Recorded 24-25 September 1958, Kingsway Hall, London
Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Harold Davidson
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this is the best recital record Callas ever recorded, and by default one of the classic recital discs of all time. The 1954 Puccini disc and Lyric and Coloratura will find her in better voice, but this one sums up more than any other her greatness, her ability to bring alive music that can seem formulaic, and even plain dull in the hands of lesser artists.
I know I’ve said this elsewhere, but her singing has an improvisatory air about it, almost as if she is extemporising on the spot; how she achieves this whilst closely adhering to what is on the printed page is a mystery beyond solving. In the Anna Bolena finale, the recitative alone provides a lesson in how to bind together disparate thoughts and ideas. She brilliantly conveys Anna’s drifting mental state, whilst still making musical sense of the phrases and the long line. We can only imagine what she might have achieved in Monteverdi’s recitativo cantavo.
Once into the first aria, Al dolce guidami, her voice takes on a disembodied sound, as if the singing is coming from the far recesses of her soul. Her legato is as usual superb, her breath control stupendous, those final melismas spun out to the most heavenly lengths. In the cabaletta Coppia iniqua, her voice takes on a majestic power, and she manages the rising set of trills with more force than anyone (Suliotis doesn’t even attempt them).
In the magnificent Final Scene from Il Pirata, she traces a long Bellinian line second to none; spinning out the delicate tracery of the decorations from Digli ah digli che respiri onwards with magical fluency. A complete contrast is afforded when she rears back with the words Qual suono ferale, before launching into the thrillingly exciting cabaletta.
Ophelia’s scene from Hamlet is quite different. There is no formal recitative, aria, recitative, cabaletta construction. The scene is more a series of arioso segments interspersed with recitative and can often sound disjointed as a result. Callas binds together its disparate elements with masterly ease. Her voice is lighter here than in either the Bellini or Donizetti, and though the very upper reaches tax her somewhat, she sings with delicacy and consummate skill. The switch from Italian to French causes her no problems at all, her enunciation of the French text admirably clear. Yet again every fleeting expression, every change of thought is mirrored in her voice.
A listening companion of the eminent vocal critic John Steane once said to him regarding Callas, “Of course you had to see her,” to which he replied, “Oh, but I can, and I do.” This was her genius, amply displayed in this recital; the ability to make us see as well as hear.
I did try to make sound comparisons with my other CD issues of this recital, but, as usual, I had little sympathy for the task. Callas drew me in and all I wanted to do was listen. Without making direct comparisons then, I can only state that the sound here is very satisfactory, with plenty of space round the voice.