Testament SBT 1414, 74:26 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Often overshadowed by contemporaries Callas, Tebaldi, and Milanov, the art of Licia Albanese (b. 1913) demands homage, especially for the sheer endurance of her vocal powers. Although her debut occurred in 1934, the documentation of this present disc captures her lyric art in its second phase, 1945-1951, when her leading sponsor was Arturo Toscanini, and she had already become a mighty presence both at the MET and the San Francisco Opera. Characterized simultaneously as a coloratura with a flexible dramatic range, her voice–despite limitations as a virtuoso instrument–earned the epithet linco spinto, for its quick, nervous vibrato and her razor-thin, clear diction. Albanese considered variety of performance her main forte; she disliked repeating herself in performance, always searching out the role as she presented it, making her Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata a suffering heroine, and her Cio-Cio San a tragic muse.
Auditors are encouraged to proceed directly to band four, her 12 January 1950 collaboration with Robert Merrill in duet from I Pagliacci, for the subtle nuance of characterization she can bring, a combination of guilt, pity, and tortured yearning. While Callas brought more mysticism to La Wally, Albanese projects an earthbound pathos. Veteran Frieer Weissman, a refugee from National Socialism, evokes a wonderful sonic patina over the pair of lovers, embracing them in tears. Albanese’s careful intoning of Verdi’s Ave Maria (with Morel conducting) shimmers with naïve innocence, only hinting at the impending injustice of Desdemona’s tragic fate–but Albanese holds the high A-flat for only four beats, not the requisite six (13 May 1947, with Weissman). The Mozart “Batti, batti” (26 December 1947, under Marzello) immediately places us in a gentler time of grace and humanity. The aria from Le Nozze could have been played by Stephen King’s Andy Dufresne at Shawshank with the same, liberating effect on the other prisoners. The two French excerpts–from Manon and Louise–convey that delicacy of spirit of characters easily injured by life, the frailty of our passions.
The last three tracks on this disc–from 6-8 February 1951–represent a special moment for collectors of both Albanese and Stokowski. Conductor Stokowski asked her to prepare two pieces of contrasting temperaments, by Villa-Lobos and Tchaikovsky, the latter in Russian. Competing with the famed inscription by Sayao and the composer on CBS, the RCA has eight celli working in sensuous overtime with Albanese, who intones the Aria with the devotion we associate with Palestrina. The Martelo moves with lithe, buoyant grace, the sensual rhythms and exuberant, even verdant energy of Villa-Lobos resonant in every bar. Stokowski opens the Letter Scene with a sonority reminiscent of Wagner, but the strings, oboe, flute, horn, and harp soften the textures to accompany Tatiana in her alternative musings and laments on the men who compete for her affections. Many of the themes anticipate the passion we hear in Francesca da Rimini. On a personal note, I hope Testament or Sony will resissue Albanese’s wonderful work with di Stefano from La Boheme (RCA LM-1706), a spectacular disc on its own terms.
— Gary Lemco