Quirky 'Magic Flute' shows Furtwangler at his best


September 18, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Mozart, "Die Zauberflote" ("The Magic Flute"), performed by Irmgard Seefried (Pamina), Wilma Lipp (the Queen of the Night), Anton Dermota (Tamino), Erich Kunz (Papageno), Josef Greindl (Sarastro), the chorus and orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, and Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor (EMI Classics CDMC 5 65356 2).

That there was a dramatic shift in the balance of musical power in Europe in the post-World War II era is illustrated by this live performance from the 1951 Salzburg Festival.

It was only a year earlier -- with the same orchestra and chorus, and almost an identical cast -- that the young Herbert von Karajan recorded this opera for EMI. That it was Karajan, rather than Furtwangler, who was invited to make the record demonstrated that the Austrian had finally achieved ascendancy a bitter rivalry that had begun in the Nazi era.

But Furtwangler's performance -- which has been available for years in different incarnations as a pirate -- makes it easy to understand why Walter Legge, EMI's chief producer, chose Karajan. The young Karajan had much wider sympathy for Mozart than Furtwangler, and Mozart always occupied a bigger place in the younger conductor's repertory. Karajan's 1950 "Flute" exhibits a seductive grace and wit that were not part of Furtwangler's conductorial armory.

Surely, there are -- by modern standards -- quirks in Furtwangler's conducting: a much too slow (and unfunny) account of the "Hm, hm, hm" quintet, and a labored and ponderous one of "In diesen hei'gen Hallen." But this is a %J performance that leaves no question about Furtwangler's stature one of the two greatest conductors -- Toscanini was the other -- of the 20th century.

Furtwangler treats this opera as a sacred festival play in the manner of Wagner's "Parsifal." If that means he invests this music with a Beethoven-like breadth and strength, that is not a bad thing.

Today's interpreters push Beethoven so far back in the direction of Mozart and Haydn, it's wonderful to be reminded that the late works of the older composers lighted the path the Bonn titan was to take. Furtwangler turns the overture into a juggernaut that sweeps everything before it. He makes passages such as the chorale of the Men in Armour at once beautiful and menacing, and he makes the whole opera glow with unmistakable humanity.

This performance also features one of the best casts ever assembled for "The Magic Flute." Irmgard Seefried supplies a full measure of Pamina's radiance and poignancy without making her sound sappy. In a merry, affectionate and never over-busy performance, Erich Kunz shows why he was a celebrated Papageno.

Anton Dermota's Tamino is eloquent and strong; Josef Greindl is a sonorous and firm Sarastro; and Paul Schoeffler is an imposing speaker. Wilma Lipp, a famous Queen of the Night in her time, is not ideally secure in her treacherous coloratura, but she is far from inadequate.

The recorded sound lags behind the best commercial records of the era, but it is good enough to make this performance essential listening to anyone with a comprehensive interest in Mozart and with enough taste to appreciate great conducting.


To hear the overture to Mozart's "The Magic Flute," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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