Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791): Die Zauberflote
A Singspiel in two acts (K620), to a libretto by EmanuelSchikaneder
This historic version of Die Zauberflote was originally made on37 78rpm sides in November 1937 and February/March 1938. It was the opera'sfirst complete recording, issued by HMV as the fourth work in the Mozart OperaSociety series. Its three predecessors in that series - Le nozze di Figaro,Cosi fan tutte and Don Giovanni - had all been made at the recentlyfounded Glyndebourne Festival and were conducted by Fritz Busch. Plans werealready afoot in the summer of 1937 to record Die Zauberflote with thosesame forces when the project was abruptly cancelled. It was not until thefollowing November that John Christie, founder of Glyndebourne, realised why SirThomas Beecham had been invited to record the opera with the BerlinPhilharmonic and several soloists from the Berlin Staatsoper instead.
Christie's fury at this change of plan abated when he eventually heard Beecham'ssuperb interpretation for himself, one which has remained a classic, andagainst which newer versions are invariably compared.
The recording, made in the fine acoustic of Berlin's Beethovensaal, appears to havebeen more difficult to complete than the artists expected. Beecham returned to Germany in the late winter of1938 to continue what he had clearly hoped to finish three months earlier. Eventhen, he had to leave again before a successful 'take' of the Queen's aria 'Ozittre nicht' (CD I track 5) could be made. It was finally recorded on 8thMarch, conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winkler, but the performance is certainlynone the worse for his four minute contribution. No dialogue was included, and inthat respect it differs from many modern versions; but with the set alreadyrunning to nineteen 12" records, stored in four albums, to have added moremust have been considered far too weighty.
If it is Beecham's participation in the recording that makes it hors concours,the contributions of the singers must certainly not be underestimated. It issometimes suggested that political considerations were a factor in theselection of the cast and that some more celebrated or experienced singers mightotherwise have been chosen to take part. Even if this were so, it would havebeen difficult to better the list of names that can here be heard at the peakof their powers. Lemnitz is a melting Pamina, her shimmering soprano ideal inits purity for the role. Roswaenge is heavier of voice than some of his fellowTaminos, but he displays the elegant ability to combine power with gentlenessand gives a masterful performance. What a lovable birdcatcher is Gerhard Husch'sPapageno. He springs right out of the grooves to address us face to face - whata way with words he has, what a friend he is! As Queen of the Night, ErnaBerger displays her brilliant coloratura to great advantage, even if her timbreis more girlish than the wicked monarch deserves; but how good it is to hearthis testing music sung so purely and accurately.
Wilhelm Strienz sings with noble gravity and wisdom. George Bernard Shawsaid of him 'With this young singer we have found a Sarastro who is not only ableto convey the music of Mozart but he is also the divine in word'* And on thestrength of this recording Strienz was engaged to sing the role during Covent Garden's1938 season.
At the heart of this venture, though, is Sir Thomas. It is his
interpretation that still makes this such an important operatic document; his
understanding of 'the Mozart style' and his inspiration to the singersand orchestral players. Notwithstanding the contributions of all the othermusicians involved and the technical skill of HMV's engineers, this recordingwill always, and rightly, be remembered as 'Beecham's Zauberflote'.
* Quoted in The Record Collector March 1990
Die Zauberflote was first performed at the Theater auf der Wieden, Vienna on 30th September, 1791.
(including a summary of the omitted dialogue)
The Overture opens with a series of chords, to which three trombones addritual solemnity. The slow introduction is followed by a rapid fugal movement, openedby the second violins. Its progress is interrupted by the threefold repetitionof three further solemn chords, before the development of the fugal material ofthe Allegro.
The scene is a rocky landscape. Tamino, in Japanese hunting dress, comes downfrom a rock, carrying a bow, but no arrows. He is pursued by a serpent andcalls for help, as the serpent is about to seize him. Three Ladies, carryingsilver javelins, hurry in, as Tamino falls unconscious at their feet. They killthe monster and vie in admiration for the young man before them. News of hispresence must be taken to their mistress, the Queen of the Night, and each inturn expresses a desire to stay with Tamino, while the others go to the Queen.
As Tamino comes to his senses and wonders where he is, the Ladies go. The soundof a pipe is heard.
Papageno, the bird-catcher, comes down the footpath, a curious figure, clad infeathers. He carries a cage on his back, with various birds, and sings and playsthe panpipes. His song tells of his life as a bird-catcher, well known toeveryone, but wishing he could catch girls and then exchange some for sugar,before settling on one as his companion. (In the following dialogue Taminoanswers Papageno's questions about his identity as the son of a prince andPapageno himself boasts that he has killed the serpent and rescued Tamino. Sucha lie cannot be tolerated and the three Ladies return, bringing Papageno asuitable reward, water instead of wine, a stone instead of sugar-bread and,instead of figs, a golden padlock to close his mouth. The third Lady tellsTamino that it was they who saved him and gives him a portrait of the great Queen'sdaughter, Pamina; if the picture pleases him, he shall have fortune andhonour.)
Tamino is bewitched by the portrait and falls in love with the girl thereportrayed. (The three Ladies return and tell him that the Queen has heard hiswords and if he is as brave as he is handsome, her daughter will certainly besaved from the wicked being who holds her captive. Tamino is horrified, butthunder is heard as the Queen of the Night approaches.)  The mountains