A clutch of Decca Toscas

For this comparison, I have chosen five different recordings of Tosca, all available from Decca Classics.

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First off I revisited the 1984 Solti Tosca but have to say I got bored before the end of Act I and then just tried various bits in the other two acts. The sound is great. Apart from that the best thing in it is Aragall, though I wouldn’t prefer him to Di Stefano, Domingo, Carreras or Bergonzi, all of whom appear on other more recommendable recordings. Nucci is a dead loss and Te Kanawa out of her depth as Tosca. Solti’s conducting has little to commend it either, too slow in places and too fast in others. It just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole, and considering it was all recorded piecemeal, that’s hardly a surprise. I remember this set was originally issued in a blaze of publicity, but it didn’t sell well and was quickly remaindered. A totally forgettable performance. 

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Where I found the Solti a bit of a bore, this 1966 set is quite interesting, but often for all the wrong reasons. First of all Maazel’s conducting is fussy beyond belief. He can hardly let a phrase go by without pulling around the tempo or trying to bring out some detail in the score. There is no lyrical flow or sweep and untilmately Puccini gets lost on the altar of Maazel’s ego.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Scarpia is, as you would expect, intelligently thought out, but it never sounds idiomatic. He is an artist I admire in the right repertoire but Puccini was not for him. Corelli is, well, Corelli. He is definitely the best of the three principals, but he emphasises the heroic at the expense of the seductive. Nonetheless, as always, there is much to enjoy in the sound of the voice itself.

Then there is Nilsson. Well the top notes are fabulous of course, but this isn’t really a good role for her. She often overdoes the histrionics, as in her first scene with Scarpia where she adds a surfeit of sobs. She can also be a little clumsy in the ligher sections and Non la sospiri la nostra casetta is clumsy and unpolished. Ultimately, like Fischer-Dieskau, she sounds as if she had strayed into the wrong opera.

For all that I found this more enjoyable than the Solti, which is just plain dull. At least all the singers here have a personality.

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So I’ve moved on to the 1978 Rescigno in this mini challenge and there’s little here to detain us. In fact I’d be tempted to place this below the Maazel, which at least has interest value. Rescigno was a favourite of Callas’s, recording many of her recital albums and delivering at least one great performance in the live 1958 Covent Garden Traviata but his conducting here is just plain dull. Like Te Kanawa, Freni is completely out of her depth, the voice just too light even at this stage of her career. I expected Milnes to be more interesting, especially when you think of his Jack Rance, but for some reason his Scarpia just isn’t nasty enough. Which leaves Pavarotti, who sounds out of sorts vocally. The velvet has gone from his voice and he often sounds plain whiney. Not surprisingly his Vittoria! is very small scale when set beside Corelli’s. And small scale is what personifies the whole performance, but that’s not what Tosca needs.

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At last a real Tosca voice! Aside from at the very top of the voice when she can be a bit shrieky, Tebaldi fulfils almost all the demands the role asks of her. I say almost, because she doesn’t quite have Callas’s flexibility and lightness of touch in Non la sospiri la nostra casetta, but then few do. The beauty of the voice is well caught and she is a convincing Tosca. It’s not a particularly subtle performance, from any of the singers, but they do all have splendid voices of the requisite size and weight. Del Monaco is much better than I remembered, though he still bawls from time to time and his arias lack poetry. George London is the best of the Scarpias so far, his voice dark and threatening.

What lets this set down is the routine conducting of Molinari-Pradelli. He is a good accompanist, nothing more. Still, worth hearing for the three lead singers. The 1959 recording sounds good for its age.

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So I’ve come to the end of my mini Decca Tosca challenge and what a difference the conductor makes. This 1962 recording is in an altogether different class from the others and the chief reason for that is Karajan’s elastic conducting, which is incredibly controlled without being rigid. Where Maazel’s conducting draws attention to itself because of the way he fusses with the rhythms, Karajan’s rubato is entirely natural. He has at his disposal a cast as well nigh perfect as any other assembled on disc. Taddei’s Scarpia is the best I’ve heard since Gobbi, sounding equally dangerous but in a completely different way. You feel this man could lash out viciously at any second. Gobbi’s Scarpia would be unlikely to get his own hands dirty, but you feel Taddei’s not ony would but would enjoy doing so. Di Stefano is in slightly fresher voice for De Sabata but he is still an excellent Cavaradossi, and I actually prefer him to both Corelli and Del Monaco. He fulfils all aspects of the character, artist, lover and revolutionary, finding the poetry in his arias and an almost crazed fervour in his cries of Vittoria. He brings more “face” to his character than anyone. Truly this was one of his very best roles.

Which leaves us with Price and here I have a feeling I might be treading on controversial ground. The voice is, of course, absolutely gorgeous, her characterisation sensuous and feminine, and her singing is deeply felt (Vissi d’arte is really lovely). She is a good deal preferable to Nilsson, Freni or Te Kanawa, but I would still place Callas and Tebaldi ahead of her in the Tosca canon. The Callas/De Sabata I know so well that it tends to play in my mind’s ear whenever I hear the opera, but I had also just listened to Tebaldi in the role and she sounds more like a natural for it to me. It’s hard to put my finger on what is missing, but I’d no doubt be perfectly happy with her Tosca if I hadn’t heard Callas and Tebaldi in the role. Nonethless she is one of the best Toscas on record and in very good company.

So now having heard all five of these Decca recordings, my final ordering would be

1. (by a fair margin) Karajan
2. Molinari-Pradelli (the only other really worth hearing, mostly for Tebaldi’s Tosca and London’s Scarpia)
3. Maazel
4. Rescigno
5. Solti

The De Sabata would still be my ultimate first choice, but the Karajan has also stood the test of time and anyone wanting an audio Tosca would be happy with either. If stereo sound is a must, then Karajan is the obvious first choice.

 

Two Turandots

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Not having listened to this set for some time, it was good to be reminded that it certainly justifies its reputation. I even found the Ping Pang Pong episodes less irritating than I usually do.

Sutherland seemed strange casting at the time (and she never sang the role on stage) but it’s a casting decision that definitely paid off. Her diction is better here than it usually is, though she doesn’t make as much of the text as Callas does. On the other hand, by the time Callas came to record the complete role in 1957, she couldn’t disguise the strain the role made on her resources. (Too bad she didn’t record it a few years earlier, when she recorded a stunningly secure, and subtly inflected version of In questa reggia for her Puccini recital.) Anyway for my money, Sutherland has much more vocal allure in the role than Nilsson, and surely Turandot has to have allure if one is to make any sense at all out of the plot.

Pavarotti is caught at his mid career best and Caballé sings beautifully, spinning out her fabulous pianissimi to glorious effect. If I’m absolutely honest, I prefer a slightly lighter voice in the role, like, say, Moffo, Freni, Scotto or Hendricks, who is the Liu of the Karajan set reviewed below. Caballé sounds as if she could sing Turandot, which indeed she did, but there’s no doubting her class, even if there is something of the grande dame about her. The rest of the cast is superb and Mehta conducts a splendidly dramatic and viscerally beautiful version of the score. On balance, it’s probably still the best recording of the opera around.

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It was interesting then to turn to Karajan’s 1981 digital set, and this, I would say, is definitely the conductor’s opera. Sonically it is absolutely gorgeous. Karajan’s speeds tend to the spacious, allowing him to reveal beauties in the orchestration I’d never heard before, not even in the superb Mehta.

When it comes to the cast, Barbara Hendricks’s Liu sounds just right, a lovely lyric soprano, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, as she was when J heard her sing the role in concert at the Barbican. By contrast Caballé sounds too grand, Schwarzkopf too much the Princess Werdenberg, though both of them sing divinely. Domingo makes a most interesting, more psychologically complex Calaf than Pavarotti, but I do miss Pavarotti’s ringing top notes. Domingo is taxed by the upper reaches of the part.

The set’s biggest stumbling block however remains Ricciarelli. Truth to tell, this time round I didn’t find her casting quite as disastrous as I once thought. A most intelligent and musical singer, she adapts the role to suit her basically lyric soprano. She sings the opening of In questa reggia with a white, vibrato-less sound which is most effective, but she can’t really disguise the fact that, even in the recording studio, her voice is a couple of notches too small. As I intimated above, she has to use all her intelligence to survive the role’s treacherous demands, where Sutherland sounds as if she was born to sing it, and the Mehta remains a much safer choice.

This set is certainly worth hearing though for Karajan’s superb realisation of the score, for Hendricks’s wonderful Liu, and, apart from at the very top of the voice, Domingo’s musical Calaf.

Karajan’s Fidelio

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Recorded October and December 1970, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Wolfgang Gülch

The first time I ever saw Fidelio (and the first time I’d ever heard it) was back in 1974 when Scottish Opera brought the opera to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Helga Dernesch as Leonore. Though all the singers were very good, Dernesch was in a class of her own. I well remember her entry into the Canon in Act I, which was like a shaft of sunlight coming through the gloom. This was around the same time she made this recording with Karajan and the effect is exactly the same here. Famously Dernesch started having problems with the top of her voice and took time out, returning as a mezzo, though there is precious little sign of any strain in her voice here. Throughout she is a gleaming, radiant presence and this is arguably the greatest recording she ever made.

She is not the only reason I treasure this recording. Karajan’s reading is bitingly dramatic and the whole cast one of the best ever assembled for the opera. Certainly I’m not sure anyone has ever equalled Vickers’ searing intensity as Florestan. Ridderbusch as Rocco and Kéléman are superb as Rocco and Pizarro and Van Dam luxury casting as Don Ferando, as is Helen Donath as Marzelline. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and superbly delivered by the singers (thankfully no separate cast of actors).

I’ve lived with this recording for around forty-five years and it’s still my favourite. When I was moving from LP to CD, I bowed to popular opinion and bought the Klemperer, but was profoundly disappointed, finding it less thrilling, less dramatic. It wasn’t long before I bought the Karajan again.

Karajan’s Ariadne auf Naxos

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My first encounter with Ariadne auf Naxos was a scenically splendid Glyndebourne Touring Opera production, which I saw in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1971. I’d never heard a note of the music before, but enjoyed it immensely.

However it was quite some time before I bought a recording, and this classic brilliantly cast 1954 recording was my choice. The years haven’t dimmed its lustre and I simply cannot imagine a better all round performance.

Has there ever been a more impetuously ardent Composer than Seefried? I doubt it; and it’s good to hear a soprano in the role, as Strauss indicated. Schwarzkopf’s Ariadne is not only gloriously sung, but, as always with this artist, with due attention to the words, and she does a fine parody of herself in the prologue. Streich’s adorable Zerbinetta manages to be both sparkily flirtatious and sympathetic, and the accuracy of her coloratura is stunning. Rudolf Schock’s dryish tenor might not offer quite the same sensual delights, but he also sings with intelligence and attention to the text.

The supporting roles are all superb too, especially Karl Dönch’s Musicmaster, Hugues Cuénod’s Dancing Master and the young Hermann Prey’s Harlequin. One should also mention Alfred Neugebauer’s laconic Major-Domo.

Karajan has the full measure of the score and the Philharmonia play brilliantly for him. Mono of course, but wonderfully well balanced recording. I’ve never felt the need to look elsewhere.

Karajan’s 1955 Die Fledermaus

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Oddly enough, my previous post referred to an opera (Massenet’s Cendrillon) where a female breeches role was given to a tenor and the same thing happens here, though not quite to such detrimental effect. Where Gedda’s Prince Charming sounds all wrong, Rudolf Christ’s languidly effete Orlovsky almost reconciles me to the change and this  is my only slight quibble about a superb, classic recording, which I happen to prefer to Karajan’s later effort for Decca.

Though recorded in London with the Philharmonia, cast and conductor bring an echt Viennese quality to the whole enterprise, the judicially edited dialogue delivered in sparkling fashion. You don’t really need to speak German to understand what’s going on.

Schwarzkopf is a superb Rosalinde, none better, singing her Czardas with appropriate dash and swagger, the voice gloriously rich and firm; Streich a delightfully pert and flirtatious Adele; Gedda a properly tenor Eisenstein, with a fine line in comedy, especially when impersonating Blind in the final scene; Kunz a genially scheming Falke. Excellent contributions also from Krebs as Alfred, Dönch as Frank and Majkut as Blind. This really is a fabulous cast and Legge’s superb production ensures that the recording sounds like a real performance.

Karajan’s conducting is perhaps on the swift side, but the whole performance fizzes and pops like the very best brut champagne that the operetta celebrates and is guaranteed to lift the spirits.

Karajan’s Second Studio Carmen

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I saw Baltsa and Carreras in Carmen at Covent Garden shortly before this set was issued, and it remains one of the most thrilling performances (of anything) I’ve ever seen. Consequently I was very excited when this set was issued and snapped it up immediately.

Unfortunately, it proved something of a disappointment, the fault for which must lie squarely on Karajan’s shoulders. By this time measured tempi were becoming the norm for him, and it is evident how much he loves this score, but he rather loves it to death. For all the beautiful playing of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, it lacks completely the wit and elegance of Beecham, or the swift visceral excitement of Prêtre.

Having taken the decision to record the version with spoken dialogue, it seems totally perverse to then use actors to speak it. They sound nothing like their singing counterparts and are recorded in a totally different acoustic, which makes it hard to become involved when the differences are so profound. It’s like listening to two different productions at the same time, and does the most harm to Baltsa and Carreras, who were so involving and communicative live at Covent Garden. Indeed neither of them really settles down to a real performance until the final duet, which is thrillingly powerful, as it should be.

What on earth prompted Karajan to think that Ricciarelli, a singer I often admire could be perfect as both Micaëla and Turandot, which she also recorded with him? She is suited to neither, whereas Barbara Hendricks, who had a particular affinity for French music, and who sings a wonderful Liu on that Turandot he recorded the previous year would have been perfect.

Van Dam is a fine Escamillo, as he was for Solti and there are some good performances among the supporting roles, but it just doesn’t add up to a convincing whole.

I keep the recording for the contributions of Baltsa and Carreras, and often listen to the final duet, but listening to the whole recording is a curiously frustrating experience, and I mostly longed to be back chez Callas, Gedda and Prêtre, which remains my favourite recording of the opera, for all that it uses the now discredited Guiraud recitatives.

The Schwarzkopf/Karajan Rosenkavalier

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This recent re-mastering of Karajan’s famous 1956 recording of Der Rosenkavaier, overseen by the producer of the original stereo version, Christopher Parker, really is the best you are ever likely to hear. Parker has slightly adjusted the balance in the big trio and it really makes a big difference, Stich-Randall now not so shrill and blending better with Schwarzkopf and Ludwig.

What a performance it is, with a cast that could hardly be bettered anywhere, with Schwarzkopf’s warmly feminine, noble Marschallin dominating the opera, as she should. Her singing is wonderfully detailed, Hofmannsthal’s text superbly brought to life. Just listening to her you can see every fleeting facial expression, and I smply cannot understand those who bandy about the usual criticisms of over-artfulness and mannerisms, especially when the lyrical moments are also filled with gloriously refulgent tone. This might just be Schwarzkopf’s greatest achievement on disc.

Ludwig’s ardently impetuous Octavian is the perfect foil for this Marschallin, and if she doesn’t have quite the same matchless control over her resources as Schwarzkopf, the extroverted outpouring of tone suits the character of Octavian to a nicety. Stich-Randall is a  slightly white-voiced Sophie, suitably innocent and naïve, sailing up to those stratospheric notes with a silvery purity second to none, and Edelmann remembers that Ochs may be a boor, but that he is also a nobleman.

Wonderful support from the likes of Gedda as the Italian tenor, Wächter, a wonderfully fussy Faninal and Welitsch as the Duenna, with a plethora of well known names amongst the supporting cast.

Karajan’s direction is just right in every phrase, beautifully managing the dance elements of the score, whilst giving the many lyrical moments their due. He always knows just how to build to the climaxes and his sense of the structure of the opera is spot on, his pacing both quicksilver and expansive. Just to make our cup runneth over we have the Philharmonia on top form.

The recording may have been made in 1956, but sounds absolutely splendid in this latest remastering. My top recommendation for the opera, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Karajan’s Second Studio Recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna  in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many who one might consider more vocally entitled. On the other hand, the personality is small and doesn’t stay in the memory the way that Price, Tebaldi, Caballé and Callas do. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get, if without the clarion heroics of a Corelli or a Del Monaco.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak at the time of this recording, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, his breath control as usual exemplary. Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King and the silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.

Karajan’s second recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many whom one might consider more vocally entitled. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, and Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King. The silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.