As the opening chords of the overture are so reminiscent of the start of "Così", that might raise the question of whether, as many now believe, this is as great a work. As the reassessment and popularity of "La clemenza di Tito" continues, it is only natural to look again at previous recordings. Nothing in my recent survey of several shakes my loyalty primarily to the stupendous, star-spangled studio recording by Colin Davis in 1976 with Janet Baker as a fire-eating Vitellia in the lead role; just behind that comes the live Covent Garden performance from the same year conducted by John Pritchard also starring Baker.
However, depending on your taste in voices, a couple of others can legitimately claim our attention: the Decca studio recording by Kertesz in 1967, which won plaudits, acclaim and awards, especially in France, and the 1978 studio recording from DG conducted by Karl Böhm. Let me declare my prejudices straight away by saying that I have never warmed to Peter Schreier's nasal, constricted tenor and this rules out that set for me, for all that I really esteem and enjoy Julia Varady's splendidly vocalised Vitellia, Edith Mathis's sweet, bell-voiced Servilia and Teresa Berganza repeating her estimable Sesto. Furthermore, Böhm's conducting is considerably more driven and propulsive than that of Kertesz and even the potentially tedious recitatives have more bounce and life - except in Tito's arias, which are taken at lugubrious speeds. It must also be said that Berganza is not in such fresh voice as she was over ten years earlier; the tone is a little worn at times, despite her patrician singing. Add to the mix a dull, plummy Annio with indistinct enunciation and an absurdly wobbly Publio from favourite son of Dresden Theo Adam and this recoding begins to look less attractive. Even the formidable Varady, for all her prowess in coloratura and venomous lower register, is less visceral than Janet Baker in full cry.
So is Kertesz preferable? The recitativo is more savagely cut in this recording but still rather dull and heavy-footed. Kertesz's conducting in general is, for a celebrated exponent of Mozart, well - rather genteel, although the ensembles go with more of a swing. I enjoy Maria Casula's slightly matronly Vitellia more than previous reviewers; she is rich-voiced with a fast vibrato, also copes well with the divisions and has a strong lower register but her "Vengo, aspettate" isn't a patch on Baker's, who gives us real highlight in that explosive aria. The Tito, too, is rather too much of a milksop but the role is neatly sung by Werner Krenn. Both Lucia Popp and Brigitte Fassbaender are occasionally in rather tremulous voice but both are lovely of tone; the latter is especially ardent in "Tu fosti tradito". The younger Berganza is velvety but a tad anonymous, and as Sesto has more than anyone to sing in this opera, strong characterisation is important. The playing from the VPO is of course lovely, especially the clarinet solo in "Parto". To complete a pair of duds as Publio, Tugomir France is lumpy and potato-mouthed, spoiling the Terzetto.
In short, for all their selective merits, especially Berganza and Varady, neither set really challenges the supremacy of Colin Davis's terrific Philips version.
on 19 June 2013
Heresy is afoot in Melbourne. Yes, the Australian Kna Association - executive and rank & file alike - is infected with K 621-itis. What is its main symptom? Strident and hyperbolic claims that La Clemenza di Tito, more on account of its music than dramaturgy, is the second greatest opera written by Mozart (with Don Giovanni or Figaro being ranked above it according to taste). Others - who know their stuff - have greeted this news with dismay, citing silliness on the part of the AKA. Perhaps it is time the Australian Kna Association moved to a new location for its infamous lunchtime gatherings; one could argue that Hanoi Jane's Maximum Stress Relief Centre is not conducive to reason as a venue.
Whatever one thinks of the music, Sir Colin Davis' performance of La Clemenza di Tito from 1976 is one of the ten greatest recordings ever made in Mozart discography - period. Indeed, it has acted as Round-Up on the (worthy) opposition ever since. I was exceedingly glad when Uncle Karl's 1979 performance of K 621 came into orbit. The Silver Medal is up for grabs.
If one of the hallmarks of Davis' performance is the imperious thrust of the music-making, Uncle Karl is more genial but not to the point of being torpid. "Del più sublime soglio" is the only instance where I thought to myself: geez, Uncle Karl is slow - and even then, it's beautifully sustained by Schreier. Speaking of which, I am no great fan of the German tenor. This is certainly one of his strongest performances. Could one suggest that the phonetics of Italian are better suited to his timbre than German? The grit in the voice is far less evident than usual.
I like having a soprano in the role of Vitellia. Even if she falls short of Dame Janet Baker's stupendous characterisation, Julia Varady sings ever so lustrously. Her "Non più di fiori" is a joy.
Theo Adam warrants deification. Who else can sing two notes at the same time? His wobble is so accentuated, one could almost park a cement-mixer therein. Will we ever understand why he features in so many of Bohm's recordings? Man, he must have had some dirt on Uncle Karl, like some photos from the All Gods are Dead Pool-Party. This is arguably Big Theo's worst recording - and that is saying something. He must have been aware of Tugomir Franc's woeful rendition in Kertesz's performance; come this endeavour, it was time to reassert the natural order of things. Listen to him in Che Mi Rechi in Quel Foglio: what does he have in his mouth? Evocative of Florence Foster Jenkins as it is, one can only admire his artistry in Tardi S'Avvede: Opera Seria becomes Opera Buffo. He also does his best to derail the great ensemble of "Quello di Tito è il volto!" Bravo Big Theo!
The forty one year old Edith Mathis sings her guts out as Sevilia. How lambent she is in "S'altro che lagrime" (and in passing, its opening bars are akin to Ave Verum Corpus). Berganza adds to the allure of the set. Schmidl is serviceable as Annio and no more.
The Dresden Staatskapelle plays with immense tonal allure. What an orchestra! What strings! Indeed, the Imperial March before the Second Act Finale is a lesson in majesty.
Overall, I enjoyed this traversal of La Clemenza di Tito. It is thoroughly musical and brings the cardboard-ish characters to life. Even Uncle Theo is fascinating in his own way. The DG analogue recording is commendable with one exception: the chorus is recessed in the Finale of the Second Act and catastrophically so. Likewise, the DG engineers fail to capture the trombones in the final bars which Davis nukes.
Overall, this could warrant the Silver Medal. But will no-one ever displace Sir Colin from his perch?