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16 Nov 2005
Decca Classic Recitals
The first thought one has is « how nice to have those recitals back like they were issued ». One remembers too well the first days of the CD when historical vocal recitals appeared more or less mutilated, often culled from two or more LP’s so that some tracks were sorely missed.
The second thought however is less kind. It’s fine to have them all back but it nevertheless smacks a little too much as if someone at Decca thought of plundering the rewarding back catalogue without having to go to some extra pains. It’s fine with me that everything is published in the original form, photographs and sleeve notes included but I still think Decca should have given us a little bit more, be it in an aside. A good vocal historian should have had access to contracts, notes and reports at Decca and if possible have asked the singers themselves why they recorded these pieces. At the same time some false information could have been avoided. The Bergonzi issue in this series (not reviewed here) still incorrectly states that his début was in 1948 in Lecce instead of 1947 in Varedo. And wouldn’t it not have been interesting to know something on the sales figures? A missed opportunity. Moreover, I wonder who is interested in these issues as several of them were already available in a more generous selection on CD.
Another and more positive observation can be made when looking at the recorded tracks. Some of those recitals were definitely unhackneyed at the time, especially the Scotto-Freni and the Tourangeau-issues and one marvelled at the bravery of the singers, the producer and the conductors. Thirty years later there is only Balfe’s Ildegonda that to the best of my knowledge is not to be found in a complete recording in either a commercial catalogue or in one of those awe-inspiring lists that are circulating among collectors on the net. Maybe all is not glorious for the moment in the classical industry, but there have been enormous gains as well and a lot of brave and small companies filled the gap when the majors no longer recorded complete operas. A last remark: once more I’m struck by the sound quality of the recordings. Indeed the Decca engineers have always been known for their brilliant recording techniques which often made a voice somewhat richer on record than in reality. But even the oldest record (Siepi 1954) has the voice in all its splendour and well balanced with the orchestra. Di Stefano sounds like he was recorded yesterday. No small praise for recordings made a half century ago.
One of the reasons I ask for some historical comment is the fact that I remember too well some of the reactions when these issues first appeared and perception of these recordings have sometimes severely changed. Take the Di Stefano record. The tenor had recently switched to the Decca/RCA labels and he would never record another complete opera again for EMI. His arrival at Decca first ended in disaster as he was so badly in vocal trouble he had to cancel his remaining sessions during the recording of Mefistofele (Del Monaco took over). In the summer of 1958 Di Stefano redeemed his reputation somewhat by recording 18 traditional and Italian songs. Twelve were put on the record under review in question. All six remaining songs appeared in the US on a London recital together with six numbers from this classic recital. So I would have preferred a less “classical” re-issue but one that gave us all 18 songs recorded in July and August 1958 with an orchestra conducted by Dino Oliviero. By the way, buyers of the 2 CD-set with Di Stefano (called Torna a Suriento and still in the Decca catalogue) have them all combined with a later recital. I know this CD is medium priced but 35 minutes of music is not what one expects from a CD in 2005 and even with these six additional songs this would have been a short programme. The LP-recital had a distinctive trait: on one side one found traditional Sicilian songs while the commercial songs were put on the second side. It’s one of the things that makes a CD sometimes more run-of-the-mill as one is not obliged anymore to leave one’s seat and reflect on what one has heard. Two of the traditionals the tenor had already recorded for EMI in 1947 while the four other songs came on RCA three years later. In 1958 the well-known Dutch collector and critic Leo Riemens wrote that the new Decca recording was as fine as the earlier ones and that’s an opinion few would share nowadays. The decline of Di Stefano is well known and well illustrated by this recital: too open singing, spreading the voice under pressure and thickening of sound above the stave. Still, I wouldn’t be without this classic recital. Notwithstanding the vocal decline and the rough edges appearing, this is still a major voice singing lustily. Di Stefano shows why even late in his career he had such a fanatical following. He (together with Gigli) had what the Italians call “la gioia di cantare” in their eyes. They enjoyed singing. For them it was more than hard work and this shows in every track on this CD. Every song is caressed and sung with love and devotion. Especially fine are “Munasterio ‘e Santa Chiara” and “Parlami d’amore.” Di Stefano has few rivals in this kind of recital but the few ones are formidable competitors. Gigli’s “A canzone é Napule” is definitely better as the older tenor uses his honeyed pianissimo to sketch the anguish of the Neapolitan migrant while Di Stefano just sings on. And fine as Di Stefano’s “Firenze sogna” is, the version by that most popular singer in all Italy’s history, Carlo Buti, is more refined and introspective.
The Freni-Scotto re-issue is simply a must for every vocal buff. It starts out with a formidable duet from Mercadante’s Le Due Illustri Rivali; a masterpiece more deserving a recording by Opera Rara than the same composer’s Emma d’Antiochia (Yes I know, I know. I’ve got the 1970 pirate recording with Papantoniou, Parada and Zambon and it’s a very fine performance). Immediately one is captured by the fine blending of the two voices, which were still at their best when the recording was made in 1978. Freni would only promote herself to lirico-spinto two years later when she accepted Karajan’s proposal to sing Aida. Scotto had already a 26-year career behind her back and the voice had become bigger though it was still a lirico and the record was made just before she went for the real heavies at the Met (Don Carlos 1979, Francesca 1984, Macbeth 1982, Tosca 1981, Gioconda 1979). There is of course already a hint of shrillness in the voice but that had always been there as is proven by her older records or her many live performances I attended at the Verona arena (Traviata with Bergonzi in 1970, Bohème with Pavarotti in 1973). That shrillness which often gave a dramatic and emotional touch to her singing nevertheless was not grating on the nerves as it would do one decade later when the voice was in tatters. For a time both ladies shared the same repertoire and competed with the same roles in the record market. Still this competition brings out the best in them on this recording where no one is trying to outsing the other though it was probably conductor Leone Magiera’s (by that time Freni’s former husband) task to see that no one tried to best the other. The ladies are formidable in Mercadante and Bellini: in the big Norma-duet one has at last a young lyric Adalgisa as Bellini intended and not some older female heavyweight. The technical execution of all vocal difficulties is not as perfect as with the Sutherland-Caballe set but the more youthful sound coming from Freni-Scotto is so much more convincing dramatically. The short Mozart duet is a winner too. Freni was a well-known Susanna and the duet with Scotto as the Countess is irresistible. This reviewer has always wanted more blood and guts in Mozart than the internationally streamlined, almost sexless, way of singing has been giving us for such a long time. With Scotto and Freni one probably gets Mozart as the composer would have wished it. Oh, to have a Don Giovanni with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Bastianini. The only set that comes near is the wonderful Cosi with Tucker and Steber.
Two arias from Don Giovanni are Tom Krause’s first contribution on his classic recital which gives short value too for its money. Decca could have added his Sibelius songs from 1967. Krause is not a very subtle singer. The voice itself is not directly a thing of beauty: somewhat gruff and not always very smooth. But this makes for an interesting Don Giovanni; more sexual animal and less slick Latin lover. He sings a convincing French Guillaume Tell without plumbing the depths of a father’s anguish like Gobbi does in his classic recording. Krause’s voice however is well adapted to Rodolfo’s outburst in the other Bohème. But it is in the Wagner pieces where his familiarity with Italian and French opera pays off: a brilliant Holländer with passion while keeping a fine legato. And his Prince Igor is exemplary as could be expected from a Fin.
Leontyne Price’s Verdi recital is somewhat the fly in the ointment in these series and more than with the other recordings one would want to know why Decca recorded it as late as July 1980 or why Madame Price consented doing it. It cannot have been to fill a gap in the repertoire (though maybe it filled a hole in Decca’s catalogue). Price had already and gloriously recorded the arias of Aida in her famous “blue” début recital with RCA. She had recorded them in her first 1962 complete Aida and her second somewhat less glorious recording in 1969. She had recorded a complete Ballo and Ernani 14 and 13 years before this recital and the big Otello scene was already on the famous first record of her Prima Donna series in 1965. The reviews at the time simply said that Price couldn’t rival with the recordings of that formidable competitor…….the younger Leontyne Price and, when listening to the record 25 years later, these statements are still valid. The voice itself is not bad and is still easily recognizable and not that smoky sound of Ella Fitzgerald imitating Leontyne Price as one critic cruelly said of her last operatic performances five years later. But time and again one is reminded of that fresh soaring line the younger soprano had and then these somewhat pedestrian heavy-footed performances won’t do.
Cesare Siepi’s classic recital from 1954 isn’t exactly new on CD either. It already appeared with some other tracks in the Grandi Voci series and it is still available on Myto with a lot of extra stuff (and there you will find his more elusive LP of Cole Porter songs as well). It is a perfect illustration of the singer’s strong points: a big beautiful voice, just rolling and rolling along. That means he is at his very best in these lyric cantilena utterances of Nabucco or Simon Boccanegra. The moment the music reveals some deeper truths as in the best portrait any man (all historians included) has ever sketched of the Castilian King Philip, then Siepi’s belcanto approach remains somewhat bland and he cannot quite compete with Christoff, even as the Bulgarian bass chops up the line and is not afraid to introduce some half sobs. His two French arias are worth hearing, beautifully sung but once more without deep insight into the possibilities of the roles. Ghiaurov gives us a more incisive Huguenots which makes Marcel’s fanaticism more believable and Siepi’s Robert le diable is neither the sinister forceful devil of Ezio Pinza nor the refined cynic of Pol Plançon.
The French-Canadian Huguette Tourangeau succeeded in surpassing Callas in one aspect: controversy. I’ve never met someone who didn’t have an opinion heavily pro or badly contra. There is no denying she utters some of the strangest noises on records by any singer. Her chest tones sometimes descend into growls or sounds one more associates with stomach trouble. The contrast with the slender middle voice is stunning while the top notes easily sail to high C and seem to belong to a good lirico. She reminds me of only one other singer and that lady is not particularly known for her operatic repertoire: Yma Sumac and I’m almost sure she would have sung opera in Tourangeau’s way. And yes I belong to the Tourangeau-addicts who like her very idiosyncratic singing. Moreover there is the repertoire which even now is somewhat daring with arias from Vaccai, Auber or lesser known Bizet or Donizetti, which she almost furiously defends. Thirty years ago she was often derided as belonging to that strange menagerie (Opthof, Duval, Vrenios etc.) Bonynge had collected to show off Sutherland’s voice the better; but she is definitely a cut above the average and don’t forget young Pavarotti belonged to that zoo as well. Decca would do well in re-issuing Tourangeau’s fine recital of Massenet songs.