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Reviews Written by
Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK)
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   

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Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Price: £11.28

3.0 out of 5 stars Is it just me?, 6 May 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is a famous recording, partly as a result of its timing - right before the outbreak of WWII - and it has been remarkably well restored by Ward Marston such that apart from the inevitable hiss you would hardly believe that it dates from 1939. If you are accustomed to historical sound you will find nothing to complain about her - distortion is minimal and clarity is optimal.

My reservations stem from two main objections: first to the persistent "little girl" voice adopted by Toti Dal Monte, and secondly to the constant gulps, sobs and glottal emphases which to my ears mar Gigli's vocal line. In fact the best singing here comes from the sadly unremembered Suzuki, the rich voiced mezzo Vittoria Palombini. The Sharpless is unobjectionable but faceless compared with Gobbi or Panerai.

I suppose Dal Monte more successfully impersonates a sixteen year old than those sopranos who maintain a "grande dame" demeanour but I find her archness irritating and far prefer Mirella Freni, just as I much prefer the swaggering and considerably stronger toned Pavarotti in the Karajan recording. Pinkerton is a swine but he has surface charm and didn't marry Minnie Mouse; Gigli sounds under-powered and Dal Monte squawks too much. Of course there are things about her characterisation which work very well - she was vastly experienced in the role and very celebrated by her contemporaries - but I cannot say that I derive the same pleasure from this recording as the many five-star reviewers.


Boito: Mefistofele (highlights)
Boito: Mefistofele (highlights)
Offered by KAOZI168 Classical_ ''Dispatch within 1 day to the world ''
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A superb sampler, 4 May 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is apparently the (fortunately sizeable) rump of a Decca project to record the entire opera which was abandoned in favour of replacing Di Stefano with Del Monaco. That was in fact no disaster at all, as by 1958 Di Stefano was already in decline and having to snatch and yell his top notes, which emerge marginally flat, and the "whiteness" in his voice is now more apparent, whereas Del Monaco was still in prime condition and sings quite sensitively in the complete recording, with what is otherwise nearly the same cast and certainly the same two co-principals, Tebaldi and Siepi.

Nonetheless, Di Stefano is still very fine and his flaws negligible. Tebaldi is, if anything, slightly steadier and sweeter of voice here. Siepi was always extraordinarily consistent and sings magnificently. Best of all are the terrific Prologue and Epilogue, intoned by a superb chorus with especially resonant basses and reaching empyrean heights. The highlights here really do include "the best bits" and if you can find an affordable copy you will have the perfect sampler of a really entertaining work which continues to get snooty reviews in some quarters.


Der Ring Des Nibelungen - Vol. 3
Der Ring Des Nibelungen - Vol. 3
Price: £9.85

4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite the equal of the other three volumes in this superb series, 1 May 2017
This third volume of the bargain Gala series of historical Wagner recordings contains some of the earliest, acoustical recordings from the early 1920's but moves on through the age of electric recording and the arrival of Kirsten Flagstad. Much of the first three discs features primarily the great Frieda Leider. While I readily acknowledge her supremacy, she was never my favourite Brünnhilde; I find her faintly shrill and lacking the warmth of Austral, Flagstad and Traubel but there is no gainsaying the command of her singing. She is partnered with an array of great tenors: Melchior (of course), the slightly less impressive (isn't everyone, compared with the Great Dane?) Rudolf Laubenthal and the decidedly more workaday Fritz Soot - who would still be a star today. Bockelmann is not the equal of Schorr as Wotan. Other great Wagnerians such as Karin Branzell, Germaine Lubin (singing in French) and Max Lorenz make an appearance, too.

Flagstad makes her first appearance on CD4 conducting the first and third scenes of Act 3 of "Die Walküre" in a live 1937 performance from the Royal Opera House conducted by no less than Furtwängler. Unfortunately, it's the weakest part of the whole project: the recording is dim and distant, the London Philharmonic Orchestra feeble and accident-prone, the Valkyries shrill and tremulous. Flagstad is heard to much greater advantage in the final volume. This third volume does not quite measure up to the other three, despite its riches.


Der Ring Des Nibelungen - Vol. 1
Der Ring Des Nibelungen - Vol. 1
Price: £6.33

5.0 out of 5 stars How Wagner used to sound...great!, 1 May 2017
As a previous reviewer has rightly observed, if you already have the Pearl "Potted Ring" that renders redundant not only this volume but the first two discs of Vol.2 (for "Götterdämmerung") in this splendid Gala series. Each of the four volumes comprises four discs and covers a golden age of Wagner singing and recording from as early as 1923, when recording was still acoustic, through the advent of electric recording in the mid-twenties - for which relief, much thanks - through to the late 50's and early stereo LPs.

Chief glories in these early "Ring" extracts from "Das Rheingold" through to "Siegfried" are Friedrich Schorr's masterly Wotan, Lauritz Melchior's elemental Siegfried and Florence Easton's warm, womanly Brünnhilde, whose big awakening scene with Melchior concludes this volume. Her terrific lower register - the natural physiological reflex corollary to her shining top notes - is really striking. Yorkshireman Walter Widdop is no slouch as Siegmund and Loge either: firm and musical, if without Melchior's thrilling heft. Given that re-takes were rare, the orchestras - mostly the LSO and the Berliner Staatsoper - acquit themselves well and the mainly British conducting, plus Berlin's slightly less accomplished Leo Blech, is very fine. We would kill for Wagnerian singers of this quality today.

It's extraordinary how immediate these excerpts sound; one soon forgets their antiquity as one is swept along by the performers' complete identification with their roles.


Der Ring Des Nibelungen - Vol. 2
Der Ring Des Nibelungen - Vol. 2
Price: £6.66

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wagnerian double-whammy, 1 May 2017
This second volume in the bargain historical "Ring" series from Gala is no less magical than the first but could for seasoned collectors be the most dispensable or even redundant of the four volumes in that many will already have both the "Götterdämmerung" excerpts (which comprise the first two discs) as part of the Pearl "Potted Ring" and likewise probably already own the famous Toscanini scenes.

If you don't, riches await you, not least, in addition to the expected joys of Florence Austral, Widdop and co, you will be amazed to discover the black intensity of Ivar Andrésen's Hagen - the best on disc, I think. I touch on the virtues of that early recording of "Ring" extended excerpts in my review of Volume 1. Moving on to the last two discs, it's interesting that Toscanini felt comfortable presenting an all-Wagner programme of the final scene of Act 1 of "Die Walküre" at the height of the war while Nazi Germany was still in the ascendant; it's as if he is making the statement that high culture is independent of current events and belongs to all people. Right on, Arturo. Three fascinating - if occasionally slightly sycophantic - interviews are included on CD 3, one with Wagner's granddaughter, another with Jimmy Dolan, Librarian of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the third with Lotte Lehmann, all about Toscanini, his relationship with the Wagner family, Bayreuth, the music itself and his legendary attention to detail during his recording career. Melchior slips up once in his duet with Helen Traubel - this was a broadcast performance - but it matters little. Traubel shares with Austral a rich lower register and matches Melchior in heft and intensity. The early 50's mono sound is clean and very listenable. Bonuses include two excellent excerpts from "Die Walküre" in French from Marjorie Lawrence and Marcel Journet and a section from the famous 1935 Berlin recording of Act 1 by Bruno Walter. The climax of this volume is a "Starke Scheite" from the great Eileen Farrell, making one regret afresh that she voluntarily curtailed her career in Wagner and everything else, for that matter.

What a cornucopia for any Wagner adherent.


Simon Boccanegra (Opera Completa)
Simon Boccanegra (Opera Completa)
Price: £7.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Much better than its reputation, 30 April 2017
This recording seems to have had a lambasting from all quarters ever since it appeared. Perhaps, as the "Gramophone" says, it's a case of "the better being the enemy of the good", as it's true that both Gobbi's recordings (the 1957 mono studio set conducted by Santini and the terrific live 1961 performance with Gencer and conducted by Gavazzeni - see both my reviews), Gavazzeni's earlier studio set and the 1977 prize-winning set conducted by Abbado all offer a more dramatic, better sung experience of this dark and fascinating opera - but I still find much to enjoy in this version. I made a point of listening to, and comparing key points from, these different versions very carefully, and I honestly do not believe that it's as bad as "Gramophone", "Music Web International" and various other critics, official and unofficial (such as the previous Amazon reviewer), make out.

Let's start with its virtues, chief among which is the pure, gleaming, tender Amelia of Kiri Te Kanawa - one of the best things she has done on disc. Then there is Solti's sensitive direction; he makes a lovely job of the "sea music" and a direct comparison with Abbado's opening to Act 1 will bear me out. Contrary to his popular image of driving hard, he could, at times, inject a little more tension and momentum into the action, but he is very considerate of his singers. Another bonus is the chance to hear the under-recorded Aragall singing very expressively. Both his timbre and his characterisation (in an admittedly rather limited role) are very similar to that of his great compatriot, Carreras, and there's not much to choose between them, although Carreras is perhaps more animated. Then there are the supporting roles: Paolo Coni and Carlo Colombaro are stand-outs as Paolo and Pietro respectively - real, ringing, Italianate voices. In fact, I agree with a previous reviewer that I would perhaps have preferred to hear Coni in the title role.

Having said that, Nucci is not that bad. He has something of the bleat up top that (for me) disfigures Bruson's voice and a most irritating habit of approaching every higher, louder note with a slide up a full fifth of an octave - a terrible, insecure tic - but he is not totally outsung and can certainly be heard in the ensembles. He could be more tender in the exchanges with Amelia - soft notes elude him and one longs for Gobbi - but he compares reasonably well with Cappuccilli as Italian bartitones go. Burchuladze has a vast, cavernous voice and some impressive moments - again, I do not hear that he is so much less sensitive than, say, Ghiaurov, in "Il lacerato spirito" - but his Italian is a trial. Every open "ah" sound becomes an "aw", which grates on repeated listening. In addition, he pronounces "angeli" in Slavonic style with a hard "g", such that we get "Awngheli" - couldn't someone have picked him up on this? At least the infamous wobble is well under control hear and he sings with conviction.

So, a disaster this is not, and I am particulary happy to have Te Kanawa and Aragall in their respective roles - though I would still recommend the live Gobbi, mediocre sound and all, above the DG set and all others, for the sheer thrill of four great voices in full flight.


Lieder De Mendelssohn Et Schumann
Lieder De Mendelssohn Et Schumann
Offered by INNER PEACE MUSIC
Price: £12.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Another voice “made of tears and sighs and restrained interior fire”., 30 April 2017
My thanks to friend and previous reviewer Bernard O'Hanlon for steering me towards this miraculous recording. He has already written all that has to be said about this greatest of Lieder singers in a lovely combination programme of the some of finest songs by two great Romantic composers, so I'll just add my endorsement and a few otiose comments.

As long as she could keep the natural vibrancy of her vibrato from obtruding, Fassbaender had the perfect Lieder voice: rich, flexible, and innately warm of tone. her own mastery of textual inflection, pellucid clarity of diction and highly intelligent appreciation of a song's context and subtext equipped her better than any other singer of German songs since Gerhard Hüsch. There are other more modern exponents of this genre who also move ,me deeply - Janet Baker, Kurt Moll spring to mind - others of previous generations like Schiotz and Wunderlich - and even current performers like Dorothea Röschman for whom I have the greatest admiration, but as a non-fan of D-F-D, if |I had to select only one representative singer of the best of Germanic Lieder it would be Brigitte Fassbaender. She has given us so many treasurable recitals, especially the Big Three Schubert cycles and the inclusion of slightly rarer Mendelssohn songs can only serve to introduce more potential fans both to her singing and the music itself. Her voice has that peculiarly immediate yet indefinable quality common to the greatest female singers such as Muzio and Callas. I have pondered it and think it has something to do with the marrying of a trenchant, burnished lower register with a contrasting pure top; certainly her excursions below the stave are always heart-stopping. To borrow Lauri-Volpe's description of Muzio's soprano, this, too is a voice “made of tears and sighs and restrained interior fire” - yet of course when Fassbaender sings full voice her power is really striking.

She also follows the lead set long ago by Lotte Lehmann of transcending gender and being able to convey the deepest emotion regardless of vocal register for which the cycle was originally written or the surface masculinity of the persona of Heine's narrator, rather in the manner of the best countertenors. She is expertly supported by two longtime major accompanist associates in Erik Werba and Aribert Reimann.

Find a copy if you can - you won't regret it.


Symphony No. 1/Piano Concerto Kv271 (Bohm, Bavarian Radio)
Symphony No. 1/Piano Concerto Kv271 (Bohm, Bavarian Radio)
Price: £10.50

5.0 out of 5 stars A dream virtual reality concert, 30 April 2017
This combination of two concerts from September and October 1969 makes a great CD, especially given the sheer quality of sound and playing. Gulda is a as fleet, deft and witty as you could wish in the Mozart and finds a perfectly matched partner in Böhm, whose propulsion is never gabbled or precipitate. The Jenamy concerto is a delight and the Brahms makes a welcome contrast to its insouciance. I have a number of favourite recordings of the First, including Karajan's two live, very late performances from London and Tokyo in 1988, the 1990 Abbado studio recording before he went soft and compromised their sound, and of course the classic ones from Furtwängler and Toscanini, but this can stand alongside those.The opening is almost too insistent, in that Böhm could give more weight to the rests Brahms demands but it is nonetheless compelling. The strings in the Andante sostenuto play rapturously and the finale has all the verve and excitement required, stressing its kinship with the conclusion of the Academic Festival Overture. Böhm is typically sharp and intense throughout - he was never a sentimental conductor and in that regard reminds me in manner of his contemporary Szell; this is very "masculine" Brahms.


Wagner: Operatic Highlights by Otto Klemperer
Wagner: Operatic Highlights by Otto Klemperer
Offered by GRAGO LLC
Price: £40.82

5.0 out of 5 stars Buy this if you want to hear Klemperer's greatness in two key composers, 30 April 2017
What a stupendous set this is, not only for Klemperer's masterly control but for the sheer virtuosity of the (New) Philharmonia Orchestra, who time and again sound like the greatest orchestra in the world, not forgetting their Berlin counterparts. What an array of talent Legge assembled; the horns and strings in particular are flawless, sonorous and absolutely thrilling; it is so ironic that his attempt to disband them resulted in them regrouping as the New Philharmonia and re-affirming their special relationship with their aging conductor, who did some of his best work with them.

I hardly know where to start: for a risible outlay you can acquire, in very acceptable early stereo, analogue sound, beautifully remastered, one of the best anthologies of Wagner's orchestral music and a splendid account of Act I of the "Die Walküre", a priceless version of "Wotans Abschied" from Norman Bailey in majestic voice, plus recordings of five of Richard Strauss's showpiece tone poems to rival any in the catalogue. I was gripped by everything here, even though I acknowledge that frequently Klemperer's tempo can initially seem marmoreal, yet when you stick with it he delivers Wagnerian apotheosis in spades, abetted by playing of the highest calibre from his orchestra.

I should point out that the Act I from ""Die Walküre" is available here on CD3 for a fraction of the cost of the equivalent disc on the Testament label. It is not necessarily the finest you can hear, but it is very, very good, with the relatively unknown American Heldentenor William Cochran often sounding like a young James King when only in his mid-twenties. He might not eclipse Vickers or Melchior in "Siegmund heiss'ich" or always have the most ingratiating tone, but he has heft and stamina and when he is complemented by those wonderful horns he is completely convincing - and thrilling. What a pity, then, that Klemperer let him cop out of giving proper length to the top A on "Wälsungen Blut". Helga Dernesch likewise sounds similar to Leonie Rysanek with the dark, burnished mezzo tinge to her soprano (she of of course sang in both tessituras in her career) and Hans Sotin gives us a magnificently vocalised Hunding who sounds almost too noble.

The orchestral excerpts are stunning but if you like your Wagner vocal then Norman Bailey fulfils your every desire as a magnificent Wotan; at 37 years old he is in prime vocal estate and sings "Leb wohl" like a real god. Waves of voluptuous sound - those horns again! - support him and you'll be punching the air at that last "fürchtet". The subsequent Magic Fire Music dances in too leisurely a manner, however.

Then we hear one of Christa Ludwig's best recordings, in presumably the same, unchanged remastering from 2006 which was already very good, of the "Wesendonck Lieder", when she was very much in her dramatic soprano phase - hence the recording of the "Liebestod" at a time when she was toying with the idea of yielding to Karajan's urging to sing Isolde. It is very successful per se but she was no doubt wise to decline to sing the whole role, especially given the vocal crisis she experienced and surmounted in the early 70's.

The orchestral items spanning all eleven of Wagner's operas from "Rienzi" to "Parsifal" and including the "Siegfried Idyll" to boot, demonstrate Klemperer's affinity with the composer's idiom; "Rienzi" may have its longueurs as a work but he overture is a masterpiece. Everything here is played majestically, without compromise and with an iron grip over the sweep of the music; furthermore, unlike some conductors who seem to sacrifice homogeneity to spontaneity, Klemperer ensures that moments like the final chords are totally crisp and unanimous. The "Tannhäuser" overture at first lacks momentum but the central Venusberg section is intense and compelling. The greatest playing comes in Siegfried's Funeral Music, but one could equally point to the grandeur of the excerpts from "Die Meistersinger" or the glowing, ethereal rapture of the Preludes from both "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal". A final pointer to the splendour of Klemp's Wagner: the upward spiralling chromatic octave given to the strings at 8'37" in "Die fliegende Holländer"; magic!

And on to the Strauss, which really took me by surprise; these are accounts to match and rival those by Karajan, Kempe, Reiner et al. The "Metamorphosen" is very fine, lyrical and flowing, demonstrating ye again the virtuosity of the musicians, even if it does not match Karajan and Sinopoli in intensity. The "Don Juan" is terrific - one of the best I know - with extraordinary weight and attack, rivalling my favourite version by Szell. The middle section is slow: rapturous, languorous and a showcase for the woodwind, especially the oboe. We are hearing a great orchestra in full flight; listen to the perfectly poised F signalling the Don's demise. The "Tod und Verklärung" is another gem; some might first hear it as a tad a cumbersome but it builds inexorably to a wonderful climax of Wagnerian splendour. The dance from "Salome" is a wild ride, wholly satisfying and the concluding "Till Eulenspiegel" is warm, genial and and generous, with lots of pointed narrative detail in this, the most specifically graphic and pictorial of Strauss's tone poems.


Aus Italien / Don Juan
Aus Italien / Don Juan

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Five stars for the richly detailed, atmospheric "Aus Italien" but only four for the "Don Juan"., 29 April 2017
This review is from: Aus Italien / Don Juan (Audio CD)
"Aus Italien" was the young Strauss' first venture into the tone poem idiom which he would revolutionise and make his own and it is here beautifully performed and recorded. It is a gentler, more lyrical and even more restrained work, despite the scale and scope of the scoring and the size of the orchestra, than his subsequent tone poems, full of sunshine and breathing the perfume of the campagna. Muti secures shimmering sound from the multi-layered strings and cascading harps but keeps this rather sprawling work together through his characteristic rhythmic tautness which makes the comparative languor of the "Don Juan" all the more surprising, given that Muti has always been known for his energised directness of approach. He takes a good couple of minutes longer over the tale than famous versions by Reiner, Szell and Karajan with the result that despite some superb playing and moments of great sweep, overall it lacks elan and tension. Muti recorded these while the BPO were still essentially Karajan's band despite their progressive mutual estrangement; indeed Karajan was still alive but had decamped primarily to the VPO. The famous Klang was still intact, before its dismantling under a new regime and its ultimate demise - but that's another story...
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