Anubis, Judge of the Dead, is likely to take a lively interest in Herbie in the Afterlife. Sure, he committed a couple of bloopers back in the Nineteen Thirties but they are dwarfed by an atrocity which he perpetuated for decades and whose fall-out lingers to this day: his decision to underwrite the artistic aspirations of his wife. For shame, Herbie! For shame! Less than a week ago, I came across another 'Blue Slosh' etude from the 1989 Karajan Edition: it wrecked my day.
Some would add Herbie's 1949 Le Nozze di Figaro to the ledger on the debit side. It has a near-perfect cast but the performance is marred by his headlong speeds and heartlessness in general. As an astute member of the Australian Kna Association observed to me, Herbie's allegiances clearly lie with `Upstairs' rather than `Downstairs' and that in turn leads to other affiliations ! Attention, attention: Security, remove Doctor Strangelove from the studio! Ooophs, sorry Herbie: I didn't realise it was you!
Anyone who indulges in polemics on Amazon will know that Richard Osborne of Gramophone fame is a dangerous ally to have. In his dotage, he now praises Norrington in Bruckner . . . . . He also served as Herbie's Court-Biographer. When he breaks ranks to criticise one of the Sun-King's recordings, he is usually to be trusted. He dismisses the 1977 re-make on the grounds that it too mechanical and rushed. In principle, I am prepared to believe him and all the more so as the Penguin Guide said as much too. Yeah, I need to hear it for myself but it can wait.
What a joy it is to find this live performance, recorded in parallel with the 1977 studio recording. Here is the CD description from UK Amazon:
Above all, this performance radiates a deep-set joy in Mozart's creation. Ever so thankfully, Herbie eases up on the accelerator. It is worlds away from the heartlessness of 1949. Even if the "Via, resti servita" here is just as fast as its predecessor, it's more relaxed and loving. The Vienna Philharmonic in it operatic guise adds lustre to proceedings. Its accompaniment to Non più andrai is thrilling.
Ileana Cotrubas and Frederica von Stade, both deified, are the prides of the fleet. Could one argue that these roles have never been performed with such aplomb? Arguably, the answer is "not no". Listen to Susannah's "Giunse alfin il momento - Deh, vieni, non tardar": I have never heard it sung so magically - and Herbie's accompaniment is wondrous. Richard Strauss spoke glowingly of Mozart's endless melody in Voi Che Sapete; as sung like this, I could hear it endlessly. Both singers ply their craft so effortlessly: it's art hiding art.
The remainder of the cast is very good without being outstanding. Tom Krause sings well as the Count and sounds predatory enough but the Mister Upstairs has many a "ring on his gun barrel": I cannot hear much eroticism on his part, especially in "Crudel! Perché finora". Jose van Dam rarely disappoints but just as rarely excites. If you want Marcellina to be a hoary old bag, they don't come any better than Jane Berbié.
As always, we need to talk about Anna Tomowa-Sintow. What is it about her timbre that makes her voice half-palatable? I have never warmed to it. While she excels in the recitatives, her vibrato is so wide throughout Porgi Amor as to nullify her diction completely; what in the hell is she singing? Tomowa-Sintow is also responsible for the another blip: Sull'aria...che soave zeffiretto. Hardness of tone is conjugal with a lack of serenity. It's not the equal of the Bohm account with Janowitz and Mathis, Cotrubas' contribution notwithstanding.
Considering this is a live performance from 1977, the (stereo) sound is exemplary. Better still, not once did my infamous Herbie Soup-o-Meter beep; it is more evidence that Karajan was his own worst enemy in the recording studio.
All in all, this is stupendous performance of Figaro. To think that Herbie had it in him!
Anubis is inexorable in his judgements. Will redemption be forthcoming Herbie's way? Who knows? This much one can say: as the balance of the Jackal-God finds its equilibrium, this endeavour is not going to hurt his cause.
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