Monday, 20 July 2015

Reaching for Messiaen's Dream: Et Exspecto on La Meije, 18 July 2015



Note: I was asked to write this as a guest blog for Ashgate (publishers), and I though I'd share it here too. It's my personal account of the extraordinary concert on 18 July 2015 at the Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije (Hautes-Alpes) at which Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum was to have been played at an altitude of 2,400 metres, in front of the glacier on La Meije. Read on...

On board the boat from Yvoire to Nyon on 17 July, 
the day we travelled from Geneva down to La Grave. 

In 1963, André Malraux gave Messiaen a commission from the French government for a work to commemorate the dead of the two World Wars. According to a note the composer made after their meeting, Malraux asked for ‘a work that was simple and solemn’ (‘une œuvre simple, solenelle’), with powerful sonorities. After initially contemplating a piece with large chorus, Messiaen finally settled on an unusual formation of woodwind, brass and metallic percussion. The result was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (‘And I await the resurrection of the dead’), first performed for an invited audience at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris on 7 May 1965, and given on 20 June 1965 in Chartres Cathedral with General de Gaulle in attendance.

In the preface to the published score (Leduc, 1967), Messiaen wrote that he conceived the work for performance ‘in vast spaces: churches, cathedrals and even in the open air and on mountain tops’, adding that he had composed Et exspecto ‘in the Hautes-Alpes,  in front of the solemn and powerful landscapes which are my true home.’ When Jacques Longchampt reviewed the Chartres performance of Et exspecto for Le Monde (24 June 1965), he was more specific, revealing that ‘Messiaen hoped that it could be heard in front of the mountain of La Meije, in the Alps’; the composer repeated the same wish in conversation with Claude Samuel, declaring that his wanted to hear it ‘at La Grave, facing the glacier of La Meije’.

La Meije, overlooking the village of La Grave in the Hautes-Alpes, stands at 3,983 metres (over 13,000 feet), and its most prominent feature is the magnificent glacier mentioned by Messiaen. He visited La Grave on many occasions, including a trip on 2 August 1964, while he was hard at work on Et exspecto. Since 1998, this village has been home to the annual Festival Messiaen au Pays de la Meije, the brainchild of Gaëtan Puaud, planned by him each year with vision and daring to focus on different facets of Messiaen’s music. I’m very fortunate to have been back every year since 2005, invited by Gaëtan to talk about an aspect of Messiaen’s life and work that reflected the festival programme.

2015 is the 50th anniversary of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum; in January, Gaëtan Puaud asked if I’d be willing to give a talk on its genesis and early performance history. I was delighted to accept, particularly as he told me that he planned an open-air performance of Et exspecto on the large plateau at the téléphérique station situated at 2,400 metres, with the glacier as a stupendous backdrop: a vast and savage space. It was a bold and grandiose celebration of the half-century of Et exspecto. The performers were the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Les Percussions de Strasbourg (whose original members had played in the 1965 première), and the Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja, the orchestra’s Music Director since 2012.

 Tickets for the concert and the téléphérique

The morning of 18 July 2015 was overcast but pleasant in La Grave, and by the time I started my pre-concert talk on Et exspecto at 11 a.m. in the village’s Salle des fêtes, the sun was starting to break through. Afterwards, I sat outside the Hotel Castillan (which faces the glacier), talking to French and Belgian friends, and the mood was one of the keenest anticipation for what was to come later in the day: even the most jaded concert-goer could hardly fail to be excited by the prospect of hearing one of Messiaen’s greatest works performed in such a fabulous setting. Our lunch was also enlivened by the unusual spectacle of very large instrument flight cases being airlifted up to the venue by helicopter. Except for experienced mountain walkers, the only realistic way to the glacier is by téléphérique, and the small cabins of the cable cars are not up to moving the vast array of percussion – including three very large tam-tams, a whole family of gongs and three large sets of cencerros (cowbells), all of which play an essential part in Et exspecto. The orchestral players made their way up the mountain soon afterwards to rehearse, and to film a complete cover performance of Et exspecto for Arte TV, which was there to record the concert for later broadcast.

The concert was due to start at 5:00 p.m., and at 3:45, I set off in one of the cable cars with my wife Jasmine, and three friends who were also in La Grave for the performance: Tom Owen and Jess Jevon from England, and Lucie Kayas from the Paris Conservatoire – the leading authority on the music of Jolivet and a treasured friend who made the French translation of the Messiaen biography I co-authored. By the time we reached the station at 2,400 metres, the sky was slate-grey, and the clouds were looking ominous. But what we saw and heard – with the audience finding places to sit on the grass, and the glacier as a breathtaking natural stage-set behind the orchestra – was both elemental and extremely moving. The orchestra was rehearsing the third movement, and it was a wonderful experience to hear Messiaen’s sets of giant cowbells played on a mountain in the Alps – an artistic, gamelan-inspired reimagining of something that has always been such an essential part of the Alpine soundscape. After the third movement, we heard a complete run-through of the fifth and final movement, inspired by a verse from the Apocalypse: ‘Et j'entendis la voix d'une foule immense…’ (‘And I heard the voice of a great multitude’). Messiaen’s scoring here is brilliantly effective for the outdoors: the incessant beats of the tuned gongs, punctuated by tubular bells and tam-tams, combined with the splendid austerity of the broad theme announced by bass saxhorn, tuba, trombones and horns. It was a mighty and imposing sound that became still more electrifying when the woodwind and trilling cencerros added their jubilant descants. The final, heaven-storming resolution seemed to mirror the sublime grandeur of the landscape itself. 

The initial sights and sounds as we arrived on the mountain: 
a breathtaking spectacle. Rehearsing the third movement of Et exspecto.

 The Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and Les Percussions de Strasbourg conducted by Marko Lentonja in the last movement of Et exspecto.

All this was an enticing avant-goût of what should have followed. With about 15 minutes to go, the orchestra cleared the stage and all seemed set for a memorable occasion. But five minutes later a light drizzle began to fall; as a precaution, the librarian collected the orchestral parts off the stands, and the instruments still on the stage were covered. Before long, the drizzle turned into a sustained downpour, and by the scheduled start time of 5:00 p.m., thunder could be heard rumbling in the mountains, quickly followed by flashes of lightning. There was some uncertainty about what was going to happen, but by about 5:15 it was clear that the concert couldn’t take place (not least because there was no covering for the orchestra), so the players packed up their instruments, and the large audience (my ticket was No. 564) either headed straight for the téléphérique, or took refuge in a mountain barn. With heavy hearts, we finally joined the long queue to go back down the mountain once the concert had been definitively abandoned.

Waiting in the rain for the cable-car back down the mountain

We reached the foot of the mountain at about 7:00p.m., by which time the helicopter had already airlifted most the large instruments back down, their flight cases swaying at the end of a long cable. 

A helicopter airlifting large instruments from the mountain back to La Grave.

The weather is notoriously capricious in the Alps, with sudden and completely unpredictable changes, and nobody would have foreseen what happened next: within half and hour the sun was shining in La Grave and on the glacier, and it continued to do so for the rest of the evening. This photo was taken from the terrace in front of the Hotel Castillan at about 7:30 p.m.

By then, players and audience could only watch the virtually cloudless sky with poignant regret for what might have been. But it was too late: the treacherous Alpine weather had won, and Messiaen’s dream remained unrealized, at least for the time being.

There had always been an alternative plan: to give the work indoors at the splendid Collégiale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Nicolas in Briançon. Had the weather been bad the day before (in fact it was perfect), or had there been a seriously threatening forecast, no doubt it would have been relocated there. But the concert could not be moved anywhere once the orchestra was already installed on the mountain. While that turned out to be a risky decision, nobody I spoke to at lunchtime thought there was a serious threat of rain: on the contrary, the consensus among experienced alpinistes was that the omens were good. The timing could not have been more unlucky: had the concert been scheduled for an hour earlier – or two hours later – it would have taken place. My fervent hope is that Arte’s film is sufficiently complete for them to be able to broadcast the performance recorded at the rehearsal earlier in the afternoon: it should be an unforgettable communion of Messiaen’s music with nature at its most majestic.

Nigel Simeone
20 July 2015

Finally, here's a nice news report on the concert from TF1, broadcast during the evening news on 19 July. 

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock with Leonard Bernstein, 1964

Poster for the Maxine Elliott Theatre production, cancelled by the WPA before opening
(George Mason University Libraries, Special Collections)

Here's an extraordiary performance of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock that was given as the second half of the Blitzstein memorial concert on 19 April 1964, and the recording of it is in very good sound.

According to a note in the programme, it was given "in the manner of the original production with Leonard Bernstein directing from the piano".

Programme for the 1964 performance (from

This was indeed how Blitzstein had played the piece on 16 June 1937 at its famous première. Blitzstein's Brechtian "opera" (according to the title page of the Tams-Witmark rental score), or "play with music" (according to Blitzstein himself – but never "musical" as it's often described) used just a piano played by the composer, despite plans to use a 28-piece orchestra that was to be conducted by Lehman Engel. Funding for the project had been withdrawn by the Federal Theater Project of the WPA at the last moment, and the Maxine Elliott Theatre, where the show was supposed to open, was barricaded by guards, the producers (John Houseman and Orson Welles) were ordered not to continue, and the actors were forbidden to perform by Actors' Equity as the production was no longer a WPA project. In this chaotic environment, Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein remained determined to find a way of letting the show be performed.

The frantic hunt for a new theatre on the afternoon and early evening of opening night finally came up with the empty and unloved Venice Theatre, twenty blocks uptown from the Maxine Elliott Theatre. Jean Rosenthal – one of the most innovative lighting designers in the American theatre, whose later credits included West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret – had been sent out to track down a piano. She'd found an upright and had been driving around New York on the back of a truck with it for hours, awaiting instructions about where to take it. She arrived first at the Venice, and was soon followed by Blitzstein, John Houseman, Orson Welles and members of the cast. The preview audience made its way to the theatre and by 8:30 the theatre was starting to fill, and by 9:00 iit was packed.

This extraordinary night was recalled by Houseman in Run-Through, the first volume of his memoirs, published in 1972:

"Marc [was] in his shirtsleeves ... sitting pale and tense at his eviscerated piano. ... The Cradle Will Rock started cold, without an oventure. A short vamp that sounded harsh and tinny on Jean Rosenthal's rented, untuned upright, and Marc's voice, clipped, precise and high-pitched: 'A street corner – Steeltown, U.S.A.' ... It was a few seconds before we realized that to Marc's strained tenor, another voice – a faint, wavering soprano – had been added. It was not clear at first where it came from, as the two voices continued together for a few lines. ... At that moment the spotlight moved off the stage ... and came to rest on the lower left box where a thin girl in a green dress with dyed red hair was standing, glassy-eyed, stiff with fear, only half audible at first in the huge theatre but gathering strength with every note ...

It is almost impossible, at this distance in time, to convey the throat-catching, sickeningly exciting quality of that moment or to describe the emotions of gratitude and love with which we saw and heard that slim green figure. Years later Hiram Sherman wrote to me: 'If Olive Stanton had not risen on cue in the box, I doubt if the rest of us would have had the courage to stand up and carry on. But once that thin, incredibly clear voice came out, we all fell in line.' ... Nothing surprised the audience or Marc or any of us after that, as scenes and numbers followed each other in fantastic sequence from one part of the house to another. ...

Just before leaving 39th Street I had made a last round of the theatre, thanked the members of the chorus for their loyalty and urged them not to take any unnecessary chances. It was all the more startling, therefore, in Scene Three, to hear ... two dozen rich negro voices. On their own, without consulting anyone, they had travelled uptown and found their places behind their conductor. Now, as their first cue came up ... taking their beat from Lehman Engel, they sang like angels ... And then, finally, the showdown: Larry Foreman confronting Mr Mister and his Liberty Committee in the crowded night court. Only this night they were all on their feet, singing and shouting from all over the theatre as they built to the final, triumphal release ... [with] Marc's pounding of an untuned piano before a wrinkled backdrop of the Bay of Naples. As the curtain fell and the actors started to go back to their seats, there was a second's silence – then all hell broke loose. It was past midnight before we could clear the theatre. We had rented it till eleven and had to pay twenty dollars extra, but it was worth it. ... We got our notices not in the drama section but in headlines on the front pages..."

Leonard Bernstein's association with the piece went back to soon after that historic première. In May 1939, as an undergraduate at Harvard, Bernstein put on performances of The Cradle Will Rock at the university's Sanders Theatre.

Permission slip from the Harvard authorities allowing Bernstein to put on The Cradle Will Rock at the Sanders Theatre in 1939 (Library of Congress, Leonard Bernstein Collection)

In 1947, Bernstein gave another performance, at New York's City Center in November 1947.

The March 1964 performance at the concert put on in Blitzstein's memory (he had died on 22 January 1964) includes some members of the original 1937 cast: Will Geer (Mr Mister), Hiram Sherman (Reverend Salvation) and Howard Da Silva (Larry Foreman), who also staged this performance. It also includes a remarkable array of Broadway talent – the likes of Betty Comden (Mrs Mister), Adolph Green (Dauber) and Phyillis Newman (Sister Mister) – as well as Bernstein himself, who narrates the story, plays the piano, and takes two small roles (Clerk and Reporter).

Finally, then, here is the link for this performance, comprising 8 mp3 tracks in a zip folder. Track 9 is Blitzstein himself singing "The Nickel Under Your Foot".

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (Bernstein et al, 1964):

Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein in 1943 (Library of Congress)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Poulenc plays Poulenc songs with Cuénod

Francis Poulenc and his dog in 1955

In 1953 Francis Poulenc recorded six songs with Hugues Cuénod for Radio Suisse Romande. These wonderfully enganging performances (including a superbly vital "Voyage à Paris", whatever the shortcomings of the piano, and a chance to hear the beautiful but seldom performed "Bleuet"). These performances were issued on a Dante disc in 1997 which has been unavailable for too many years. It's a pleasure to share these performances.

The amazing Hugues Cuénod was born in 1902, and at the time of writing he's still alive, having celebrated his 108th birthday on 26 June 2010.

The songs are:

1. A sa guitare

2. Chanson d'Orkenise

3. La Grenouillère

4. Voyage à Paris

5. Bleuet

6. Avant le cinéma

All the songs were recorded for Radio Suisse Romande on 9 December 1953 by Hugues Cuénod (tenor) and Francis Poulenc (piano). Uploaded at 320kbps.

Hugues Cuénod

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Toscanini rehearsing La Bohème

Poster for the world première of Puccini's La Bohème

Arturo Toscanini conducted the world première of Puccini's La Bohème on 1 February 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turin. Almost exactly 50 years later, on 3 and 10 February 1946, he conducted the work again, for NBC broadcasts in New York, later issued on record. Though composer and conductor has a relationship that was stormy at times, Toscanini's devotion to La Bohème is evident not only in the finished performance but also in his rehearsals, some of which were recorded.

Toscanini rehearsing the NBC Symphony Orchestra

Here is a short extract (lasting just over five minutes) of Toscanini rehearsing the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Musetta's Waltz Song from Act II. This isn't one of the Toscanini rehearsals with explosions of temper, but it's fun to hear the great conductor singing most of Musetta's part, as well as to note his strict adherence to Puccini's a tempo markings and other details of the score.

The passage rehearsed is from Fig. 21 to Fig. 26 in Act II.

Puccini and Toscanini

Mahler's cast for Mozart's Figaro at the Met in 1909

Gustav Mahler photographed by Dupont in New York, 1909

Here's yet another post about Mozart's Figaro – but I hope I don't need to make any apology for that... and this one is rather different.

Between January and March 1909, Mahler conducted eight performances of a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The first night was on 13 January 1909, and the next morning's New York Times reported that it was a great success:

"Mozart's comedy, Le nozze di Figaro was given at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening for the first time in four years. It had been newly studied under the direction of Gustav Mahler; there were several new singers in the cast, there was a new and very becoming stage setting and new costumes. The performance was one of the most delightful and brilliant that can easily be recalled; not so much in the excellence of the individual singers, though here, too, there was much to enjoy; but most of all the finished ensemble, the vivacity and gaiety that were infused into every scene, the dramatic verisimilitude with which the intentions of the composer were realized. It was a performance such as there have been few at the Metropolitan Opera house in the way of precision and the elaboration of the finer details of the action upon the stage, the exquisite and delicate beauty of the orcehstral part, and the skillful co-ordination of these factors in one impression upon eye and ear. Such a performance shows the dominating influence of a master mind filled with the spirit of Mozart's music, as Mr Mahler's is, with an opportunity to achieve the results that he wishes. This Figaro had evidently been prepared with much care, and it was one that reflected the greatest credit on all who were concerned in it. The potent authority of Mr Mahler was evident in it from the beginning to the end."

According to another review, the recitatives were accompanied "by an imitation harpsichord and in the proper places by a union of this instrument with the orchestral strings", a solution that was considered "excellent."

Of the singers involved, Emma Eames later wrote that "among the many great conductors with whom I have sung, I know of none greater than Mahler. He was a genius with an abstract ideal and great humanity. ... In his simplicity and modesty he showed his true genius. ... I am very glad and very proud to number among the memories of my career, the Nozze di Figaro ... under his leadership – a leadership so delicate and so considerate that is was collaboration and not dictatorship."

All quotations are from Zoltán Román: Gustav Mahler's American Years 1907–1911: a Documentary History (1989), 200 and 205.

The principals included Adamo Didur (Figaro), Marcella Sembrich (Susanna), Emma Eames (Countess), Antonio Scotti (Count) and Geraldine Farrar (Cherubino).

Adamo Didur (Figaro):

Marcella Sembrich (Susanna):

Emma Eames (in costume as the Countess):

Antonio Scotti (Count)

Geraldine Farrar (in costume as Cherubino)

All five of these singers recorded arias and duets from Figaro, most of them quite close to the time of this production. These records make for fascinating listening. It's intriguing, for instance, to speculate on whether Sembrich put in something like the cadenza at the end of her recording of "Deh vieni" when she sang this aria under Mahler – at the Vienna Opera, he had, according to Erwin Stein, 'abolished the extra top notes and cadenzas which singers used to insert', though he did restore all the recitatives and, Stein reports, 'maintained those appoggiaturas which he felt to be in the style of the music' (see Donald Mitchell: Gustav Mahler Vol. II: The Wunderhorn Years, 1995 edition, 381). By contrast, Eames and Sembrich sing the Letter Duet without any additional ornamentation, as does Farrar in "Voi che sapete".

In the order they come in the opera, these are the extracts from Figaro I have been able to find sung by Mahler's 1909 Met cast (though "Crudel perche finora" is sung by the original Count and by Farrar, who sang Cherubino rather than Susanna in this production).

No. 12. Voi che sapete, recorded by Geraldine Farrar on 8 December 1908.

No. 17. Crudel perche finora, recorded by Geraldine Farrar and Antonio Scotti on 4 October 1909.

No. 21. Sull' aria...Che soave zeffiretto, recorded by Emma Eames and Marcella Sembrich on 25 January 1908.

No. 27. Aprite un po' quegli occhi, recorded by Adamo Didur c. 1917.

No. 28. Deh vieni non tardar, recorded by Marcella Sembrich on 5 November 1904.

(numbering is from the Neue Mozart Ausgabe score)

Friday, 3 September 2010

Lehár's Merry Widow: the original cast recorded in 1906

Louis Treumann as Danilo, Mizzi Günther as Hanna and Franz Lehár

Here's some ancient phonographic history, and a remarkable set of records that amounts – almost – to an original cast recording of one of the greatest operettas – Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow).

This was a work that attracted the admiration of no less a figure than Gustav Mahler. In her memoirs, Alma Mahler recalled their visit to the show:

"One evening, Mahler and I attended a performance of The Merry Widow, and enjoyed it very much. Afterwards, at home, we danced and so to speak reconstructed Lehár's waltzes from memory. Then something funny happened. We couldn't remember how the tune went at one particular point, try how we might. In those days we were both too snobbish to consider buying a copy of the waltz. So the two of us went to Doblinger's music shop. Mahler engaged the manager in a discussion about the sale of his works, while I leafed apparently aimlessly through the numerous piano selections and potpourris of The Merry Widow until I came to the waltz and the bars I was looking for. I then went up to Mahler, he quickly took his leave, and once we were out in the street I sang him the passage, so as not to forget it again."

Die lustige Witwe was first performed at the Theater an der Wien on 30 December 1905, when it was an immediate and enduring success: between 1905 and by the time of Lehár's death in 1948, the operetta had clocked up an astonishing 300,000 performances. Lehár's biographer Stefan Czech has described it as "much more than a stage success – it was a revolution. With it, a new type of operetta was born ... Above all, it was a revolution in musical inspiration."

The Theater an der Wien at the time of the première of Die lustige Witwe

But in fact, this "revolution" in operetta nearly didn't happen at all. Richard Traubner has related the story of how it was only by a stroke of luck that Lehár was asked to compose the score at all. The first composer that Victor Léon and Leo Stein (authors of the libretto) had in mind was Richard Heuberger, but "unpleased with Heuberger's first act setting, and wary about giving the libretto to Lehár after the failures of Der Göttergatte and Die Juxheirat, the librettists ... had to be pressured by the Theater an der Wien secretary Steininger into allowing Lehár a trial song. This, composed in a single day and played over the telephone to Léon, was the "Dummer, dummer Reitersmann" ... duet in Act II. Lehár got the job" (Traubner: Operetta: a Theatrical History, 2003, 246–7).

All was not plain sailing, though. The management hated the score that Lehár brought back from a summer of composing at Bad Ischl, and convinced that the thing was going to fail, they put as little money as possible into the production. According to Traubner, "Only the ... stars, Louis Treumann (Danilo) and Mizzi Günther (Hanna), and the composer, had any faith in the operetta. ... The first night actually went fairly well: many numbers were encored, and some of the reviews were kind (though one called the operetta 'distasteful'). Yet there was very little interest at the box office. Free tickets were distributed in order to reach the fiftieth performance (necessary for reasons of prestige). By that time, business had picked up sufficiently to keep the show running until 29 April 1906, when the piece was transferred to the then suburban Raimundtheater. ... In the fall, the Widow returned to the Theater an der Wien. For the 300th performance, the show was redressed and redecorated; by the end of the 1906–7 season it had been produced in theatres in virturally ever city in the German-speaking world" (Traubner 2003, 247).

As the work began to become a really big success, in June 1906 – just six months after the world première – Mizzi Günther (the original Hanna Glawari) and Louis Treumann (the original Danilo) recorded eight numbers from Die lustige Witwe. Despite primitive sound (and some shaky orchestral playing), these are a remarkable record of the singing style of the original cast of this great operetta.

The recordings were made by Franz Hampe. Born in 1879, he was an immensely enterprising engineer who made his first record in 1902, was recording in St Petersburg, Warsaw and Stockholm the following year, and worked primarily in German and Russia over the next decade. Perhaps his most famous project was a pioneering expedition in 1909 to record traditional music in Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. For a list of Hampe's recording sessions, and further information about his work, see

For the present recordings of music from Die lustige Witwe, Hampe used the original artists for all the songs except two ("Ich bin eine anständ'ge Frau" is sung in the opera by Valencienne rather than Hanna, and "Der Zauber der Häuslichkeit is a duet for Valencienne and Camille). No recording of the March-Septet exists from the original cast, but it was recorded by a military band at about the same time (and this is also included below).

The conductor is not named on the 1906 Vienna recordings of Die lustige Witwe. (The first performance had been conducted by Lehár himself.)

Apparently these Günther and Treumann recordings were made on a single day: 22 June 1906 (see Pekka Gronow and Ilpo Saunio: An International History of the Recording Industry, 1999, 25).

An early edition of the "Vilja-Lied" showing Mizzi Günther


Here are the Vienna recordings, mostly taken from files originally uploaded to Mike Richter's invaluable opera website in 2000. Warmest hanks are due to him for making these very rare recordings available for sharing.

Ich bin eine anständ'ge Frau, Mizzi Günther, Vienna, 22 June 1906 (GC 43770):

Da geh ich zu Maxim, Louis Treumann, 22 June 1906 (GC 42524):

O kommt doch, o kommt, ihr Ballsirenen: Louis Treumann, Vienna, Nov or Dec 1906 (CG 42785):

Vilja-Lied: Mizzi Günther, rec. Vienna, 22 June 1906 (GC 43769):

Das Lied von dummen Reiter: Mizzi Günther, Louis Treumann, Vienna, 22 June 1906 (GC 44074):

Tanzduett: Lippen schweigen: Mizzi Günther, Louis Treumann, Vienna, June 1906 (GC 44075):

Es waren zwei Königskinder: Louis Treumann, Vienna, June 1906 (GC 42529):

Der Zauber der Häuslichkeit: Mizzi Günther, Louis Treumann, Vienna, June 1906 (GC 44073):

Weibermarsch: Militärkapelle des k. u. k. Inf.-Reg. Hoch- u. Deutschmeister No. 4, ?1906 (CG 40294):

First edition of the piano-vocal score, showing Louis Treumann and Mizzi Günther on the title page

Louis Treumann, the original Graf Danilo, was born in Vienna in 1872, the son of a Jewish merchant. After working in Pilsen, Salzburg, and Munich, he joined the company of the Carltheater in Vienna in 1899. Mizzi (sometimes given as Mitzi) Günther was born in Varnsdorf (Bohemia) in 1879 and made her debut at the Carltheater in 1901. She was quickly paired with Treumann, and they enjoyed their first success with Lehár''s operetta Der Rastelbinder in 1902. Günther and Treumann moved to the Theater and der Wien in 1905, where they both scored triumphs as Hanna and Danilo in Die lustige Witwe. They continued to work successfully in the theatre (Günther scored another big success in 1907 as Alice in Leo Fall's Die Dollarprinzessin), and Treumann later acted in several films. Günther only appeared in one film – Johann Strauss an der schönen blauen Donau made in 1913, and also starring the singers Selma Kurz and Luise Kartousch, and the great pianist Alfred Grünfeld (see for a discussion of this film, which was thought to have disappeared until its rediscovery a few years ago).

Louis Treumann as Danilo

Treumann and his wife Stefanie were arrested in 1942 by the Nazis and transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. Both of them perished there.

Günther's long career in Viennese theatres lasted until at least 1948. She died in 1961.


Die lustige Witwe was recorded extensively before 1910, by member of the London and New York casts and by bands and orchestras.

The first major opera star to record any of the music was probably Marcella Sembrich who had her greatest success at the Metropolitan Opera. Sembrich's recording of "The Merry Widow Waltz" was made for Victor in 1908:

The same year, also for Victor, the Peerless Quartet (a male vocal group) and orchestra recorded an English-language version of the March-Septet, with the title 'Women!':

On 15 September 1906, Vilma Conti recorded the "Vilja-Lied" for the Edison Company in Berlin:

A year later, the Edison Company recorded "Da geh ich zu Maxim" with Paul Biegler in Berlin:

Finally, two different selections, the first by the Edison Symphony Orchestra and the second by the Indestructible Concert Band, both recorded in 1908.

Edison SO selection 1908:

Indestructible Band selection 1908:

Vaughan Williams in the USA and France

Here are four interesting performances of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. While he is often thought of as a quintessentially British composer, Vaughan Williams enjoyed considerable success abroad, especially in the USA, where Serge Koussevitzky, Arthur Rodzinski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leopold Stokowski and others all performed his symphonies. The most widely-performed of his major works in the USA was certainly the Tallis Fantasia, and there are three performances by American orchestra included here: conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1945, Leopold Stokowski in 1952, and Bruno Walter in 1953. The fourth performance is conducted by Constantin Silvestri in 1966, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de l'ORTF in Paris.

First, the links (all mp3, 320kbps). Please enjoy, and comment if you like. Please do not post these links on any other websites.

Arturo Toscanini, NBC Symphony Orchestra, 18 November 1945 (Studio 8H)

Leopold Stokowski, His Symphony Orchestra, 3 September 1952 (for RCA)

Bruno Walter, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 22 February 1953 (Carnegie Hall)

Constantin Silvestri, Orchestra Philharmonique de l'ORTF, 1966

Toscanini's November 1945 broadcast concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (from NBC's Studio 8H) is in good sound for the time. Walter's is with the New York Philharmonic: a live concert from Carnegie Hall in February 1953. This has been issued on various labels previously, but those I've heard have transferred the tape significantly sharp – by at least a semi-tone in two cases. Here it has been repitched.

Silvestri's expansive 1966 performance with the ORTF orchestra is particularly interesting, since Vaughan Williams's music was largely unknown in France. This live concert with Parisian players was a year before Silvestri made his famous recording with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Winchester Cathedral for EMI.

Stokowski performed the music of Vaughan Williams throughout his career. The Leopold Stokowski Concert Register, which lists his concerts up to 1940 ( includes A Sea Symphony in Toronto (13 April 1921), the Pastoral Symphony in Philadelphia (19 and 20 December 1924), and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in Philadelphia (15 and 16 October 1926, and 22 and 23 December 1933 in a concert that also included the Fantasia on Christmas Carols). In 1949, he gave the first New York Philharmonic performance of the Symphony No. 6 (following this with a memorable recording) and in 1958 led the US première of the Symphony No. 9, an astonishing account that has been released on CD by Cala.

Vaughan Williams was evidently delighted when Stokowski recorded the Tallis Fantasia for RCA in September 1952. This was his first commercial recording of the work, and a number of later performances survive, notably a sublime studio recording made for the Desmar label in August 1975, when Stokowski was 93 years old (this was briefly reissued by EMI in 1998), and a live performance with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The 1952 recording, made on 3 September, was with Stokowski and "His Symphony Orchestra", a hand-picked group of New York musicians. Three weeks later, Vaughan Williams wrote to Stokowski:

Vaughan Williams mentioned that he was enclosing "a copy of Tallis' original setting", and in fact he wrote it all out for Stokowski:

This letter and the manuscript were pasted into the front of Stokowski's score of the work, now in the Leopold Stokowski Collection in the Otto E. Albrecht Music Library at the University of Pennsylvania. These images come from the library's website ( Also illustrated there is the first page of Stokowski's copy of the score, with his extensive markings:

Thursday, 2 September 2010

More Figaro: Crudel perche finora with contemporary embellishments

In 1789 the firm of Birchall & Andrews published an unusual souvenir of a current operatic hit at the King’s Theatre in London. On 9 May 1789 Francesco Benucci and Nancy Storace appeared in an opera called La vendemmia. On 11 May 1789, The Morning Post reported:

"The Opera. Haymarket. The attraction of a New Opera, and a new performer, drew a very large audience to this place on Saturday. La vendemmia (the Vineyard), so far as the music is concerned, is the production of Signor Gazzaniga. It has the merit of being light and pleasing, and is also very correct; but there is little to excite any high idea of the composer. Besides the music of Gazzaniga, a song by Paisiello, another by Tarchi, another by Pozzi, and a duet by Mozart, are introduced into the opera. ... Mozart's delicious duet was encored." (from C. Eisen: New Mozart Documents, Stanford University Press, 1991, 150).

Nancy Storace, the original Susanna

Francesco Benucci, the original Figaro

Mozart's "delicious duet" was "Crudel perche finora" from Act III of Le nozze di Figaro, where it is sung by Susanna and the Count. When it was inserted into La vendemmia it was sung by Nancy Storace (1766–1817) and Francesco Benucci (c.1745–1824) – who had taken the roles of Susanna and Figaro in the world première of Figaro at the Burgtheater, Vienna, on 1 May 1786.

The Birchall & Andrews edition of Crudel perche finora has the unusual status of being the first appearance of any part of the music of Le nozze di Figaro in print, even though it doesn't mention the opera by name. This edition was reissued in about 1794, with the imprint changed to Robert Birchall. A copy of this reissue, printed on paper with a dated watermark of 1794, is now in the British Library (G.537.z). What makes this a particularly interesting document is the addition of extensive vocal embellishments in a contemporary hand. The author of these decorations is unknown, but they seem to date from around 1800, and provide intriguing evidence for how this duet might have been ornamented at the time, with numerous added appoggiaturas and turns as part of the extensive embellishments.

A few months ago I asked three friends to record this version of "Crudel perche finora", so here it is, sung by Sophia Carroll (Susanna), Matthew Palmer (Count) and Gary O'Shea (piano). With warmest thanks to them, here is their performance, together with images of the embellished score:

A Famous Figaro: Sadler's Wells – 1965 – Charles Mackerras

Welcome to my blog! I'm a musician and writer with interests ranging from the Baroque to Broadway, and in the art of musical interpretation. I'll be posting things that I hope anyone reading this blog might enjoy.

Here are some still photos taken from a (very) short filmed sequence of Charles Mackerras conducting the last few bars of the famous production Figaro at Sadler's Wells in 1965:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this Figaro is the extensive vocal decoration used – this was certainly what attracted the widest attention (and even some controversy) at the time. It is heard to most obvious effect in the reprises of "Voi che sapete", "Dove sono", the vocal cadenzas at the end of the Letter Duet, and so on – but already at the end of the first duet, Elizabeth Harwood throws in a wonderful ornamented flourish. When numbers aren't decorated much, the use of upper and lower appoggiaturas is extensive.

Mackerras later said that some of the decoration in this production was perhaps a bit over the top, but on the whole I think it works marvellously, and the performance also has tremendous vitality. I'm also not at all sure that anyone has done quite such an extensively ornamented Figaro since – so this is a performance to relish. I've listened to it on many occasions over the last month or so, with absolute delight.

Incidentally, in Act 3, "Dove sono" comes before the Sextet – the order proposed by Robert Moberly and Christopher Raeburn in their article that appeared in the same month as this production: "Mozart's Figaro: The Plan of Act III", Music & Letters, Vol. 46 No. 2 (April 1965), 134-6. The performance is sung in Edward J. Dent's English translation (the one printed in the Boosey & Hawkes piano-vocal score), and the version used in this performance was prepared by Charles Mackerras.

Here are full details of the cast:

MOZART: THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, Sadler's Wells Theatre, BBC Broadcast, 1966
(Version with vocal decorations, prepared by Charles Mackerras)

Charles Mackerras (Conductor)

Donald McIntyre (Figaro)
Elizabeth Harwood (Susanna)
Ava June (Countess)
Raimund Herincx (Count)
Anne Pashley (Cherubino)
Noel Mangin (Bartolo)
John Fryatt (Basilio)
Rita Hunter (Marcellina)
Stanley Bevan (Curzio)
Eric Stannard (Antonio)
Sheila Amit (Barbarina)
Sadler's Wells Chorus (Chorus Master John Barker)
Sadler's Wells Orchestra

John Blatchley (Producer)

More photos, of the curtain calls:

In the original version of this post, I included links to a poor-sounding copy of the broadcast. Since then, a far better copy has emerged, and is available on CD from Oriel Music Trust (, allowing us to hear this famous and historic Figaro in the best possible sound. I'd urge everyone who loves this opera to hear it.

Finally, here's Edmund Tracey's review published in The Guardian on 11 April 1965.


Richest and most nourishing of opera, The Marriage of Figaro returned to the Sadler's Wells repertory on Friday in an attractively simple and direct new production by John Blatchley.

Mr Blatchley has encouraged his cast to give really stylish comic performances, almost totally eschewing those slapstick antics that usually bedevil performances of Mozart in English and which certainly disfigured the last Sadler's Wells production of this opera. The virtues of Vivienne Kernot's sets are perhaps mainly negative: the shapes are well enough conceived, but the decorations are rather bare and stark. The costumes, on the other hand, are very beautifully designed.

Of couse all this would be little to the purpose were the music not carefully prepared and vitally played and sung. The most important person in an performance of "Figaro" must always be the conductor – and in this case Charles Mackerras shapes each act with outstanding authority and imagination. There are wit and high sprits in his reading, but also great expressive warmth. Mr Mackerras clearly understands that there are cruelty, heartache and compassion in "Figaro" as well as laughter and busy intrigues: what is more, he has taught his cast to take the same serious view of the music.

At the end, when the Count dropped to his knees to beg his wife's forgiveness, the usual chuckle rippled through the audience; but not for long. Mr Mackerras invested the short ensemble that succeeds this appeal with such radiance – such holiness, I might say – that laughter was silenced; then came the exultant little tailpiece that ended everything in fizzing good humour.

The entire cast – Ava June (Countess), Raimund Herincx (Count), Elizabeth Harwood (Susanna), Donald McIntyre (Figaro), to name the four principals – is excellent. Mr Mackerras gives the opera complete (i.e. with all the recitatives and Marcellina's and Basilio's Act IV arias); redistributes the vocal lines in the Act II C major trio, so that the Countess has the upper part; reintroduces appoggiaturas throughout; and embellishes the vocal line with the sort of ornaments and cadenzas that singers in Mozart's time would have adopted and which have fallen from general use since composers took to writing down their exact requirements and singers no longer needed to acquire and practice a skill in improvisation. (Imagine Brünnhilde improvising a cadenza as she vaulted from rock to rock.)


I applaud the first three of these innovations: and my single reserve about the fourth is that elaborate ornaments are permissible only if you have singers who can throw them off brilliantly. The present cast managed them on the whole pretty well; but there were several ungainly and breathless scrambles, and perhaps Sadler's Wells ought to think twice before loading these embellishments on to less gifted and experienced singers when the opera is revived and taken on tour.