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Review: Mozart Operas; Currentzis vs Jacobs

I had to buy my own Christmas present this year – which isn’t quite the sob story it sounds to be, because it meant that I finally got my hands on Teodor Currentzis’ recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (with Musicaeterna on SONY). I’ve been waiting for this recording ever since it was first announced a couple of years ago.

Currentzis has now recorded all three of Mozart’s da Porte operas. His radical, period-instrument approach will not be to everybody’s tastes, but I love it. Recordings of The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Don Giovanni are, of course, two a penny – but in a sense, Currentzis’ interpretations are such an acquired taste that they only have one obvious rival in the catalogue, and that is Rene Jacobs’ performances on the Harmonia Mundi label. So I thought it would be nice to see how they compare.

First up is The Marriage of Figaro. I feel that this is the opera where the difference in interpretation between the two conductors is at its narrowest. Both are good; but Jacobs is blessed with a cast and orchestra that never put a foot wrong, and his energetic, fluid Figaro is easily one of the best in the catalogue – if not THE best. Currentzis’ interpretation, meanwhile, has little new to offer. Round one to Jacobs, I think.

Cosi Fan Tutte is where things start to get interesting. I have always been frustrated with the extreme levels of ornamentation that Jacobs encouraged his singers to embroider into their performances. Ornamentation, when used correctly, can be a powerful tool in the conductor’s armoury (as we’ll see later), but here it often feels heavy-handed – and it has a bad habit of interrupting the flow of the music rather than underlining it. Jacobs is not helped by the fact that, unlike with Figaro, there is a clear benchmark recording of Cosi in the catalogue – the Schwarzkopf/Böhm recording on EMI. Whereas the ensemble singing in the Böhm recording is so sublime that you can easily overlook certain notorious editing blunders, in Jacobs’ recording it never quite seems to gel to the same extent – a problem that reoccurs in his Don Giovanni. In contrast, in the Currentzis recording, although the ensemble singing is still not quite as magical as it is under Böhm, it’s certainly a lot clearer and crisper than under Jacobs. What really elevates Currentzis’ Cosi to something special, however, are the risks that he takes with it. Currentzis vision of Cosi Fan Tutte is raw and dangerous, with sudden moments of ugliness amidst the beauty. It’s quite unlike any other interpretation I’ve ever heard, making even the normally radical Jacobs sound tame by comparison. I can understand why many listeners might hate this recording, but for me it’s by far and away my favourite of all the recordings mentioned in this post (even if the climax suffers from some of that top-heavy ornamentation problem). Round two to Currentzis.

Which brings us onto the tiebreaker – Don Giovanni. Like with Cosi, there is an established benchmark recording in the catalogue – in this case the Wächter/Guilini recording on EMI. But unlike with the Böhm recording of Cosi, the Guilini recording is beginning to feel a little long in the tooth. Partly, I think, this is because it lacks the rawness that both Jacobs and Currentzis have shown can be found in Mozart – rawness which I feel needs to be an intrinsic part of a Don Giovanni performance, rather than an option extra (as it can be with Figaro and Cosi). So with this in mind, how do Jacobs and Currentzis compare? Well, unlike with Cosi, the more radical performance here is definitely Jacobs’. He lurches through unexpected tempo changes, and he manages to summon up a wild, thrusting momentum which suits the opera very well. And in the smaller numbers Jacobs’ interpretation is consistently the more interesting and fresh. In the larger numbers, however, the ensemble singing once again does quite dovetail together as smoothly as it could. Singers get lost in the blur of the music. In contrast, under Currentzis, everything is crisp and clear – if a little less elastic. Jacobs is also crippled by certain perfectly reasonable choices he made as a conductor, which don’t quite pay off. I could buy the younger, lighter tenor as the Don; but his Commandatore sounds underpowered, and this becomes a serious problem when the two are facing off against each other in the climax. To further compound the problem, Jacobs elects for a very quick tempo here – which is quite a shock if you’re used to the slow build up of tension that every other conductor in the repertoire goes for. Jacobs argues that this is more in keeping with Mozart’s original vision. Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. All I can say is that, from a dramatic point of view, I don’t think that it works. In contrast, Currentzis’ less radical approach delivers much more successfully. His Don and his Commandatore face off in a satisfyingly robust fashion that offers no real surprises, but I think that this is one of the few moments in the Mozart canon when established practise nailed the best way forward a long time ago. The thing that surprised me most about the Currentzis recording, however, was its successful deployment of ornamentation. Unlike Jacobs’ occasionally heavy-handed use of it, here the trills and skips on repeated notes manage to add interest to the music without slowing the flow. They make a familiar score sound fresh and spontaneous again. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And although there are moments in the Jacobs recording that I couldn’t live without (the bit in the Peasant Wedding, for example, when the folk violin suddenly lurches forward in speed to throw the entire ensemble into the climax), overall I think that this is an example when less is more. I’ve only listened to the Currentzis performance twice so far, but already it’s beginning to eclipse the Guilini recording. Round three to Currentzis.

I’ll be very interested to hear what Currentzis decides to tackle next.


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