.

Figaro is first up in this set, and despite the badly cut performance (a third of the opera is missing, including almost all recits), this is a wonderful performance that travels on fast feet. Busch zips through the overture à la Toscanini, one of his idols and a friend through his brother Adolf. Other critics have complained of Domgraf-Fassbaender’s Italian, particularly his singing “qvelle” in place of “quelle,” but this was a common feature of German, Austrian and Danish singers performing in Italian at the time and it doesn’t bother me quite so much. You have to remember, this was still smack in the middle of the era in which operas were sung in the vernacular of the country they were performing in, so many of these singers were used to performing their roles in German (or English). His voice was a very high, light, bright baritone (he sang the tenor role in a 1932 film version of Smetana’s Bartered Bride), quite different from the usual darker German baritones of the time. Audrey Mildmay had a very pleasant soubrette voice, well suited for Susanna, and she sings with pert liveliness. Busch pays particular attention to the light, feathery strings and the winds, with excellent results throughout. After “Se vuol ballare” we get Italo Tajo singing “La vendetta,” and very well, too. The Marcellina-Susanna duet also goes well, with Constance Willis surprisingly good in the former role, and Helletsgruber catches the breathless quality of “Non so più” fairly well. Here as elsewhere, Busch’s tempi are on the (proper) brisk side, quite different from the lethargic style popular in Germany and Austria from the 1910s into the ‘40s. In the quartet “Cosa sento,” we have the treat of hearing Heddle Nash, the finest light British tenor of his time, sing Don Basilio. Rautavaara’s rich, creamy voice is a special treat in the Countess’ music, although her “Porgi amor” is one of the few draggy spots in the music. (By the way, the score indicates “Andante” in 2/4 time, yet many conductors, even into the 1990s, seemed to think it was in 4/4 and so conducted it too slowly.) Unlike the rest of this set, where the background is fairly quiet. most of the Nozze 78 sides presented here still have excessive surface noise. I recommend filtering them with a good audio editor. Towards the end, we hit the one bad spot: “Deh’ vieni non tardar” is taken very “tardar,” at a snail’s pace in fact which causes Helletsgruber to nearly run out of breath in spots.

Brownlee as Giovanni

Brownlee as Don Giovanni

By contrast the Don Giovanni, though recorded complete, is somewhat uneven. The individual performances are consistently solid if not always imaginative. Brownlee’s Don Giovanni will stand up to anyone’s, Baccaloni was a great Leporello, Mildmay an appropriately pert Zerlina, and although Souez failed to sound properly frantic in her opening scene, she sang the living crap out of “Or sai chi l’onore” (but her runs were surprisingly sloppy in “Non mi dir”). Helletsgruber’s Donna Elvira doesn’t match the frantic tone of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Kiri te Kanawa, but is sung well. Von Pataky sings a fine “Dalla sua pace,” but “Il mio tesoro” is too slow, forcing him to take two breaths in the long run on “tornar.” The chorus sounds odd, as if Busch only had half the forces he needed for certain numbers. The bottom line is that, as an ensemble, they’re as good if not better than anything you’ll get nowadays if not as good as the greatest recordings (Davis and Riccardo Muti) of the past. The superb detail and clockwork execution Busch draws from them in the Act I finale, though lacking some fire, is clean and taken at the right fast pace, but here as elsewhere the cast as a whole occasionally forgets to interpret because they’re so wrapped up in the technical aspects of the music.

Saving the best for last, we move on to Così fan Tutte. Always the stepchild of the Mozart-da Ponte collaboration, it has suffered in reputation because it demeans the women members of the cast, showing them to be shallow, gullible and easily fooled in love. But what is often missed in Così is that Ferrando and Guglielmo are also pretty shallow young men, in the end nearly as dopey as their girlfriends, and more importantly, Despina is not portrayed as stupid. On the contrary, she’s as sharp a tack as Don Alfonso, easily able to see through the lovers’ foreign disguises and equally adept at fooling the women into thinking she’s a doctor just because she wears a hat, false beard and glasses and carries a medicine bag. The key to understanding Così is that it shows that protected, white, upper-class women are the dummies. All of da Ponte’s libretti are about the upper class behaving badly; Ferrando and Guglielmo just act a little more shamelessly than most of the others, and they neither apologize nor get punished for it.

Souez

Ina Souez

This is, far and away, the finest performance of the three da Ponte recordings. Its only real drawback is that Souez didn’t have a really good trill, though she did do her best at the end of “Per pieta.” Given only 40 78-rpm sides on which to record it, Busch was forced to dispense with a little of the dialogue (but not most of it) and four numbers from Act II: Ferrando’s arias “Ah, lo veggio” and “Tradito, schernito,” Dorabella’s aria “E amore un ladroncello,” and an ensemble scene, “Come tutto congiura…Non c’e altro.” But I’ve always felt, as have some other perceptive critics, that Così’s second act isn’t nearly as strong or inventive as the first. Having come up with miracle after miracle in the first act (none finer than the exquisite trio “Soave sia il vento”), he found himself struggling to keep up this high level in the second act, where the action is much more stationary and aria follows aria follows duet follows trio. Nonetheless, had EMI been generous enough to allow only two more records (four sides), we would have had it complete, but this was the Depression and Così was relatively unpopular.

Yet what a great performance this is! Everyone sounds like a “character” and not like a singer singing music, which is often what you get nowadays, and this is especially true of the two “devils” who initiate this crazy masquerade, Don Alfonso (Brownlee) and Despina (sung by the fantastic German-Jewish soubrette Irene Eisinger). Nowadays the trend is to cast lyric sopranos as Despina (Teresa Stratas under Alain Lombard, Marie McLaughlin under James Levine, Nancy Argenta under Sigiswald Kuijken, Graciela Oddone under René Jacobs) which doesn’t make them sound different from Fiordiligi, and in addition they don’t sound very funny. Eisinger is not only bright-voiced and pert but a laugh riot, chuckling her way through the Act I ensembles and “In uomini, in soldati,” and acting up a storm with her mock-serious “doctor” voice in both acts. Heddle Nash, the quintessential British lyric tenor from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s, had a voice that sounds a bit unusual to modern ears because he brought his head voice down pretty far into his range, at least as far as the break around E-F-F#. A friend of mine goes further, claiming that Nash constantly sang in falsetto. It’s not falsetto. The old Italian singing method, which Nash learned from Giuseppe Borgatti in Italy, placed the upper voice at a spot just above the nasal cavities and between the eyebrows. They called it “aperto ma coperto,” or “in the dome of the head.” The one drawback was that constant use of this technique could color the voice to sound a bit nasal, and this is what one hears in Nash’s singing (particularly on the Italian “soft e” vowels, which here sound like the letter A). It is, nonetheless, a very pretty nasal sound, and he was a first-class musician who stuck to the score and always gave you what the composer wrote. He’s also a surprisingly lively Ferrando, as is his sidekick Domgraf-Fassbaender. Souez is undoubtedly the strongest-voiced Fiordiligi I’ve ever heard; I think she might have been performing this role and Donna Anna at about the same time, because she definitely has some of the latter’s gutsy sound in her singing. Add it all up, and despite the cuts noted above (and the use of a piano for the recitatives), this is absolutely the best Così fan Tutte ever recorded. Now that the sound has been improved, it goes straight to the top as the preferred version on records (yes, even better than René Jacobs, though his is the finest of the complete modern recordings).

After spending a decade away from Glyndebourne, which was closed from 1939 to 1945, Busch returned in 1950. The later excerpts from Così feature a young Richard Lewis as Ferrando, Erich Kunz as Guglielmo, Sena Jurinac as Fiordiligi, Blanche Thebom as Dorabella, Mario Borriello as Don Alfonso and Alda Noni as Despina. It’s very well-sung, Busch’s tempi are virtually the same as in 1934-35, but except for a bunch of chuckles from Lewis and Kunz, the performance sounds more studied, like so many modern recordings of the opera, and not nearly as involved or funny. It’s the difference of hearing what resembles a live performance (1935) and a run-through rehearsal (1950). The performance doesn’t fly on light feet; it plods. Only Jurinac’s “Come scoglio” sounds really involved. In “Per pietà,” Jurinac’s lack of a really good low range rather defeats her performance, the whole point of this aria being to show off the singer’s wide range (it was written for Mozart’s sister-in-law, who had a truly phenomenal three-octave voice). Lewis sounds simply awful in “Fra gli amplessi,” as if he had a bad cold and couldn’t get the voice loose.

Following the official recorded excerpts are some tracks taken from rehearsals. These aren’t much more than a curiosity. The singers are out of synch on “Dunque fa’ un po’.” Jurinac sounds badly tentative in “Per pieta,” and the horns play wrong notes. You can, however, hear Busch admonish the orchestra, telling them at one point to “even it out a little bit,” so that in itself is somewhat valuable. If anything, Lewis sounds even sicker here than in “Fra gli amplessi.”

The 1951 excerpts from Idomeneo, an opera virtually unknown in those days, have frustrated collectors for years because the alternate Elettra in the cast was a young Birgit Nilsson, who did not record a single note. Here, the role is sung by the first-cast soprano, one Dorothy McNeil—and we don’t get much of her, thank goodness, because her voice is wan and pallid, about as interesting as a bowl of cold oatmeal. Overall, however, the intensity level of this performance is unquestioned; this is Busch at his best, conducting it as if it were Gluck. Ironically, Jurinac sounds much more comfortable as well as much more involved in the music of Ilia, even singing much better trills in “Padre, germani, addio!” Lewis too, is more involved with the drama, and sings a fine crescendo in “Vedrommi intorno,” but all of the runs and trills were cut out of “Fuor del mar.” The complete recording of this opera was made at Glyndebourne six years later, again with Lewis as Idomeneo and Jurinac as Ilia, but with Leopold Simoneau as Idamante and the fantastic Lucille Udovich as Elettra. The conductor, however, was John Pritchard, a wet noodle if there ever was one (the chorus in particular sounds anemic compared to these Busch excerpts), thus the opera continued to languish in international attention for another couple of decades.

The set ends with an oddity, a snippet of spoken dialogue entitled “Grosser Zarastro” from Die Zauberflöte. The speaker is Carl Ebert, Glyndebourne’s first stage director.

The question, then, is how valuable is this set to modern ears? I would say considerably so for Busch’s unique vision of Mozart in his time, particularly for the complete Così fan Tutte, most of Figaro and Idomeneo, and at least some portions of Don Giovanni. But even if you only buy it for the Così it’s a pretty good bargain, selling on Amazon for a mere $21.54, far cheaper than the more modern Jacobs recording.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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