Saturday, August 18, 2018

The first Glyndebourne Mozart recordings

Glyndebourne in the 1930s. Photo: Glyndebourne Archive

Today, when it seems that every sizeable English country estate offers its own summer opera series, the utterly radical nature of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera at its inception may not be readily apparent. Of course, at the time of the founding of the Festival in 1934 there were long-established opera festivals on the European continent. But Glyndebourne was unprecedented in several respects:

The setting. Spike Hughes writes in Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera that "ever since the Teatro San Cassiano was opened as the world's first public opera house in Venice in 1637, opera had always been an essentially urban form of entertainment." [1] Not quite "always," perhaps, but before Glyndebourne only princes had built opera houses on their country estates. And performances at, for example, Esterháza or Versailles were entertainments for the court, not a ticket-buying public. Opera festivals that depended on selling tickets located themselves in cities, such as Munich and Salzburg. Even Bayreuth at the time of the founding of the Wagner Festival had a population approaching 30,000. In contrast, in 1931 the population of the village of Glynde was 257. [2]

The funding. Other opera festivals were not only located in urban settings, they were the undertakings of whole communities. They were funded publicly, by musical societies, and by private donors. The financial and logistical burdens of the Glyndebourne Festival were borne entirely by one man: Glyndebourne's owner, John Christie. Over the first three seasons the Festival's deficit totaled £21,000 (close to £1.5 million today). [3] Christie, undaunted, continued the Festival until World War II forced a hiatus, and resumed it after the war ended. The Festival's survival is a monument to Christie's dual devotions: to opera, and to his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay.

The languages. At the end of January 1934, it was announced that the first season of the Glyndebourne Festival would involve six performances each of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Cosi fan tutte (That's what they're all like) sung in Italian. In our current era of supertitles, performing an opera in the language in which it was originally written may not seem unusual. But in Britain at the time of the Glyndebourne Festival's founding Mozart's operas were generally sung in English. Before marrying John Christie, Audrey Mildmay had regularly performed the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, but she had to re-learn the part in Italian for the 1936 Glyndebourne première.

The recordings. As Paul Campion and Rosy Runciman write in Glyndebourne Recorded, before Glyndebourne "no attempt had ever been made to record a Mozart opera." [4] But after the Festival's opening night on 28 May 1934 had made clear both the high quality of the musical performances and the suitability of the theater as a recording venue, The Gramophone Company sent a mobile unit to Glyndebourne. On Wednesday, 6 June 1934, the Festival cast and orchestra performed 14 excerpts from Figaro (primarily the ensembles from Acts II and IV), most recorded on two "waxes" simultaneously as insurance against damage. All but four of the excerpts were recorded in one take.

The recordings were judged a success by all involved. During the Festival's second season in 1935 the mobile unit returned to Glyndebourne to record much of the rest of Figaro as well as Cosi fan tutte, and the following season Don Giovanni was recorded.

All of these recordings have been reissued (and re-ordered, in the case of Figaro) on the Naxos Historical label. After our experience of Glyndebourne, and especially after seeing David Hare's play The Moderate Soprano on the life of Audrey Mildmay Christie and the founding of the Glyndebourne Festival, we were very curious. As I wrote in my post on Audrey Mildmay, "The Glyndebourne recordings were the first (nearly) complete recordings of Mozart's operas in Italian, and so are landmarks of recorded music." But how well would these recordings stand up after the passage of more than eight decades?

As it turns out, remarkably well. Few allowances need to be made for the age of the recordings. They have all been splendidly remastered by Ward Marston, reducing surface noise without dulling the sound. They are in mono, of course, lack the full frequency range of modern studio recordings, and the orchestra is somewhat recessed relative to the singers. But we found that our ears soon adjusted. The performances of the singers are generally quite good, and some are extraordinary.

Le nozze di Figaro

Recorded 6 June 1934, 24 & 28 June 1935. Released as The Mozart Society Volume One (June 1935), Volumes Two and Three (December 1935).

One reason the Glyndebourne performances sound so accomplished is that they were all preceded by an unusually extensive rehearsal period. Hughes states that there were twenty-four full orchestral rehearsals for Figaro, and the results are certainly audible in the crispness of the orchestral playing and in the cohesion of the vocal ensembles. Conductor Fritz Busch "had endeared himself to the players from the first moment when, on raising his baton to rehearse the overture to Figaro for the first time, he had dropped his arm and said 'Already too loud!'" [5]

Busch favored extremes, not only of dynamics, but of tempo. The overture is so fast that I wondered briefly whether, in order to fit it onto one 78 rpm side, it was recorded at the wrong speed (it wasn't). Busch flashes through it in under four minutes (3:55 to be exact), requiring some truly astonishing feats of musicianship from the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra (made up of players from the London Symphony). For some later comparisons, in his 2004 period-instrument recording René Jacobs takes 4:11, while in his classic 1959 version Carlo Maria Giulini (whose tempos strike me as very well-judged) requires 4:16.

If Busch's overture is among the fastest on record, he takes some arias more slowly than I'm used to (for example, both of the Countess's arias, and Susanna's "Deh vieni"). Although the slow tempos allow us to revel in Mozart's gift for melody, they also slow the momentum of the comedy. Busch's tempos seem to work best in the ensembles, which thanks to the cast's long stage work together are wonderfully vivid (and where some of the rapid patter had me laughing out loud).

Hughes writes that "Audrey Mildmay's success as Susanna was not done justice to on the Glyndebourne recordings, for it was the result of a unique combination of charm of spirit and temperament and physical attraction which no record could possibly capture." [6] Not having seen Audrey Mildmay on stage, I can't compare her live to her recorded performances, but her "Venite, inginocchiatevi," sung in the Countess's bedroom while Susanna is dressing the ardent page Cherubino in women's clothes, seems full of charm:

Venite, inginocchiatevi;
Restate fermo lì.
Pian piano, or via, giratevi:
Bravo, va ben così.

La faccia ora volgetemi:
Olà, quegli occhi a me.
Drittissimo: guardatemi.
Madama qui non è.

Restate fermo, or via,
giratevi, bravo!

Più alto quel colletto. . .
quel ciglio un po' più basso. . .
le mani sotto il petto. . .
vedremo poscia il passo
quando sarete in pie'.

piano alla Contessa

Mirate il bricconcello!
Mirate quanto è bello!
Che furba guardatura!
Che vezzo, che figura!
Se l'amano le femmine
han certo il lor perché.
Come, kneel down;
Stay right here.
Keep quiet, now turn around:
Bravo, that's very good.

Now turn and face me:
Here, keep your eyes on me.
Straight ahead: look at me,
Madame isn't here.

Keep still now,
Turn around, bravo!

That collar a bit higher. . .
Those eyes lowered. . .
Your hands clasped before you. . .
Now get on your feet
And let's see how you walk.

softly to the Countess

Look at the little scamp,
How beautiful he is!
What roguish glances,
What airs, what graces!
If women fall in love with him,
They have good reasons why.

The Countess of Aulikki Rautawaara is the outstanding performance of this first Figaro recording, and she is ably partnered by the stentorian Count of Roy Henderson and the hearty Figaro of Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (father of Brigitte Fassbaender). As Cherubino, Luise Helletsgruber may not sound very much like a teenage boy, but that's true of many other recorded Cherubinos as well.

This first Figaro was recorded with substantial cuts. Left out were almost all of the recitative, the Act I chorus "Giovani lieti," and the Act IV arias of Barbarina (Winifred Radford), Marcellina (Constance Willis), and Don Basilio (Heddle Nash). Nonetheless, if you know the opera it's easy to follow the story. Busch also omitted all unwritten appoggiaturas, an omission that most of us won't notice as to this day appoggiaturas are applied very inconsistently. (For an explanation of appoggiaturas, see NPR's "Another Take on The 'Appoggiatura.'")

So while I wouldn't recommend this recording to someone coming to Figaro for the very first time, it's fascinating document of the first season of Glyndebourne. The "freshness of the voices," "the precision of rhythm" and the "perfection of ensemble" noted by reviewers certainly remain audible, even after the passage of nearly a century. [7]

Cosi fan tutte 

Recorded 25, 26, 27 & 28 June 1935. Released as The Mozart Society Volumes Four, Five and Six (March 1936).

The impression that conductor Fritz Busch was at his best in ensembles is borne out by the recording of the ensemble opera Cosi fan tutte. Hughes writes that the first audiences for the Glyndebourne Cosi "enjoyed an experience that was even more exhilarating than the opening Figaro. . .To most people in the audience Mozart's last Italian comedy came not only as a revelation but in many cases as a complete novelty." [8] (The reasons Cosi was so rarely performed in the years before Glyndebourne are discussed in the post "Was Mozart a misogynist?") Mary Hunter writes that Cosi did not enter "the canon of routinely performed Mozart operas until three decades into the twentieth century; it is generally agreed that the Glyndebourne production of 1934 was the turning point." [9]

It's easy to hear why. In "Di scrivermi ogni giorno," the violins pulse in time with the heartbeats of the four lovers—Fiordiligi (Ina Souez) and Guglielmo (Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender), Dorabella (Luisa Helletsgruber) and Ferrando (Heddle Nash)—as they promise to write one another every day during their enforced separation. That the men are playing a cruel trick on the women is known to the audience and commented on in asides by Don Alfonso (John Brownlee), but is unacknowledged by the sublime music: (the chorus "Bella vita militar," calling the men away to war, begins at 2:01)

As he did in Figaro, Busch chooses slow tempos for some of the arias, especially Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio" (Like a rock) and "Per pièta" (Have pity). And one feature of the recording that will strike a modern listener as dated is the treatment of the recitative: the accompaniment is a piano playing single chords, one chord per measure (or two or three) of singing. The difference in the sound-world between the accompanied sequences and the spare recitative is a bit jarring. Nonetheless, thanks to Mozart's gorgeous ensembles and Ina Souez's striking performance as Fiordiligi, it's clear why this recording had such an impact. Fiordiligi and Dorabella in "Ah, che tutta in un momento si cangiò la sorte mia" (All in a moment my fate has changed), their first acknowledgment of an attraction to the two handsome strangers (their fiancés in disguise, of course):

Curiously, Souez almost did not participate in the second Glyndebourne season. According to Hughes, at the end of the first season in June 1934 Souez had been told that she would be hired to repeat the role of Fiordiligi the following year. However, Glyndebourne's artistic management did not send her a contract until mid-February 1935, by which time she had quite understandably made other commitments. It wasn't until 5 May—just over three weeks before the opening night of Cosi on 30 May—that Souez was secured. It didn't seem to affect her performance in the house or on the recording.

Hughes writes that "the Glyndebourne performance revealed this enchanting work in all its glory." [10] In 1936 an anonymous critic in the New English Weekly wrote of the recording, "It is Mozart at his very best, sparkling like champagne." [11] The critics' glowing praise for an opera that before Glyndebourne had been rarely performed is a testament to the excellence of both the production and the recording.

Don Giovanni 

Recorded 29 & 30 June, 1, 2, & 5 July 1936. Released as The Mozart Society Volumes Seven, Eight (March 1937), and Nine (May 1937).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Don Giovanni was far and away Mozart's most popular opera. So it's interesting that the Glyndebourne Festival, wholly devoted to Mozart in its first years, didn't stage it until its third season in 1936. Don Giovanni didn't appear on the Glyndebourne stage until after Figaro, Cosi, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Harem), and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Perhaps Glyndebourne was trying to offer audiences experiences they couldn't readily have elsewhere.

Hughes called the Glyndebourne Don Giovanni "a performance that left no corner unilluminated of this score's miraculous variety." [12] (A corner of variety? Never mind.) Even with the limited frequency range of these recordings the "Don Giovanni" chords that begin the overture send shivers up the spine:

Hughes thought that the 1936 season offered Audrey Mildmay's best singing; he wrote that she "was bewitching and unforgettable as Zerlina." [14] The slow tempos that Busch chooses for Zerlina's music make her character seem less flirtatious and more serious than she is sometimes portrayed, as you can hear in her duet with Don Giovanni (John Brownlee), "La ci darem la mano" (There we will join hands):

Là ci darem la mano,
Là mi dirai di sì.
Vedi, non è lontano;
Partiam, ben mio, da qui.

(Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor.
Felice, è ver, sarei,
Ma può burlarmi ancor.)

Vieni, mio bel diletto!

(Mi fa pietà Masetto.)

Io cangierò tua sorte.

Presto. . .non son più forte.

. . .

Andiam! Andiam!


Andiam, andiam, mio bene,
a ristorar le pene
d'un innocente amor.
There we will join hands,
There you will tell me 'yes.'
See, it's not far;
Let's go there, my dearest.

(I would like to, and I wouldn't,
My heart is trembling a little.
True, I might be happy,
But it could be a trick.)

Come, my beautiful delight!

(I feel pity for Masetto.)

I will change your fate.

Soon. . .I won't be able to resist.

. . .

Let's go! Let's go!

Let's go!

Let's go, let's go, my dearest,
To soothe the pain
Of an innocent love.

There was a dispute involving the Don Giovanni recording. It had become regular practice for two takes—and on rare occasions three takes—of each number to be recorded. Busch would then listen to test pressings and select the take to be issued on the final album.

But after the Don Giovanni albums were released John Christie and Audrey Mildmay took issue with Busch's choices for two of Zerlina's arias. Christie wrote to The Gramophone Company,
My wife maintains quite definitely that some of her worst records have been used. For instance, record No 9 in Act 1 of Don Giovanni. The record was made, I think, three times. The one chosen shows her quite often to be flat. The alternative records, I believe, did not do so. [14]
A meeting was held on 20 June, and a letter was sent shortly afterwards to Audrey Mildmay:
This confirms our interview yesterday on the alternative recordings. Altogether we heard three records, and in two cases we will alter the previous masters.
2ER 149-1   Batti Batti — original master
2ER 149-2      "       "    — new master

2ER 169-2   Vedrai carino — original master
2ER 169-1       "         "      — new master
So two different versions of the opera were issued commercially. As a result it can be impossible to determine which takes of Zerlina's arias appear on the various reissues of these recordings. I notice that the timing of "Vedrai carino" on the Naxos Historical Don Giovanni is several seconds different from the version that appears on the Warner Classics Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne compilation, which may indicate that different versions were used. Which is which, though?

The Glyndebourne Don Giovanni has also stood the test of time. Reviewing a reissue in 1989, David Cairns wrote that "[John] Brownlee remains in many respects an ideal Don Giovanni. His voice may lack honey, and his Italian is a little suspect, but he sings with superb authority. . .Ina Souez's fiery Donna Anna is one of the best on record" [15].

There are many excellent later recordings of each of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas that feature full-spectrum stereo sound and accomplished singers. Nonetheless, these early recordings are invaluable, if inevitably imperfect, documents of Glyndebourne's early seasons. But more than that, they remain highly pleasurable listening after nearly a century. They are another remarkable aspect of Glyndebourne's unique legacy.

Further reading:

  1. Spike Hughes, Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera, David & Charles, 1981, p. 15.
  2. GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Glynde CP/AP through time | Population Statistics | Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time. URL:, accessed 5 August 2018 
  3. Bank of England inflation calculator:
  4. Paul Campion and Rosy Runciman, Glyndebourne Recorded: Sixty Years of Recordings 1934-1994, Julia MacRae Books, 1994, p. 7.
  5. Hughes, p. 58. If I rely rather heavily on the testimony of Hughes in what follows, it is because he was an eye-witness, as so many later writers (including me) weren't.
  6. Hughes, p. 63.
  7. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, pp. 10-11.
  8. Hughes, p. 71. 
  9. Mary Hunter, Mozart's Operas: A Companion, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 163.
  10. Hughes, p. 71. 
  11. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, pp. 16-17.
  12. Hughes, p. 105. 
  13. Hughes, p. 105. 
  14. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, p. 23. "Record No 9" is probably "Batti, batti"—it appears on the flip side of the first record in Volume Eight, making it the ninth record (18th side) of the complete set. Two takes of this aria were recorded, both on 1 July 1936.
  15. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, p. 24.