MOZART: Così fan tutte – Schwarzkopf, Merriman, Panerai, Simoneau, Otto, Bruscantini/ Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus/ Herbert von Karajan – EMI Classics 3-36789-2 (3 CDs) 2 hrs. 41 mins. ****:
Hard to believe that this sublime recording of Così is now more than 50 years old, particularly since it was the first Mozart opera I obsessed on. Recorded (except for two numbers) in London’s Kingsway Hall in 1954, it was seriously threatened as the standard setter by only two sets (Böhm in 1962 for EMI and Jochum a year later for DG, the latter featuring an incomparable Berlin Philharmonic) until the original instrument crews began taking devastating aim at Mozart thirty years later.
Despite the monaural sound, which improves as listening goes (and which takes volume well), thanks to EMI’s finely judged sense of space and the incredible beauty of Karajan’s hand-picked Philharmonia Orchestra (including Dennis Brain at the height of his powers leading the French horn section), the set has the kind of impressive physical impact which marks it as EMI beginning to assert itself as an audiophile label.
And the cast is a dream: Schwarzkopf at her most seductive, Simoneau pouring forth heady passion, Bruscantini a fiendishly charming roué, and Lisa Otto adorable as the maid Despina. And throughout, it is Karajan’s almost casual ability to drive his uniquely homogenized blend of intoxicating passion and creamy beauty at sleek, quickish speeds as Mozart must surely have imagined them, with the dramatic action (at least on the recording) relegated to second place behind the musical considerations (which probably wouldn’t have been the composer’s choice), that makes for an unforgettable experience.
Richard Osborne’s liner notes, written for a 1999 higher-priced reissue, provide valuable insights into how and why the set came together so successfully. There is no libretto, but there is a useful track-by-track synopsis.
– Laurence Vittes