on 7 May 2007
If you don't object to historical recordings with mono sound, then this is absolutely the set to have. Bjorling's sweet timbre seems to perfectly capture the idealistic Rodolfo, more introspective than some swaggering Italian tenors perhaps (Bergonzi, Pavarotti) but more tender. And De Los Angeles is unforgettably moving as Mimi, singing gloriously but characterising with such taste and tact, such discreet charm that she becomes REAL. One wants to hug the speakers and save this poor Mimi. One cares in a way that I never quite do with the robust and healthy Tebaldi or calculating Callas. This is rare and special singing.
The recording was made at the last minute when Beecham found all the singers available and a studio booked - it was a case of "Let's do Boheme" - and it worked. Beecham understood Puccini's ways and - to contradict another review - gives a yes, spacious, but tauctly structured view of the score. It's ebb and flow allows the story to to breath, but all the big moments have plenty of bite. Certainly more than Karajan for example.
I Adore this set and would never want to be without it. It seems to have such truth and love and warmth and life. I feel I really know rthe bohemians from this recording. An absolute classic, showing The Bohemian Life to the full.
on 19 August 2010
Reviewing a more than fifty year old recording like Sir Thomas Beecham's legendary one of Puccini's La Bohème from 1956 seems to be a presumptuous and superfluous enterprise. It belongs to the EMI series of Great Recordings of the Century. And it certainly is such a treasure that it appears to be somewhat of a sacrilege to touch it with critical remarks. The casting is still extraordinarily superb, a remarkably harmonious ensemble, indeed: Victoria de los Angeles touching and vulnerable, and singing with a great emotional radiance, in a tremendously vivid co-singing with Jussi Björling, that incomparable tenor with his glowing crystalline timbre, and in this case with feelings and singing in perfect interplay; Robert Merrill as a virile and hearty Marcel, Lucine Amara as a cheerful Musetta, Giorgio Tozzi as a overwhelmingly melancholy Colline in his song to his old coat. And last but not least, Sir Thomas Beecham himself, with such an outstanding drive in his conducting as a Puccini opera demands to reveal all its dramatic qualities, the intensiveness of which is more or less unsurpassed in the history of opera. Beecham realized, according to the booklet, the marvels of Puccini's orchestration and his "flowing synthesis of words, music and action, and that highly developed inner visual sense which lies deep in the consciousness of all great theatre composers."
Even though the sound is slightly antiquated, it gives the listener a more than satisfying rendering of the golden voices and of the remarkably fine sonority of the RCA Victor Orchestra. In all, this disc beams forth a wondrous warmth and joy, despite the tragic events, and conveys an elated experience of great musical drama.
Away with revisionist deviationism, say I. For most of my life Beecham's has been regarded as the Boheme to end all Bohemes, and I maintain resolutely that it still is that, for all the advances in recording techniques since 1956. The digital remastering dates from as recently as 2002, but Beecham used to obtain very good technical quality of sound for his day, and for the usual reason that he demanded it and there was no use in arguing. I also offer the following consideration as regards sound-quality - when it is a matter of large forces, say a symphony orchestra let alone the battalions necessary for grand opera, the nature of the sound that can be offered to us in our sitting-rooms simply cannot resemble other than distantly their real sound in the concert hall or opera house. The effect resides to some extent on power of suggestion over the listener's ear, and although I routinely welcome every extra ounce of sound-quality that I can get, in the last resort once a certain level of quality and realism has been attained anything over and above that is secondary so far as I am concerned.
In fact I thought that this set started very promisingly in the matter of `real presence'. The sound is quite forward and it `socked it to me' quite effectively. However as matters advanced the general impact (in the technical sense) seemed to recede somewhat. I believe that this is due in part to the style of the performance. I never heard a more beautiful or affecting Che gelida manina than I do here, but I have certainly heard many that were more vigorous. I believe, simply, that Beecham and Bjorling have decided to ration the quota of `can belto' in their presentation, and it is let loose principally in duets and ensembles. This in turn, I'm inclined to think, is of a piece with the policy on tempi, which have drawn comment for being on the slow side. By way of a comparison in that respect I replayed my old Toscanini LP set, and the difference is admittedly marked, with Beecham taking 107 minutes and Toscanini, renowned and to some extent properly renowned for fast tempi, clocking out after barely 95. Without going through more exhaustive comparisons I suppose I can take Toscanini as representing the opposite extreme, which leaves me wondering how significant the issue of tempi can really be. At any speed this is a distinctly short 4-act opera, and I hope that anxiety regarding the extra 12 minutes is not a matter of the pace of modern life and fitting in La Boheme between other commitments, much as Sir Malcolm Sargent was suspected of speeding up symphonic finales in the interests of finishing before the 9 O'Clock News.
Myself, I could take any amount of musicianship like this. The performance came about at all through the alertness of a musical agent who spotted that Beecham, de los Angeles and Bjorling were all simultaneously in New York, and with awesome efficiency an orchestra and chorus together with a supporting cast were conjured up. It would have been worth hearing this Boheme for the sake of Merrill, Corena and above all Tozzi alone, as anyone ought to concur who has heard Tozzi's colossal `For He is like a refiner's fire' in Beecham's Messiah. However what most of us want it for above all is of course that sublime trinity. De los Angeles had possibly the loveliest soprano voice of her generation, and Bjorling, whose voice will bear comparison with any later tenor I can think of, even Pavarotti, did not live long enough to leave us the legacy we would have wanted. When I say, not for the only time, that I think Beecham the greatest conductor of the 20th century what I mean is this. His work has about it a peculiar sense of God-given grace (Beecham was of course an unbeliever), an aura of pure and abstract music, that is irrespective of the `weight' of the compositions he handles. He did not turn out complete Beethoven cycles (largely because he did not greatly like Beethoven) but he cast that special radiance on music of all kinds, finding and even sometimes implanting a shining particle at the core of works that had seemed base metal in other hands. At the very pinnacle of musical creation, this is the characteristic with which Mozart invests both his most obviously awesome inspirations and his seemingly lightest pieces.
I am in no hurry to get to the end of La Boheme, but there is another aspect to the matter too. The libretto is witty and the self-mocking banter of the penniless artists in their Parisian garret requires a certain kind of sophistication in the way it is sung and acted. When I ask myself Which conductor is most in tune with this kind of idiom, I reflect that greatly as I revere, say, Fuertwaengler I can hardly envisage him in this context, and indeed for this question to be answered it only has to be asked. I could point also to Beecham's handling of Puccini's orchestration, which he admired to the extent of rating it more highly than Strauss's, suggesting as I do so that you will hear good enough sound-reproduction in this set to appreciate what it is that differentiates Beecham from, say, Karajan, and which is far more important than any niceties of digital recording.
I have never yet wept at La Boheme, because to me it is not art imitating life but just Italian opera being itself. The gale of life blows high among this community of impoverished creators, but clearly they need youth on their side to sustain such a precarious existence, while in the meantime l'haleine de la mort (in Maeterlinck's chilling phrase) is there to envelop the weakest of them, catching the rest by surprise. Vita brevis, ars longa, and this is a recording for the ages.
on 29 March 2014
This was my first experience of a complete opera many years ago . As a child I had listened to Joseph Locke & Gigli Arias on the radio & adored the sounds of their voices . Then along came cinema with Mario Lanza in the 'Great Caruzo' . By the time I was 10 I was hooked on the Tenor Voice . Eventually I came across this complete recording from the local library , What a JOY .
Bjorling is superb in this with a subtle range & emotion , what some would consider as a fault in the voice I consider as a display of emotion . He sings as if this role playing Rodolfo were real life , a sharp intake of breath when he meets Mimi who is more than ably portraid by Victoria de Los Angeles , a 'real life' crack in a note is so emotional that it takes the breath away . 'Your tiny hand is frozen' cannot have been sung better .
What an amazing coincidence that Beecham & the star cast was available at the same time & this live recording in the studio was completed in very short time of a long afternoon . Here , you get the experience of a true 'live' performance without the modern day electronic adjustments of pitch & tone . It really is as good as if it had been rehearsed for weeks .
Listen to Bjorling & you understand why mrs Caruzo stated his voice was the closest she had ever heard to that of her husband . Sadly , like Caruzo , Bjorling died before his voice reached the full maturity of a fifty year old tenor , what a joy that would have been . Still his voice in this was sublime , the timbre of his lower register & clarity of high note , brings life to the romantic Puccini music .
I've not mentioned the rest of the cast but not one of them let this opera down , each & every individual performance is worth a review in its own right . Perhaps the orchestra is a bit loud on occasions , but , that is what it can be like in an opera house performance . However saying that Beecham controls them in wonderful style & compliments each voice with aplomb .
This recording is worth its place in any musical collection