Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gems a-plenty and technical limitations are not serious enough to diminish listening pleasure.
“Singers of the Century” doesn’t seem a wholly appropriate title for this compilation. The recordings cover less than a decade and some of the singers here made their debuts in the early 1930s. Then again Nicolai Gedda’s career as a recording artist stretches into the 21st century. There are so many important names that should have been included to justify the title. But this is nitpicking and those who are represented here definitely qualify for inclusion in some future volume encompassing the whole of the last century.
Browsing through the track-list made my mouth water. Many of the singers – and actual
recordings – were in my early collection and revisiting them seemed a tempting proposition. It was. By and large the compiler has done a splendid job. I would have chosen many of the same titles and there are one or two surprises. There may also be names that could/should have been included but that is the nature of projects of this kind. So if you like what you see in the tracklist, dear reader, don’t hesitate. The artistic quality is high throughout though I have some doubts about the quality of some of the transfers. Naturally Regis haven’t had access to the master tapes or matrices. In some cases the available pressings seem to have been in less than pristine shape. There are traces of distortion and every now and then one has to adjust the volume setting. This is something one can live with and even though a comparison with EMI’s own transfers from the master shows the difference I derived a lot of pleasure from this budget-priced set. It should also be remembered that many of the tracks here are only available – if at all – as part of complete sets.
Going through the discs track by track I would have thought that Victoria de los Angeles should have been represented by something from her Spanish or French repertoire. She was however a noted interpreter of lyrical Wagner roles and this Elisabeth’s Greeting is a healthy alternative to versions from more full-voiced singers. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Song to the Evening Star, live from Bayreuth in 1954 is valuable. He later recorded the role complete twice, for HMV and DG, but here he is not yet 30 and is tremendously assured and mellifluous. The same goes for Nicolai Gedda – they were born the same year – also recorded when still in his 20s. He gained in power within the next few years but this is a version to savour. Between these two gentlemen we hear the Dance Duet from Hänsel und Gretel, probably never better performed, unless it be the 78 rpm with Schwarzkopf and Seefried.
Walter Berry – even younger than F-D and Gedda – is a fresh and lively Papageno in his first recording out of three of this role. He sang it also with Klemperer and Sawallisch but this 1955 version is the one to prefer. Anton Dermota was regarded as one of the finest Mozart tenors during the 1950s. He is certainly stylish and elegant but compared to Leopold Simoneau, on that same recording as Berry’s Papageno, he tends to pale. The possessor of one of the blackest basses of his day, and also a splendid actor, Gottlob Frick was a great Wagnerian, but he also excelled in comic roles – Osmin and Kecal – as well as the noble Sarastro. His voice is more pliant here than when he recorded the role complete for Klemperer a decade later.
Irmgard Seefried was Pamina in Salzburg under Furtwängler at about the time she recorded the role with Karajan and hers is one of the loveliest and most touching of Paminas. My first Nozze di Figaro – or rather a highlights LP – was Erich Kleiber’s Decca recording. Here we have both Suzanne Danco’s lively Cherubin and – especially – Cesare Siepi’s unsurpassed rendition of the title role. The other two ladies on that recording also took part in the contemporaneous Don Giovanni under Josef Krips and they are well represented here. Hilde Güden is an affecting Zerlina and Lisa Della Casa a Donna Elvira to challenge even Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Another leading Mozart singer in Vienna and elsewhere was Sena Jurinac, and her Come scoglio from Così fan tutte, recorded with Glyndebourne forces under Fritz Busch in 1950, is rock steady; her slightly occluded tone making her easily recognizable.
Cesare Valletti studied with Tito Schipa and was probably his greatest successor. Even his timbre is very similar to Schipa’s and his phrasing is just as exquisite. This aria from Don Pasquale is culled from the 1952 Cetra recording, still regarded as one of the best ever of this opera. Tito Gobbi is a superb Belcore in L’Elisir d’amore. This is singing with a ‘face’, even though the tone can be pinched under pressure. Giuseppe Di Stefano is also in his element singing Una furtive lagrima from the same opera. It is a pity he didn’t stick to this repertoire which suited him so well.
Giulietta Simionato had the technical assurance to sing the florid Rossini heroines but her voice was rather heavy and matron like and better suited to Azucena. It is good even so to have her in this aria from L’Italiana in Algeri, recorded in 1954 and with Giulini in the pit. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni was also the owner of a heavy voice but it was, at this stage of his career, sonorous and expressive. His reading of Basilio’s Slander aria is not unlike Chaliapin’s famous acoustic recording.
Two British singers round off the first disc. Alfred Deller was the personification of the counter-tenor voice. In this Purcell aria he sings with his customary elegance and mellow tone. Jennifer Vyvyan is his direct opposite with crystalline clarity and astonishing agility. Even as early as 1954 Anthony Lewis had much of the rhythmic ease that has since become the norm for baroque performances.
The Pearl Fishers’ duet, which opens CD 2 has been memorably recorded a number of times: Gigli-De Luca, Björling-Merrill, Gedda-Blanc on a complete EMI set from the 1960s. Leopold Simoneau is on a par with his famous competitors: light and lyrical on the one hand, brilliant top notes on the other. René Bianco is a worthy baritone partner. Regine Crespin is wonderfully fresh-voiced on this recording of Mathilde’s aria from Guillaume Tell, sung in the original French. She was certainly the best lyric-dramatic French soprano of her generation. In the early-to-mid-1960s she made a Wagner recital for EMI with Prêtre conducting. There she sang the Wesendonck songs as well as excerpts from Lohengrin, Walküre and Parsifal. This is a record I would like to see restored to circulation.
Janine Micheau was, on the other hand, the epitome of a light lyric French soprano – chronologically somewhere between Mado Robin and Mady Mesplé. In the waltz song from Roméo et Juliette, recorded in 1953, she is heard at her best, whereas a handful of years later, when recording Micaëla with Beecham, she had lost some of the freshness.
Robert Merrill, though no Frenchman but brought up in Brooklyn, is suitably light-voiced in Valentin’s aria from Faust. Few latter-day baritones have had such impeccable legato. It is also a pleasure to hear Alain Vanzo at the start of his career, with unforced lyric singing and his high C with a diminuendo is masterly.
One of the first Carmen recordings on LP was Fritz Reiner’s on RCA Victor in 1950 with Risë Stevens in the title role. I more or less learnt the Habanera through this recording and it comes up here fresh as paint – just as I remembered it.
Stalin’s favourite singer, Ivan Koslovsky, was never allowed to perform outside the Soviet Union and few recordings slipped through the Iron Curtain. He too had a marvellous legato and honeyed pianissimos but at this stage – he was past 50 – his tone had a tendency to harden at forte. This is great singing anyway and he preserved his voice into his 70s. I have a recording from Soviet Radio 1943 where he sings Almaviva’s Ecco ridente in Russian and indulges in some hilarious runs from the top of his tenor voice down to sepulchral basso profondo notes. His bass colleague at the Bolshoi, Mark Reizen, also had a long career. Born in 1895 he made his debut in 1921. On his 90th birthday, 64 years later, he sang Gremin in Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi. Beat that! The Song of the Viking Guest from Sadko is here performed by a relative youth. He was just 57 by then and sounds twenty years younger than that. The third Russian singer on this disc, baritone Pavel Lisitsian, had a truly beautiful voice and was expressive in the bargain. He was allowed to sing in the West, mainly in concert but he sang in War and Peace at La Scala and once appeared at the Met as Amonasro on 3 March 1960. Yeletsky’s aria from The Queen of Spades is a fine example of his restrained intensity and the characteristic fast vibrato.
Better known to Western audiences was Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff. Varlaam’s song from Boris Godunov is a tour de force for this great singing actor.
When Maria Callas rose to fame in the early 1950s, she was rapidly contracted to EMI. They saw the potential in her singing, not only in complete operas but on recital records as well, records that would appeal to a wider audience reluctant to buy complete operas. Her first two recitals were recorded simultaneously in September 1954 in Watford Town Hall. One was a Puccini programme, the other a collection of coloratura and lyric arias. From the latter comes the La Wally aria: inward and intense - possibly the peak performance on that record.
Amor ti vieta was recorded in Stockholm in 1948 by a 37-year-old Jussi Björling who by then had behind him an operatic career of almost twenty years. He re-recorded the aria in stereo for Decca a decade later with arguably even tighter intensity but the present offering is certainly as close to perfection as is possible. Björling often sang opposite Zinka Milanov at the Met and also on complete recordings. Santuzza’s Voi lo sapete is from one of their joint efforts and Milanov’s involvement and power of singing is in fine evidence here. What is also noticeable is that her timbre suggests a much older singer than the role is supposed to be. To some listeners this more of a drawback than to others.
Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn sings a beautiful Vissi d’arte, but am I the only one to think that she is fractionally flat at times? With Renata Tebaldi that was never a problem and she was often at her very best in Puccini. Here she sings Liù’s second aria, just before the suicide, with feeling and beauty. We also hear the brazen tones of Mario Del Monaco at the end of the aria. Then he comes into his own with the ear-shattering first entrance of Otello – a role that he sang more than 400 times. This 1951 version is not from a complete set but a separate recording. Richard Tucker has a long career at the Met and even had his funeral service on the Met stage. He recorded Radames twice, with Toscanini in the forties and with Serafin in the fifties opposite Maria Callas. The present version from 1950 is mellower than either of the complete versions and clearly tells us that the aria is a love song.
The shortest excerpt on this disc, Falstaff’s Quand’ero paggio, presents us with one of the finest exponents of this role – and a great number of others – Giuseppe Taddei. There was a saying in Italy at the time that “we gave Tito Gobbi to the world but kept Giuseppe Taddei to ourselves”. He excelled in Mozart, Rossini and Verdi and his Scarpia in Tosca is one of the best on record.
Taddei may not have had the biggest and most sonorous of baritone voices - that laurel must go to Ettore Bastianini – but his ebony-coloured voice was magnificent. Not the subtlest of interpreters, he was still a thrilling and authoritative singer. Urna fatale shows him before the gradual decline of his voice, caused by throat cancer.
Without erasing memories of Lotte Lehmann in “the most beautiful aria in all opera”, the one from Die tote Stadt, Joan Hammond’s reading of it is still a worthy tribute to this impressive singer. Her pianissimo singing is enchanting.
As can be concluded from this review there are gems a-plenty on these two discs. The technical limitations are not serious enough to diminish listening pleasure – unless one is a diehard hi-fi freak; in that case one should at all costs steer clear of recordings of this vintage.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Martha: Ach, so fromm by Friedrich von Flotow
Nicolai Gedda (Tenor)
Written: 1847; Germany
Fedora: Amor ti vieta by Umberto Giordano
Zinka Milanov (Soprano)
Written: 1898; Italy
Otello: Esultate! by Giuseppe Verdi
Mario Del Monaco (Tenor)
Written: 1887; Italy
Aida: Celeste Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
Richard Tucker (Tenor)
Written: 1871; Italy
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