Classical CD Reissues  
March 2002 - Part 1 of 2

VERDI: Il Trovatore--Barbara Frittoli, sop/Violeta Urmana, mezzo/Salvatore Licito, tenor/Leo Nucci, bar/Giorgio Giuseppini, bass/Riccardo Muti, cond/La Scala Opera Orchestra and Chorus--Sony 52K 89553 (2 CDs):

This most darkly melodramatic of Verdi's middle-period operas has a distinguished recording history. It calls for four great singers, and the 1952 performance by Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjorling, Fedora Barbieri, and Leonard Warren still has an honored place on my shelves (RCA). In the stereo era, so do the sets led by Mehta (RCA) and Giulini (DG). Now Muti joins them, in the most viscerally exciting recording of all.

The singers aren't great, but they're very good. Frittoli and Licito are brilliant at the top of their registers, and Nucci's strong characterization of the Conte de Luna is particularly noteworthy. The chorus is rich and full, and the orchestra sounds fine. But the star of this show is Muti, who is in tight control throughout and expresses the bold vigor of the score with great skill. His tempos are quite fast, but allow time for the music (and the singers) to breathe, and the light and shadow of his chiaroscuro scene painting are remarkably vivid. He treats the oom-pa-pa accompaniments flexibly and makes much more of them than usual, and the driving impetus of the performance keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat. A splendid release all around!

--Alex Morin

BACH: Cantatas 82 ("Ich habe genug") and 169 ("Gott soll allein mein Herze haben"); Arias; HANDEL: Italian cantatas 1 ("Ah! Crudel nel pianto mio") and 13 ("Armida abbondonata")--Janet Baker, mezzo--EMI 574284 (2 Cds):

In recent years EMI has pretty much given up releasing new recordings, less expensively contenting itself with recycling older material from its extensive archives. Here, for instance, is the great British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker in a collection of Bach and Handel solo cantatas and arias, recorded in good sound in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for which her grave nobility and burnished tones are particularly well suited. Baker was equally effective in opera, oratorio, and lieder, and while she made notable appearances in Britten's operas, I think she was at her best in music like this that called on both her direct simplicity of style and her exceptional communicative skills. She makes the technical requirements of "Gott soll allein mein Herze haben" sound easy, and offers a version of"Es ist vollbracht" (from the St. John Passion) that is dramatically powerful and deeply moving. She is equally at home in the more extroverted Handel cantatas, where her vitality and musical understanding are fully on display. As this collection makes abundantly clear, Baker was a wonderful artist.

--Alex Morin

WAGNER: Der fliegende Holländer--Leonie Rysanek, sop/Franz Crass, bass/Karl Ridderbusch, bass/Claude Heater, tenor/Anne Marie Bessel, mezzo/Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond/La Scala Orchestra & Chorus--Living Stage 4035125 (2 Cds):

In The Flying Dutchman Wagner turned the old tale of the mariner doomed to wander the seas forever into a colorful romantic fantasy that stays at a high pitch of intensity throughout. It's the most conventional and approachable of his works and has remained in the repertory of the world's opera houses ever since it was first staged in 1843.

The opera depends mainly on the strength of the Dutchman, and in this 1966 La Scala production Franz Crass easily dominates the proceedings with his dark, wide-ranging and powerful voice, effectively portraying the character's passion and torment. Rysanek was the best Senta of our time, and in spite of some insecurity, delivers her great second-act aria with touching expressiveness; the others are also very good. Sawallisch allows the singers room for expressive sublety but keeps the affair taut and lucid. The only real problem with this release is its 1966 mono sound and occasional stage noises. There are no entirely satisfactory modern recordings, though Klemperer's with Anja Silva and Theo Adam comes close (EMI); but if you can put up with the sound and the absence of program notes and libretto, this performance is musically among the most rewarding.

--Alex Morin

TERESA BERGANZA: Mozart & Rossini arias; Granados songs--Decca 467905:

Decca has been issuing a valuable series simply called "The Singers", devoted to some of the great artists who emerged after World War II; so far it includes Leontyne Price and Birgit Nillson (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), and the Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza. Berganza sang everything from Renaissance and Baroque arias to modern songs, but she is most closely identified with Mozart and Rossini, for whose arias her well-trained, accurate, and agile voice, remarkably even from bottom to top, was especially effective. Her interpretations were perhaps a shade cool and objective, but she sang with sparkling verve, and she had a charming stage presence. There are a variety of goodies among the 14 selections on this disc (recorded between 1959 and 1975)--for example, a delightful, bouncing rendition of Cherubino's "Voi che sapete" from The Marriage of Figaro and four beautifully voiced songs from Granados's La maja dolorosa. It's always a pleasure to hear singing of such intelligence and security.

--Alex Morin

BIRGIT NILLSON: Arias & Songs--Decca 467905:

This is another release in Decca's "The Singers" series; discs devoted to Teresa Berganza and Leontyne Price are reviewed elsewhere in this issue. After studying and singing in her native Sweden, Nillson made her first appearance on the international scene at Glyndebourne in 1951, but her reputation really began at Bayreuth in 1954, and after 1959 she was the leading Wagnerian soprano at Covent Garden and the Met. And she was more than that, singing and recording outstanding performances as Turandot and Salome and a number of the heavier Verdi roles, some of which are included among the 12 selections on this disc, mostly the late 1960s. I remember her as rather cold and somewhat strident, but that was early in her career; she continued to develop as an artist and later--as here--she sang with great beauty. Her powerful voice did have the brassy edge of a trumpet, riding easily over the largest orchestra, but with a clarity, purity, roundness of tone, and interpretive skill that are memorable. For examples, listen to her brilliant rendition of "Leise, leise" from Weber's Der Freischutz, the lovely phrasing and mezza voce of "Pace, pace, mio Dio!" from Verdi's La forza del destino, or the passionate intensity of "Mild und leise" from Tristan und Isolde. Nilsson was a splendid singer, and this disc offers her at her best.

--Alex Morin

Gigli Rarities, 1934-40 = GOUNOD: Romeo et Juliette/VERDI: La Forza del Destino; Il Trovatore/CILEA: Adriana Lecouvreur/MASSENET: Manon/PUCCINI: Tosca/GIORDANO: Andrea Chenier

Mafalda Favero (Juliette)
Carlo Morelli (Don Alvaro, 1934); Benvenuto Franci (Alvaro, 1939)
Iva Pacetti (Tosca)
Pia Tassinari (Manon)
Magsa Olivero (Adriana)
Elisabeth Rethberg (Maddalena); Doris Doe (La Contessa di Coigny); John Howell (Fleville); Lodovico Oliviero (L'Abate)
Conductors: Santini, Merola, de Fabritiis, Bellezza, Gui, Serafin, Rossi

VAI VAIA 1199 69:20:

Long heralded "the people's tenor," Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) remains a steady example of the sensuous art of singing, an artist of enduring beauty of tone and, despite some late mannerisms, impeccable sensitivity to the dramatic texts in his wide repertory. Some early critics disparaged his upper register, but the high C's in Verdi's deliciously virile "Di quella pira" (in two 1939 performances) disembowel, pulverize any such notions, clearly allowing Gigli to bridge both lyric and spinto characterizations. This disc reminds us that Gigli emerged at the time Caruso was touring extensively in America, so Italy had dire need of a successor. Gigli's early training included two years of technical study; that, and his careful selection of repertory, preserved his voice literally until the end of his life. The sustaining power and luxuriant breadth of Gigli's middle voice ring true in each of the French-language excerpts from Romeo and from Manon: the former, from 1934, have a delicacy of ensemble that easily adumbrate the Bjoerling/Sayao duet from the 1945 MET.

If nothing else redeems this fine disc, where the sound ranges from excellent to dilapidated, the 1938 San Francisco Opera production of Andrea Chenier with Rethberg is staggering. The swift shifts in dynamic, the swelling crescendos, the resonant sense of danger, all contribute to an effective series of scenes, carefully molded by conductor Merola. The Tosca excerpt is brief, just "E lucevan le stelle. . .Ah! franchigia a Floria Tosca," but the power is sensational, easily a model for Corelli. The 1939 "La Forza" has annoying swish in the recording, but the plangent "Le minaccie, i fieri accenti" under Serafin has a brooding, arched tension that culminates in rich sprezzatura. The final cut, from Adriana Lecouvreur, casts a plaintive Gigli with Olivero in her ideal role. The tenor is fifty years old, but still ardent, expressive, dramatically capable of extraordinary softness in his half-voice, a thrilling addition to the mainstream Gigli legacy.

­Gary Lemco

LEONTYNE PRICE: Arias & songs--Decca 367913:

This third release in Decca's "The Singers" series--the other two, devoted to Teresa Berganza and Birgit Nilsson, are reviewed elsewhere in this issue--brings us Leontyne Price, the greatest Verdi soprano of the years after World War II. She overcame many obstacles in her career, from her origins as a black girl in Mississippi to a Juilliard scholarship, a highly praised Bess in the famous touring company of Porgy and Bess, and her acclaimed debut in Il Trovatore at the Met in 1961. For the next 25 years she took all the principal Verdi roles there, and her repertory included many other parts as well, including a very seductive Carmen. She was a true lyrico-spinto, with strong, clear, opulent tones and a distinctive timbre that she herself described as "dusky". Her voice rose easily in a pillar of sound above big orchestras, and while she didn't always exhibit much sense of drama, her interpretations were intelligent and effective. The 13 selections on this disc include a number of Verdi arias--including a gorgeous "O patria mia" from her most famous role, Aida--and several other songs and spirituals, among them a passionate and lovely "I wonder as I wander". By the time of these 1981 and 1983 recordings some of the sheen had gone from her voice, but Price was still a great artist and certainly worth hearing. All the discs in this series have excellent sound.

--Alex Morin

David Oistrakh Collection Vol. 4 = BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56; 2 Romances for Violin and Orchestra/SPOHR: Duo in D Major for 2 Violins, Op. 67, No.2

David Oistrakh, violin
Igor Oistrakh, violin (Spohr)
Lev Oborin, piano
Sviatoslav Knushevitzky, cello
Aleksander Orlov conducts Moscow Radio Symphony (Op. 56); Kyrill Kondrashin conducts USSR State Symphony (Romances)

DOREMI DHR-7714 66:07 (Distrib. Allegro):

This disc restores David Oistrakh (1908-1974) and his illustrious partners of his Trio in the first of several recordings he made of Beethoven's unusual concesssion to the Baroque era, his C Major Concerto, Op. 56. While Oistrakh's last inscription of this piece was in 1969, with Rostropovich and Richter, I always gravitate to the 1961 version with Malcolm Sargent conducting. These recordings date 1947-48, although DOREMI provides no date for the Spohr, which is recorded at a decidedly higher level. The "Triple" under conductor Orlov is a dark traversal, with only the Rondo-a brilliant polonaise-to brighten the atmosphere up a bit. Cellist Knushevitzky

(1908-1963) leads off each thematic entry in the opening movement with a lovely-toned instrument, and Lev Oborin (1907-1974) plays with great flair. Ultimately, one buys this disc to hear the ever-ripening tone and secure playing of David Oistrakh, a colossus of the violin if ever there were one. He and son Igor make some blistering and witty points in Spohr's duo for unaccompanied soli. Even their canonic passages have an earthy musculature reproduced in vivid colors in this happy tribute. An altogether solid addition to the Oistrakh legacy on this label, which now numbers some ten items.

--Gary Lemco

Ignaz Friedman: GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16/LISZT: La Campanella/CHOPIN: 12 Mazurkas; Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 55, No. 2

Ignaz Friedman, piano
Philippe Gaubert conducts Symphony Orchestra (Paris Cons.)

Opus KURA OPK 2009 65:28 (Distrib. Albany):

Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), the great Polish virtuoso and pupil of Leschetizky, remains a hot-house flower among the keyboard titans, an artist whose recorded legacy is small, and whose reputation rests on a handful of recordings in the repertory of Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Liszt, and Mendelssohn. Though he found a haven in Australia, where the ABC made shellacs of his more extended repertory, virtually the entire collection was consigned to an Australian land-fill when the radio stations emptied their vaults!

This Opus KURA edition of Friedman's more familiar programming has already had life on CD via Danacord and APR. These inscriptions date 1926-36, where the earliest disc is the abbreviated La Campanella, and the latest is the renowned E-flat Nocturne from 1936. The Grieg Concerto suffers Gaubert's frazzled ensemble, with tinny horns and winds, fuzzy intonation. The British shellacs are no bargain, either, high on hiss and surface swish. But the Freidman 1930 Mazurkas rank along the Godowsky Nocturnes as classics of the style: explosive rhythmic propulsion, a heavy-footed, peasants' dance that carries a rough edge in spite of the suave rubatos Friedman applies. No repeat appears as an exact replication of a former incarnation: slight variations in tempo, pulse, dynamics, and agogic accent keep one dramatically interested. Freidman's Op. 24, No. 4 is worth a dissertation in itself. The A-flat Major, Op. 50, No. 2 may well be a rediscovered masterwork here. Tempos are generally quick, but Friedman's detache and non legato are so lithe we remain suspended in space. The wonders of the E-flat Nocturne have long generated critics' ink. If Friedman is an unknown entity to your collection, start here.

-Gary Lemco

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