copyright by Mark B. Anstendig


The September 2010 TV broadcast of Don Giovanni from the San Francisco Opera brought two things into relief: 1) that this is one of if not the greatest art work ever conceived and 2) that it is usually not performed accurately. After a lifetime of searching through most available recordings of this opera, while using the techniques of listening perfected at The Anstendig Institute, only one stands out as not only extremely accurate to Mozart’s indications and tempo markings, but far beyond any other performance I know of.

That is the performance conducted by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI records.

Many tempi of this performance differ markedly from those of other performances. Often, though not always, they are slower, which makes them difficult to nearly impossible to sing. The noted French pianist and conductor Jean-Pierre Marty has written a book, “The Tempo Indications of Mozart,” for which he painstakingly sought out all existing examples of Mozart’s tempo indications. Then, Jean-Pierre organized all the indications together. Once that was accomplished, finding what performance speeds were reasonable to each tempo could be ascertained by the instruments or voices for which they were written, etc. (See the author’s preface to the book for greater details of his methods).

I purposely sought out Mr. Marty to ask him about the accuracy of Otto Klemperer’s tempi for the Mozart operas, especially Don Giovanni. He confirmed that Klemperer was extraordinarily accurate (within the range for the various Mozart indications that Jean-Pierre had arrived at.)

Somehow Klemperer succeeds in getting his singers to negotiate the killingly difficult tempi that Mozart indicated. Usually the tempi are sped up to allow the singers to manage the difficult breath control. But that falsifies the expression, and a very different expression comes through at the more difficult-to-sing tempi Mozart indicates.

The greatest achievement of all, in this performance, is the second Donna Anna aria. Klemperer performs that aria extremely slowly (but at a tempo Jean-Pierre said was accurate). Watson manages the tempo magnificently. She is amazingly relaxed and steady in the slow part, which would choke most other sopranos, and a wealth of expression otherwise missing comes forth. Most magnificent of all is the final melisma in the top range of the voice. Everyone else has all they can do just to sing the notes of that passage. Watson manages the melisma full throttle and then gives an enormous expression to the final phrase of the aria.  It has to be heard to be believed. Her first aria is also slower than usual, resulting in enormous expression far beyond other performances I know. And Klemperer adds a stunning crescendo to the long held note. Watson is magnificent here as elsewhere.

The Don Ottavio is especially thrilling and superb in this recording. The role is usually done in a wimpy manner by tenors who can barely manage the notes, let alone enormous emotional quality. But Klemperer’s Don Ottavio, the great Russian-born tenor, Nicolai Gedda, is something else: there is nothing wimpy about Gedda, who brings enormous expression and emotional qualities to the role. Especially his horrendously difficult second aria is done like no other I have heard. Magnificent does not even begin to describe it. Finally, Ottavio is a real man, and with more technique than any of the florid passages need.

Klemperer also uses a mezzo-soprano as the Donna Elvira. Christa Ludwig has enough fullness of tone to differentiate her from the Donna Anna, and also has the upper range necessary for the part. She is particularly thrilling in the emotional abandon she brings to her Mi Tradi aria.

All of these magnificences are obviously Klemperer, who gets the whole cast to outdo itself. Nothing is ordinary in this performance. It is by far the most accurate and the most thrilling Don Giovanni performance I know.

If the reader does not have analog equipment, he/she should at least seek out this recording in a higher-resolution digital format.