Double play

Mozart: Don Giovanni Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner (DG445 870-2; three CDs)
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The clock is running. We're into extra time. No doubt about it, period manners, period style, the primal push of the instruments, the cut and thrust of the rhythm and articulation have put the reckless dash of the narrative back into Don Giovanni. And in this, the blackest of black comedies (and never forget that's what it is), that sense of urgency - an urgency beyond pace and tempo - was ever critical.

Roger Norrington - in his exciting EMI recording - knew it, John Eliot Gardiner knows it. And yet, of the two readings, Gardiner's is somehow the more all-embracing; it is he who yields more readily to the score's innate sensuality. When his Don, Rodney Gilfry, sets about working sexy embellishments into the second verse of his "Serenade", there's a very real sense in which this is a "stolen moment", a moment out of time: because time has no meaning when a Don has to do what a Don has to do.

Gilfry was marvellous in this role on stage, a panther of a performance, a force of nature, cruel, loutish, the very model of sado-masochistic pleasures. And much of that feline physicality comes over the microphone in this live recording. It isn't a special voice, but it's subtly, cunningly deployed. He uses his honeyed mezza voce like a hypnotist, all crooning innuendo and insinuation - just the sound of the word "signorina" is a flagrant come-on.

And he's well-matched from every quarter. With the notable exception of Norrington's Don Ottavio, John Mark Ainsley - more persuasive than Gardiner's Christoph Pregardien, whose timbre and phrasing are not of the freest - the Gardiner cast are generally superior. Far superior in the case of the ladies.

Eirian James's Zerlina hints at newly awakened carnal desires with her sultry account of "Batti, batti" (the Don's tutorage quick to make its mark, so to speak), and between them, Luba Orgonasova (Donna Anna) and Charlotte Margiono (Donna Elvira) ensure a surfeit of scornful temperament. Margiono negotiates the eddying line of "Mi tradi" (perhaps the most challenging vocal work-out in the piece) with great accomplishment, and there's a thrilling "Non mi dir" from Orgonasova (just listen to her in the cabaletta) - a stylish and fiery Donna Anna.

And speaking of fire, not even Norrington chronicles the Don's demise with such uncompromising force: the rasp of the trombones surrounding the Commendatore like a bodyguard, timpani cutting to the bone, wiry violins aflame. This is vintage work from Gardiner and his band. Tiny details make their mark: the Commendatore's dramatic entrance in the first scene, anger and alarm raised in sizzling tremolando strings; or the bassoon line rising woozily through the texture of the "Champagne" aria. And so much more. Gardiner opts for the so-called Vienna edition, the last to be performed during Mozart's lifetime - though I doubt he'll have heard anything quite like this.


People are still telling me what a terrific experience John Eliot Gardiner's Queen Elizabeth Hall performance of Don Giovanni was - why did I miss it? Granted, no recording, however "live", can recreate the full impact of great opera in the flesh. But this one, made at the 1994 Ludwigsburg Festival, gives some idea of what it must have been like.

The pace - as those who know their Gardiner would expect - is fairly lively, on the whole. But the impetus behind it is truly dramatic: the momentum of both acts is tremendous, so much so that Gardiner can allow himself to relax in places, and neither the music - nor the singers - ever sound as though they're under under pressure. There's even a grand, old-fashioned allargando at Mozart's apocalyptic climax, the moment when the Don is dragged screaming down to Hell. Who cares whether it's "authentic" - musically and dramatically, Gardiner has earned it.

I can hear one objection already: all right, it's exciting, powerful even, but is it the kind of recording you'd go back to for individual arias and ensembles? Well, yes, it is. Christoph Pregardien's singing in "Dalla sua pace" is one aria I'd gladly hear again and again for his beautiful, eloquent phrasing, sensitively supported by Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists. Then there's Luba Orgonasova's heroically impassioned "Or sai chi l'onore" - she's a thrilling, very human Donna Anna, and that's certainly not her only high point.

Rodney Gilfry's "La ci darem la mano" may not be for those who just want gorgeous sound, but as a character study it's outstanding - insinuating, charming but also demonic. The graveyard scene - Gilfry, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's Leporello and the sepulchrally amplified statue (Andrea Silvestrelli) - is wonderfully contrasted: lively and comic one moment, genuinely scary the next (praise be for 18th-century trombones!).

The recording doesn't quite manage studio perfection in tone, blend or perspective - when the singers aren't centre stage, they can sound a little distant - but generally it's engineered very well for a live stage event.

My only slight regret is Gardiner's - or the recording's - plunge from the cathartic climax of Act 2 straight into the somewhat bathetic opening bars of the final sextet. Was there wild applause at this point, and did DG edit it out? If so, the performers certainly earned it.