For a rich recording of 'Figaro,' go back to Bohm

October 08, 1998|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mozart has become something of a lost art for the current generation of conductors, so in search of a recorded "Marriage of Figaro" performance to live with, we can push Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and James Levine off the end of the sleigh and not think twice.

None of them sparkle enough to merit lasting attention.

Steer clear of the eminent Herbert von Karajan as well. When he was good in Mozart, he was very good (accompanying Dennis Brain in the Mozart French horn concertos, for example); but most of the time, he was the soul of forgettability.

The last treasurable "Figaro" came from London Records in the 1980s and had Georg Solti at the helm. Solti turned in a warm, witty account full of characteristic energy but bathed in enough elegance to convey the requisite Mozartean charm.

The women (Lucia Popp, Kiri te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade) are superb, and Thomas Allen makes a rakish, sonorous count. Samuel Ramey's stodgy Figaro is a bit of a drawback, though heaven knows, there's nothing wrong with the guy's voice. Just a touch blah.

But if up-to-date digital sound is a must for you, Solti's your man.

There are a couple of flaws in Colin Davis' "Figaro" from the Philips "Mozart Collection." His Mozart can be thumpy and lumpy at times, and Mirella Freni was no youthful, quintessentially chirpy Susanna back in the 1970s.

But with Jessye Norman's countess complemented by a keenly adept ensemble of singers (including Freni, who's really into the role), this "Figaro" is well worth investigating.

But my favorite comes from the great Karl Bohm on a recently remastered set from Deutsche Grammophon's "Originals" series. What a master of Mozart Bohm was. No rush, no bumps, plenty of line, and nothing but rich singing and playing in every bar.

Why anyone would opt for one of those desiccated "authentic" versions when they could have Hermann Prey, Edith Mathis, Gundula Janowitz and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau serenading Bohm is beyond me. But if you must have gut strings and the relentless hustle and bustle of a period performance, John Eliot Gardiner on Philips is the best of that breed.

Carlo Maria Giulini's is the only other "Figaro" to rival Bohm, Solti and Davis for my affection, and his version on EMI happens to be the biggest budget bargain of them all. With a pair of inconsequential Act IV arias snipped out, the whole opera fits onto a pair of discs that still sound terrific 40 years after Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, Anna Moffo and company recorded them.

Snappy, delightful, vintage Mozart from start to finish. And for only 25 bucks.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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