Your Recorded Heritage: Mozart
This article initiates an ongoing series focusing on singers who flourished pre-1960. One listens to singers of the past not to copy, but for enjoyment, inspiration, and food for thought. Ignoring great recorded singing is like an actor ignoring now-legendary documented performances of Laurence Olivier or Katharine Hepburn. In other words, you miss out on your heritage. Fortunately for us, the singing of historically-important artists on disc is there for the taking. Voices readers need little assistance to locate recordings highlighting today’s greats, but perhaps the information included here will prompt you to investigate those of an earlier vintage. We’ll proceed through the repertoire composer by composer, beginning with Mozart. I remind you that these are the choices of only one listener, chosen from a field of extraordinary richness.
Virtually at the beginning of recorded Mozart stands Lilli Lehmann, who recorded Entführung, Figaro, and Don Giovanni arias in her late fifties, back in 1906-7. How astonishing that, after nearly four decades of constant performing, she could exhibit such command of “Ach, ich liebte”: coloratura splendidly articulated, phrasing clean, musical understanding complete. A vulnerable and touching Konstanze she’s not, but her sheer vocal authority is undeniable.
Among singers of her time, Lehmann was an exception in that her Mozart style would pass muster today. In those early years, it wasn’t unusual to encounter the liberties of a Maria Galvany (the most outrageous of all Queens of the Night) or a Mattia Battistini (the matchless bel canto baritone drowns Don Giovanni’s serenade in a sea of Bellinian portamento). After several decades of comparative neglect, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (founded 1934) and the Vienna Staatsoper’s postwar ensemble helped to restore the operatic Mozart’s fortunes. With those companies’ leading artists, style developed out of all recognition.
Glyndebourne’s earliest seasons featured the American Ina Souez. Her Fiordiligi and especially Donna Anna provided a superb combination of vocal substance, dramatic vividness, and unusual security throughout the fearsome range of these roles. Postwar Glyndebourne boasted the exquisite Yugoslav Sena Jurinac. She was both Elvira and Anna, first Dorabella and later Fiordiligi, Cherubino, and then the Countess. Her most ravishing Mozart portrayal, Ilia in Idomeneo, will never be surpassed for shining vocalism, pearly legato, and incomparable naturalness. Jurinac’s was perhaps the most beautiful voice heard in the Vienna Staatsoper’s Mozart of the late 1940s and early 1950s, where Lisa della Casa, Hilde Gueden, Irmgard Seefried, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf also demonstrated similar musicality, tonal smoothness, and interpretive intelligence.
The Metropolitan Opera had the peerless Eleanor Steber, who shone there in six Mozart roles, beginning in 1941. In her complete Così (in English) as well as her Mozart arias recorded with Bruno Walter, the colorful timbre and limitless technique are put to noble expressive purposes. Of the same era at the Met was the Brazilian Bidú Sayão, whose smallness of voice did not interfere with her ability to communicate a character’s essence. Susanna’s and Zerlina’s music were ideal vehicles for her immense charm, as well as her crystalline (but never cloying) purity of voice.
As recently as half a century ago, a “Mozart mezzo” was hardly encountered, particularly with Così, Clemenza, and Idomeneo still comparatively rare and Cherubino frequently takenby sopranos.
Great Mozart tenor singing on records began with John McCormack and Hermann Jadlowker. The Irishman’s voice boasted a floating beauty, gentleness of tone, and superhuman vocal control; the long run in Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro” (1916), taken effortlessly in one breath, elicits awe even today. So does Jadlowker in Idomeneo’s “Fuor del mar” (1917). This heroic-voiced Latvian stands supreme for his complete mastery of florid singing. Such flawlessly executed coloratura occurs rarely in any era, especially in male singers. And you haven’t heard a real tenor trill until you hear Jadlowker’s in “Fuor del mar”—an utterly hair-raising sound.
Classic Mozart phrasing emerged a few years later from Richard Tauber, and then in the 1940s from Anton Dermota and Ernst Häfliger. I choose most readily, however, the French-Canadian Léopold Simoneau, at his peak throughout the 1950s. This was a voice of heavenly sweetness, yet his Tamino never lacked manly vigor. Simoneau’s Mozart style offered extraordinary sensitivity and lack of affectation, plus enviable technical polish. Hearing him wing his way through Ferrando’s “Un aura amorosa” is one of the great singing lessons on disc.
Lower-voiced male singing in Mozart has always been characterful—not invariably tasteful. A German baritone, Gerhard Hüsch, who defined Papageno and Count Almaviva for 1930s audiences, set a new standard of elegant musicianship. Vienna’s darling for four decades, Erich Kunz, had in his prime an equally beautiful voice, great musical instincts, and bags of personality. As memorable a Papageno as Hüsch, he moved during his career from Guglielmo to Alfonso, from Figaro to Bartolo.
The paragons in this category were contemporaries, Ezio Pinza and Alexander Kipnis (they graced the Met stage together as Giovanni and Leporello, respectively, in 1942). Pinza, perhaps the first singer to achieve superstardom in Mozart, captivated Met audiences as Figaro and Giovanni. It wasn’t just his terrific appearance and natural charisma, but the individual timbre and the overwhelming vitality of the singing. On records every word is pointedly delivered, whether menacing in “Se vuol ballare” or irresistibly devil-may-care in the Champagne aria. Kipnis was born for Mozart’s lower bass parts; his Sarastro brings us as close to the voice of the Almighty as any singer has ever achieved. Miraculously, he could lighten up effortlessly for Leporello and Bartolo, even when singing the latter’s patter in German translation.
I hope you investigate many of these performances. Next time, we’ll check out Verdi singers!
Jurinac: Idomeneo, EMI Double Forte #CZS5738482
Sayão: recital, Sony Classics #63221
Steber: Mozart recital, VAI Audio #1031
Jadlowker: recital, Marston #52017
McCormack: recital, Symposium #1163
Simoneau: Così fan tutte, EMI Classics #67138; Don Giovanni, Sony Classics #64263
Hüsch: Die Zauberflöte, Nimbus #7827
Kunz: recital, Testament #1059
Kipnis: recital, Nimbus Prima Voce #7785
Pinza: Mozart recital, Pearl-Koch #9958
About the Author: Editorial Dramaturg, Lyric Opera Chicago