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Customer Review

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A bargain rag-bag of mostly incomparable singing, 7 April 2013
This review is from: Tribute To Giuseppe Verdi (Audio CD)
Depending on which way you look at it, this is either a refreshingly eclectic Verdi compilation or a rather cynical cobble-job trying to cash in on the bicentenary of his birth. Of course, as ever, the truth is somewhere in between but I do think it shockingly cavalier of Preiser to go to the trouble of commissioning some funky artwork, biographical date and a lively introductory essay by Laura Wagner-Semrau, both in German and translated into English, only to provide no information regarding the individual tracks beyond the singers and the label and year of issue of the recording concerned. Thus, unless like me you fancy yourself as a bit of a Verdi recording aficionado and can make some informed guesses, you do not know if the aria, duet or ensemble in question is from a live radio broadcast, a recital album or a complete studio recording or who is conducting what orchestra. Furthermore, I am dubious whether some of the scanty information provided is even correct; I am sure that the track 4 "Macbeth" aria is not from the RCA studio recording conducted by Leinsdorf or from any of the live broadcasts about that time; it is obviously from earlier in Leonard Warren's career when his baritone was younger, fresher and more tenorial. He concludes with the free top A for which he was famous, yet his tone still contains traces of an oddly constricted quality.

So; those complaints aside, what do we have here? All the recordings here were made between 1914 and 1962, are thus conveniently out of copyright and must therefore now be regarded as historical - so don't by any means expect uniformly brilliant sound. They include some outright classics of the gramophone with which every Verdi enthusiast will be familiar: the duets from "Otello" by Caruso and Ruffo, from "Don Carlo" by Björling and Merrill and from "La forza del destino" with Rosa Ponselle and Ezio Pinza, the latter in surprisingly good sound for 1928, both voices emerging as true, pure and warm. There are several recordings of arias which are celebrated tours de force, such as Tito Gobbi's incomparable "Pari siamo", Callas' lapidary "Sempre libera" from her only complete studio recording on Cetra, and a stunning "Mercè, dilette amici" by a young Joan Sutherland. There are two of the finest ensembles ever recorded in the 1939 "Plebe! Patrizi! Popolo!" with Tibbet, Bampton and Martinelli, and the "Bella figlia dell'amore" quartet from the complete 1950 "Rigoletto" with Warren again - the only artist to feature twice on these two discs - and Jan Peerce in tremendous voice.

The bulk of these recordings is from the 1940 and 50's; one is acoustic, some electronic 78's, some mono, some stereo - but you have to use your ears to guess as Preiser's not telling. They present an incongruous range of sound quality, dynamic range, volume and acoustic which will leave you fiddling with the remote control with every change of track. The 29 tracks encompassing fourteen operas - that is about half Verdi's output and those generally considered to be his major works - are represented as are 38 different voices: ten sopranos, four mezzo-sopranos, thirteen tenors, eight baritones and three basses; 23 of those singers - nearly two-thirds - are Italian; I wonder what the proportion would be today if we tried to assemble a similar anthology? And with all due respect, what are decent but decidedly also-ran-category singers such as Giacinto Pradelli, Carlo Tagliabue, Margherita Grandi and - dare I say it, in this particular context? - Alfredo Kraus doing in such august Verdian company? The cartoonish but quite eye-catching cardboard packaging with its splashy green lettering and a booklet insert successfully shakes off the Preiser label's rather staid and conservative image.

For those unfamiliar with some of the singers here such as Anita Cerquetti, recordings like her opening aria from "Nabucco" will be a revelation; in her very short career she was spoken of in the same breath as Tebaldi and Callas, and it is easy to hear why. Grandi's account of the Sleepwalking Aria from "Macbeth" is impressive in its way, especially the astounding pianissimo high D upon which she exits, apparently produced almost closed-mouthed, Calvé-style, but comparison with Callas' famous version makes Grandi sound rather ordinary and even matronly of tone compared with the "voice of a she-devil" Verdi required. Alfredo Kraus really milks his "Parmi veder le lagrime" at too slow a speed and it's a relief to move from his reedy, plaintive musings to Jan Peerce's much more rakish, Italianate Duke in the splendid quartet I have already mentioned above. Bergonzi sings aristocratically and deploys an elegant trill in his aria from "Il trovatore", then another true Italian tenor and Toscanini's favourite, Aureliano Pertile employs his powerful top B and C to great effect in "Di quella pira".

On the second CD, we first hear an oddly restrained and somewhat distantly recorded Giulietta Simionato in an excerpt presumably taken from the complete 1960 Solti recording (as we hear a snippet sung by the unmistakable but uncredited Bergonzi) then another aria from that opera by Giuseppe Di Stefano in finest voice, clearly from a radio broadcast before an enthusiastic audience. Yet another great Verdi tenor, Franco Corelli, demonstrates the knife-edge vibrancy - the vibrato had still to settle in the mid-fifties - and splendid ring of his top B-flats in the immensely taxing aria from "La forza del destino". Cesare Siepi's majestic, saturnine bass is ideal for delineating King Philip's anguish and Stignani shows off her extraordinary range in Eboli's "O don fatale" from "Don Carlo". The switch to stereo for Del Monaco's "Celeste Aida" is welcome; he, too, shows off his tremendous B-flats and sheer volume of sound. As always when I listen to Zinka Milanov, an artist much revered by generations previous to mine, I find her patchy: to me her Aida mixes melting passages with others which sound somewhat swoopy, unsteady and too mature. The inclusion of so early a recording as the "Otello" duet is justified by its extraordinary intensity and the supreme vocalisation of the ideal partnership of Caruso and Ruffo, later emulated and almost equalled by Björling and Merrill in the same music on the RCA recital from which their "Don Carlo" duet discussed above was taken.

The inclusion of Melchior is a little surprising given his indelible association with Wagner, but he sang Verdi's dramatic tenor roles and although I don't much appreciate "Otello" in German, it serves to illustrate both his aptitude for the role and how Verdi was for decades sung mainly in translation in opera houses across Germany. Especially striking are the long crescendo phrase beginning at 2'51" , Melchior's soft top G and, in common with every other tenor in this collection, his capability of delivering whopping top B-flats - in the end, a note more frequently important to the big-voiced Verdi tenor than the elusive top C.

We conclude with two more indisputably great Verdi voices: Renata Tebaldi's prayer aptly confirming Toscanini's verdict on her as having "una voce d'angelo" and Taddei's pungent baritone whooping it up as Falstaff in the Honour Monologue - but in rather poor sound.

In many ways, this sort of thing has of course been done before - not least by Membran themselves in their "Quadromania" series. For all its vocal splendours, this bargain vintage compendium can also be seen as a lament for a lost age and tradition; we shall certainly never again see the likes of most of these singers.
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Location: Bishop's Stortford, UK

Top Reviewer Ranking: 48