A set of vital tunes
It was Walter Legge who claimed that `Great conductors of Johann Strauss and the best Lehar are rarer than men who can squeeze out the face-flannels of Mahler's exhibitionistic self-pity.' He was in a posi- tion to know. In 1953, and again in 1962, he. produced recordings of Lehtir's The Meny Widow that not only saw off the mot- ley band of contemporary rivals but also frightened away would-be competitors for several decades to come.
But why stop at Strauss and Lehar? Gen- uinely stylish direction of the comic operas of Offenbach, Sullivan and Rossini is just as hard to come by nowadays, especially on record where the conducting is often fea- tureless and over-quick, the diction mousey, the recorded sound hlowzily approximate.
Teldec's new recording of Rossini's La Cenerentola is a case in point. It has a gen-
erally first-rate cast. Yet compare it to the famous old Glyndebourne set, recorded in mono in the same Abbey Road studios hack in 1953, and you immediately notice the superiority of the older version: the dic- tion sharper, the recording more intimate. Above all, the conductor Vittorio Gui knows how to pace the comedy and pay out the rhythms in a way which allows his singers time to phrase the music and inflect the text. Teldec's Carlo Rizzi is an efficient accompanist but there is a uniform grey- ness about his conducting that is rein- forced, paradoxically, by his predilection for tempos that veer between the precipi- tate and the halting. Even the scene of Magnifico's investiture as superintendent of the wine glasses seems strangely teetotal alongside the unbuttoned carousings of Gui and Ian Wallace on the old Glynde- bourne set.
Yet all is not lost. With the daffodils barely in bloom, 1995 has already produced two operetta recordings that look like becoming classics in their own right: a new PinaJOre conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc CD-80374) and a won- derfully echt-wienerisch account of The Meny Widow directed, of all people, by John Eliot Gardiner (Deutsche Gram- mophon 439 911-2).
I have always had a particular fondness for H.M.S. Pinafore. Like Verdi's 11 trova- lore whose plot it partly parodies, it is tremendously vital and packed to the gun- wales with good tunes. Mackerras is an even better G. and S. man than the late Sir Malcolm Sargent; the recording is (for once) needle-sharp and the cast couldn't he bettered. The veteran Donald Adams gives a superb portrayal of the curmudgeonly Dick Deadeye. Thomas Allen, no less, is Captain Corcoran and Richard Suart makes a splendidly crisp Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., the landlubber First Lord of the Admiralty who Gilbert always denied was a send-up of Disraeli's appointee W.H. Smith.
Though I would not willingly part with the first of Legge's two recordings of The Meny Widow, the one conducted by Otto Ackermann with Erich Kunz playing Dani- lo to Schwarzopf's Hannah Glawari (EMI CDH 69520-2), even that is now challenged by the new DG set. The DG cast has a pre- dictably international feel to it. The Widow is American, Cheryl Studer, the Danilo is Danish (though Vienna-based). But it is the pairing of orchestra and conductor that sets the pulse racing. In the blue corner we have the Vienna Philharmonic, the ulti- mate Lehar pit band making its debut (would you believe it?) in this work on record. In the red corner, an English gen- tleman farmer who also happens to he one of the most protean conducting talents of our age, and a dab hand at operetta.
Gardiner can he ruthless. His recent set of the Beethoven symphonies with the peri- od instruments of the Orchestre Revolu- tionnaire et Romantique has more than a touch of Jacobin fanaticism about it. But his Mozart is much admired, even in Vien- na where his conducting evokes memories of the late Josef Krips, chief architect of the great Mozart ensembles of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In The Meny Widow Gardiner quickens the Vienna Philharmonic into life. Rather than indulging it, which would he fatal, he cajoles and provokes it. And it is a game it clearly relishes. The set is a miracle of clear texturing, witty orchestral detailing, and sly rhythmic pointing. Not since Sir Thomas Beecham recorded The Magic Flute with the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin in 1938 has an English conductor abroad had so singular an operatic triumph as this.