There have been a few reissues lately that I think are important enough to warrant a note.
Pentatone, a Dutch company started by ex-Philips engineers who wanted to see some of the excellent quadrophonic recordings made during the 70’s brought to the public via the medium of SACD, has released several significant opera recordings from the Philips and DGG catalog that are of very high quality, whether heard in stereo or in multi-channel format. Both companies (and Decca, for that matter, although Pentatone hasn’t gotten there yet) invested in making high quality surround recordings using four channels, as had started to emerge in the 1970s. At the time, none of the release mechanisms seemed adequate, so these recordings were kept under wraps. “Matrixed” LP issues, that were supposedly compatible with standard stereo playback equipment, as released by EMI and CBS/Columbia, never adequately separated out the rear channels and, played back in stereo, made you feel that you constantly needed to clean your stylus. The RCA system did separate the rear channels but required extensive and expensive equipment (either a special playback cartridge that could consistently reproduce a “carrier” signal higher than 30KHz and a special decoder box, or else a quadrophonic open reel tape deck).
Some of RCA’s quadrophonic recordings have been released on multi-channel SACD by the Dutton label, but so far that’s restricted to a handful of orchestral/instrumental recordings. Quadrophonic pera recordings on RCA that might well be worth hearing, if Dutton would bother with them, would include such things as the Solti “Boheme,” Levine “Vespri Siciliani” and the notorious Moffo “Thais.”
The point is that there was some really exceptionally good and innovative sound production going on then that the public never got to hear.
Meanwhile, Pentatone has issued some really outstanding quad Philips and DGG recordings on multi-channel SACD, including really fine issues of the surround Davis Berlioz Requiem and “Symphonie Fantastique,” Haitink/Concertgebouw Mahler recordings, a beautiful Beethoven Violin Concerto by Grumiaux with Davis and the Concertgebouw and a number of Masur/Leipzig recordings. Opera has been rarer, but there is a noteworthy multi-channel release of the Colin Davis/Royal Opera “Tosca” with Caballé, Carreras and Wixell (with newcomer Samuel Ramey as Angelotti) and, more recently, the Davis “Dido an Aeneas” with Veasy and a rather brilliant surround version of the Bernstein/Met “Carmen” with Horne and McCracken.
The latest to appear is the 1977 Mehta “Fanciulla del West” with Neblett, Domingo, Milnes and a really outstanding supporting cast of top quality singers from the ROH production (including the likes of Robert Lloyd, Gwynne Howell and Robin Leggate). In the mid 1980’s, microphone technology, led by the Japanese, brought a new level of quality to live recordings. In the 1970’s, truly “live” recordings of opera were seriously compromised sonically, The next best thing was to take a production sometime during it’s run and “play” the whole thing in a nearby recording studio. This certainly contributed to the excellence of such studio recordings as the La Scala Abbado “Macbeth” and “Simon Boccanegra” and the Berlin Maazel “Traviata.”
This “Fanciulla” does play very much like a live performance but with the benefit of studio quality sound. The sense of being present in a performance is much enhanced by the surround playback. This new remastering highlights nuances of characterization and of orchestral playing, bringing particular attention to much of the Debussyian writing that Puccini had incorporated into this score and took further into the “Trittico” (“Il Tabarro especially) and Turandot. I’ve actually come to regard this as Puccini’s most interesting score. I think one reason it isn’t as popular as some of his other works is related to the fact that the “Fanciulla” herself, Minnie, is such a difficult role and requires such Wagnerian stamina. It also needs a really great and expansive personality.
So, while all of the discussion of the sound quality and audio production and even the quality of the conducting and orchestral playing as well as the superb supporting cast are all well and good, a lot of it still comes down to one’s judgement of Carol Neblett as Minnie. Dirty old man Walter Legge used to call her “the Niblett.” I actually find her quite fine, but I have to elaborate on that a bit.
There are many singers whom we discuss as having to be heard live to appreciate. Nilsson, for sure. I think Lorengar and Crespin. Today, that certainly applies to Nina Stemme whom I love but wouldn’t care for at all if I were basing my opinion of her on recordings, broadcasts or HD transmissions. I think Neblett is the opposite. I never heard her live in the house sounding as good as she does on this recording (or, for that matter the Leinsdorf “Die Tote Stadt”) or even on some broadcasts, such as her Alice Ford. In the house, I always heard a big, blowsy, unfocused and therefore not that attractive sound. But the microphone heard something different from her. It adds a shimmer and focus that I never heard in the house. On this recording, listening to her bible reading: if someone played it for me and I didn’t know who it was, I’d guess Caballé. I NEVER thought Neblett sounded like Caballé live.
With Domingo and Milnes both in their absolute prime, I find this a really outstanding recording of the Puccini work and a very engaging listening experience, at least heard in surround.
Another release mechanism for high res, high quality reissues is Blu-Ray Pure Audio. These are recordings that can be played on a Blu-Ray player without a screen (although there is an on-screen menu if you have it hooked up to a TV). So far, they’re 2-channel only, not trying to give us the full 3-tracks on early stereo recordings (as some SACD releases did, such as the Sony/RCA) or any kind of surround mix (as surely had been made of the Karajan “Boheme” and “Butterfly”).
These give an exceptionally accurate reproduction of the tape from which they’re derived. The one caveat is that tape is a physical medium that degrades, no matter how carefully you store it.
The latest of Decca’s reissues in this format is the 1962 “Tosca” conducted by Herbert von Karajan, produced by John Culshaw, with the Vienna Philharmonic made in the famous Sofiensaal with Leontyne Price, Giuseppe di Stefano and Giuseppe Taddei as principals. Even with deterioration of the tapes, the sense of aliveness and dynamics on this new reissue is stunning. What comes across most strikingly from Price is the sheer sensuousness and eroticism of her singing. Di Stefano also benefits hugely from the remastering; you hear the virility and sensuality of the middle voice even if there’s no hiding the loss of freedom and resonance on his labored top notes. Taddei sounds just plain magnificent. With all due respect to Gobbi, this is the “reference” sound for me of what Scarpia should be. Likewise magnificent (no surprise) is the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan and I think orchestral playing is a huge component of successful Puccini performance. He was a great orchestral colorist. Karajan certainly does seem to empathize particularly with Scarpia and there’s a notable surge of energy and forcefulness in the playing when Scarpia enters that continues through his scenes.
The last set I want to comment on is the kind that can be very irritating. A massive box set that has a handful of CDs that will be interesting to many on this list, but which don’t seem to be otherwise available. This is the latest of Sony’s RCA “The Living Stereo Era” sets. I almost overlooked it because the previous sets so heavily duplicated CDs I already had from the likes of Reiner, Munch, Cliburn, Heiftez, etc.
This latest set focuses primarily on soloists: singers, violinists, pianists, chamber groups. I actually am interested in most of what’s in it, many of which I had on LP but not in any digital format before (various Festival Quartet, Juilliard Quartet, Szerying, etc.). For voice enthusiasts, the primary interest is getting a really beautiful remastering of Milanov’s 1958 aria collection, with the arias in their original order and with original artwork that really brings out what beauty and soaring quality she still had. Other items for which I’ve sought in vain to have on CD are a couple of really delightful Cesare Valletti song recitals, the beautiful and (to me) surprisingly sophisticated 1958 song recital by Roberta Peters, the lovely and powerful recital of Schubert, Strauss and Sibelius songs by Nilsson. Most important for me, and one I’ve really been looking for as I still treasure the LP, is the RCA Russian song recital with Vishnevskaya accompanied by Dedyukin, made in 1960 during what I think was her first American visit. Really superb, prime voice renditions of some of the Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev songs that made up recital content for much of her career but with the voice at its absolute peak and beautifully recorded.
It’s a 60 CD box set and it cost me $120 on Amazon, but honestly I would have paid that to get such high quality remastering of the half dozen or so vocal items contained therein.
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