After lying dormant for centuries, Monteverdi's 1607 opera Orfeo kindled the interest of numerous 20th century composers, including d'Indy, Orff, and Respighi, who made modern performing editions of the score. Atypically for an early Baroque opera composer, Monteverdi left a detailed list of instruments used in the first production, but the score, with a few exceptions, includes only the vocal lines and the bass line, leaving it to the performers to fill in the instrumentation. Until Paul Hindemith's revolutionary 1943 realization of the score using period-appropriate instruments, the modern versions had used modern instruments. Hindemith's version, which he called a "work in progress," had its premiere at Yale in 1944, and this live recording comes from its European premiere in Vienna a decade later. Among the young performers who went on to major careers were bass Waldemar Kmentt, harpsichordist and organist Anton Heiller, and most significantly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt playing gamba, who described the performances as affecting him "like a bolt of lightning," and laying the foundation for his commitment to research into historically informed performance practice. It might be imagined that Hindemith's performance would be of primary interest as a historical document of the early development of the "period performance" movement, but it is in fact a fully engaging account of the opera. His tempos are appropriately brisk, moving the opera dramatically forward. The orchestral textures are clean, transparent, varied, and imaginative. Even a counterintuitive move like accompanying the Messenger's dire announcement of Eurydice's death with the celestial aura of harp glissandos and sustained organ chords comes across as brilliantly, chillingly apt. His conducting tends to be on the stiff side, so the singers don't have the freedom to declaim their lines with the naturalness and flexibility that more recent scholarship has shown to be the composer's intention. The vocal performances aren't competitive with the best recordings from the last few decades of the 20th century, but the singers for the most part hold their vibrato at least somewhat in check. Gino Sinimberghi as Orfeo is not entirely successful because he sings with bel canto affectation (although he lacks the coloratura technique to adequately negotiate Possente spirto) and lacks the vocal beauty the role demands. The recorded sound is much better than might be expected for live performances of the period, clear and present with good balance but with some annoying stage and audience noise. This revelatory performance should interest fans of the opera and anyone concerned with the evolution of the understanding of early Baroque opera in the 20th century.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2