Notes and Editorial Reviews
Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond; Ramón Vinay (
); Dragica Martinis (
); Paul Schöffler (
); Vienna PO; Vienna St Op Ch
ORFEO 880132, mono (2 CDs: 149:24) Live: Salzburg Festival 8/7/1951
This recorded performance has been reviewed before in
, most recently by Barry Brenesal in 36:4, and by me in 19:4 and 14:1. My review in 19:1 and Brenesal’s both go into some details about the felicities of this performance, so I will begin by focusing here on this transfer. In a word, it is miraculous.
Until now, the best transfer has been available on EMI in its
series (5 65751 2), and that is certainly listenable. But it is somewhat cramped and harsh sounding, and now we get a version on Orfeo that almost sounds as good as a professional studio recording from 1951, with no distortion and a warm, natural orchestral and vocal sound. Only the fact that the singers keep changing their positions on the stage and thus move in and out of focus is a cause of frustration, and frankly it is a very mild frustration. I was very curious as to why there is this degree of improvement over EMI’s issue, since both were supervised by the same man: Professor Gottfried Kraus (who also supervised the excellent Orfeo set of Furtwängler broadcasts recently reissued). I assumed that a better source had become available (the notes for the EMI set indicate that the original master tapes have been lost). I wrote to Kraus, and he kindly responded. I quote part of his response here: “… unfortunately there exists no better source than the only one we had—in 1995 as well as now. The original tapes of Rotweissrot don’t exist any more, what we have in the Salzburg archive is a copy of the line-recorded tape from the RIAS archive. What’s really better now than it was at the first time we did the digital remastering is the huge improvement of technology and the rich experience Eichinger and I have meanwhile in our restoring work.”
It was very surprising to me to learn that so much improvement could be made by the same team of engineers, working with the same source, over a 20-year period. One must praise Kraus and his team for their dedication to this, and their refusal to be satisfied with what they had done in the past. Anyone who has enjoyed and admired this performance will need to get this version, and anyone who has found it difficult to listen to because of the sonic limitations may now re-evaluate the performance.
Many have compared this with the famed Toscanini recording, particularly since both use the Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay in the title role. Brenesal and I both find Vinay more effective here because the conductor gives him some space to work with. There is no denying the drive and once-in-a-lifetime intensity of the Toscanini version, but for me it has always seemed a bit too driven, lacking in the degree of variety of color and mood that conductors like Levine and Furtwängler have found in the score. Furtwängler makes many dramatic points by emphasizing harmonic or coloristic shifts in the orchestra, and never in a way that disrupts the flow or calls attention to itself. Never before has Furtwängler’s careful attention to orchestral color and balance in this performance been as evident as it is here because of the quality of this transfer.
Since Furtwängler determined to perform the opera in Italian at Salzburg in 1951 (a daring and even controversial decision), one might wish he had cast singers more comfortable in the language and style in the other roles. (This is not meant for Vinay, an experienced and truly great Otello). Neither Schöffler nor Martinis are ideally suited for their important roles, and it would have been revelatory to hear some great Italian singers working in conjunction with Furtwängler in those roles. However, neither damages the performance in any important way. With Schöffler it is largely a matter of vocal color (which prevents him from really conveying Iago’s sinister nature) and a lack of comfort with the shape of the Verdi phrase; with Martinis it is perhaps more a matter of experience, as she was just establishing herself (and never really did become a major artist). She is at her best in the last act, with a lovely Willow Song and Ave Maria.
But the strength of this performance is the conducting. That strength, the raw power of the conducting and the mastery of the dramatic underpinnings of Verdi’s writing, have never come through on prior releases with the impact they do here. Orfeo provides a very informative essay setting the context for this performance, and a synopsis, though no libretto.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel