Studio recording made at Kingsway Hall, London on June 21-23 and June 25-29, 1956. Originally issued by EMI on Lps in 1957.
The booklet accompanying this issue has this to say: "This recording was made in 1956 in the early days of stereo. As a consequence, the listener may notice some slight technical flaws that derive from the original tapes." This set was digitally remastered in 1999 with considerable success. Audiophiles who spend far more time listening to hisses and joins than they do to performances may cavil, but it sounds fine to me.
SIR JOHN FALSTAFF - Tito Gobbi
FORD (AKA SIGNOR FONTANA) - Rolando Panerai
ALICE FORD - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
NANETTA FORD - Anna Moffo
MEG PAGE - Nan Merriman
MISTRESS QUICKLY - Fedora Barbieri
FENTON - Luigi Alva
DR. CAJUS - Tomaso Spataro
BARDOLFO - Renato Ercolani
PISTOLA - Nicola Zaccaria.
Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus.
Disk 1 - Act I, Part One, tracks 1-4; Act I, Part Two, tracks 5-12; Act II, Part One, tracks 13-20;55:04. Disk 2 - Act II, Part Two, tracks 1-10; Act III, Part One, tracks 11-16; Act III, Part Two, tracks 17-26; 64:38.
~ Libretto in German, Italian, English and French.
~ Short synopsis of the plot.
~ Photographs of the conductor (of course!) and the principal singers.
~ Track list that identifies characters singing, provides timings and the page of the libretto on which the text is to be found.
~ A brief history of the opera and a gush of adulation for von Karajan contributed by Richard Osborne. (Not recommended for readers who must control the sugar in their diet.)
Let me be up front with this: I consider "Falstaff" to be one of the two greatest operas ever written. I am fully aware that it is not and has never been especially popular with audiences and I think that a dirty rotten shame.
This is far and away the best stereo "Falstaff." No subsequently recorded Jack Falstaff approached Gobbi in the part: Taddei in Karajan's second stereo version was caught too late in his career; Terfel lost the character amid the mugging; Evans was good but no match for Gobbi in either voice or style; Fischer-Dieskau was inherently mismatched and miscast in Italian opera.
No subsequent recording musters an ensemble of singers that even comes close to the 1956 cast assembled by producer Walter Legge. Beside the extraordinary Gobbi were the equally impressive Panerai as Ford and Anna Moffo as Nanetta Ford. Luigi Alva was certainly one of the best light tenors of the day. Merriman was an old pro as Meg Page, having served under Toscanini in the same role. Barbieri was a tremendous Mistress Quickly. Her hilarious variations on the greeting, "Reverenza," ring in the mind. Schwarzkopf was an exquisite and sharp-witted Alice Ford.
Legge and von Karajan put in a great deal of time and work into preparation of this performance and it all appears in the sound of the set. Seldom has any conductor achieved such accuracy and unanimity of purpose. The Philharmonia Orchestra was at its peak of prowess and sounds tremendous.
All these things fully justify a five star rating.
That said, I feel bound to point out that while Karajan's 1956 recording is the best stereo performance, it is not the best recorded performance. Karajan's handling of any opera always requires something of an acquired taste. The ensemble is good but not perfect. Alva was a fine technician but he lacked fire. Cesare Valetti would have been preferable and Ferruccio Tagliavini better yet. Schwarzkopf, Walter Legge's wife, was wonderful, but no-one would ever mistake her for a true Italian soprano or a natural Verdian. Tebaldi was tied to rival Decca Records and therefore unavailable, but there were other full-voiced sopranos at the time, such as Antonietta Stella or Caterina Mancini. Or Callas.
The best performance is Toscanini's 1950 mono version with Giuseppe Valdengo as the Fat Knight. (Some would argue that Toscanini's pre-war "Falstaff" is better still, but time and recording technology put that one out of the running as far as I am concerned.) Toscanini's cast is very nearly a match for Karajan's and his earthy, fiery conducting makes Herr Doktor K's seem restrained and over-refined.
A 1949 performance, in mono naturally, has strong claim to be regarded as at least an equal of the 1956 Karajan. It was led by Mario Rossi, a conductor who could find the fun in the score that sometimes eluded Karajan. It's excellent all-Italian cast included the Falstaff of the young Giuseppe Taddei, who understood the character as well as Gobbi and possessed a better singing voice.