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George London
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
Le nozze di Figaro
1. Aprite un po’ quegli occhi [4:04]
Don Giovanni
2. Là ci darem la mano [5:32]
3. Finch’ han dal vino [2:49]
4. Deh, vieni alla finestra [2:06]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819–1880)
Les contes d’Hoffmann
5. Scintille diamant! [3:49]
Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893)
Faust
6. Vous qui faites l’endormie [2:55]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Aida
7. A te grave cagion m’adduce, Aida [8:01]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881)
Boris Godunov
8. Boris’s monologue [5:47]
Alexander BORODIN (1833–1887)
Prince Igor
9. Prince Igor’s aria [7:40]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
Eugene Onegin
10. Eugene Onegin’s aria [4:22]
11. Opera’s closing scene [9:33]
Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Die Walküre
12. Wotan’s farewell and closing scene [15:12]
George London (bass-baritone)
Irmgard Seefried (soprano) (2), Erich Kunz (baritone) (3), Astrid Varnay (soprano) (7), Valerie Bak (soprano) (11)
Orchester des Wiener Rundfunks/Max Schönherr (1-3, 5, 6, 8), Orchester des Wiener Staatsoper/Karl Böhm (4), Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Hermann Weigert (7, 9, 12); Richard Kraus (10, 11)
rec. 18 October 1951, Vienna (1,3, 5, 6, 8); 6 November 1955, Vienna (4); 5 October 1953, Munich (7), 3 October 1953, Munich (9), 30 June, 5 July 1954, Munich (10, 11), 1953, Munich (12)
trs. 2-4, 10-11 sung in German; the rest in the original language
ARCHIPEL ARPCD0365 [71:58]



George London (1920–1985) was born in Montreal and started out as a musical and operetta singer. He toured worldwide with Mario Lanza and Francis Yeend. In 1949 Karl Böhm engaged him to the Vienna State Opera, where he made his debut as Amonasro in Aida, a part from which we have a substantial extract on this disc. He was Glyndebourne’s Figaro in 1951 and sang at Bayreuth from the reopening year 1951 – Amfortas in Parsifal – until 1964. Wagner became one of his specialities: Holländer and Wotan especially, both roles exist in complete recordings, but his signature role was the title part in Boris Godunov. He recorded a highlights LP in 1961 (see review) and the year after the complete opera at the Bolshoi. Scarpia, Mandryka and Don Giovanni were other important parts. His was a powerful, dark-tinted bass-baritone, even though the cover for the present disc designates him as a pure bass. At the beginning of his career his was a pliant and glorious ringing voice. As time went by it tended to gruffness and with hindsight this might be related to the paralyzed vocal cord that in 1967 ended his singing career.
 
On this disc he is caught ‘from the wing’ in Vienna and Munich during the earliest years of his career. The exact provenance of the recordings is not identified – the insert gives titles, timings, dates and participants but no venues. The six titles from the Wiener Rundfunk should be radio recordings, presumably set down in a studio with an audience, but there seems to be a great deal of acting, quite obtrusive stage noises and since the two Don Giovanni excerpts (tr. 2, 3) include quite extensive secco recitatives it is probably some kind of staging. There are also heavy applause. The serenade (tr. 4), recorded with the State Opera Orchestra, ought to be from the State Opera but there are no signs of action and no applause. Sound quality varies a lot and there is a great deal of distortion, overloading and the sound coming and going, especially in the Mozart excerpts. The orchestras are primitive sounding with thin, wiry string tone and they are also rather distantly recorded, but the singers, and especially London, are mostly clear and lifelike.
 
We also encounter some colleagues of London’s. Irmgard Seefried’s Zerlina is enchanting (tr. 2) and Erich Kunz as Leporello (tr. 3) is as usual warm and lively. In the Aida duet we also hear the great Wagnerian Astrid Varnay in the title role. She is hardly Italianate and has her squally moments, but this is high voltage singing from both parties and undoubtedly thrilling. In the duet from Eugene Onegin we meet the little known Valerie Bak as a vulnerable Tatiana.
 
But it is for London’s contributions that one wants this disc and readers can rest assured that we are treated to strong, expressive singing. There’s also excellent enunciation of the text, whether in original languages or – in Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin – in German. He is a rebellious Figaro and a high-spirited Don Giovanni but he is not very seductive even if he tries hard. But getting his way with Zerlina is certainly hard labour when he has to sing Reich mir die Hand, mein Leben instead of La ci darem la mano. Dapertutto’s aria from Les contes d’Hoffmann is gloriously sung at full volume but the effect is reduced by the slow tempo. Mephisto’s serenade from Faust has more life and his laughter is suitably diabolic. His Amonasro is a formidable character but it is Boris’s monologue from Boris Godunov that stays in my memory. This is a rounded portrait where his singing has ‘face’. His Prince Igor is unquestionably glorious but with so much full-voiced singing it becomes a bit monotonous and one-dimensional. He becomes more involved towards the end of the long aria. His Eugene Onegin is again strong but lacking in poetry. The final track, the end of Die Walküre, shows him as a monumental Wotan. I greatly admired Sigurd Björling recently in Karajan’s recording of the full third act from Bayreuth 1951 (see review) and London runs him close, though being more generalised. The primitive orchestral sound is also an inhibiting factor.
 
Whatever the sources – the insert says cryptically “Issued from the original sources” – it is a pleasure to hear such steady and attractive bass-baritone singing. Admirers of this great Canadian should give it a try. Others should search out some of his complete recordings for – primarily – Decca. Once there also was a Wagner recital on that label, conducted by Knappertsbusch, which would be well worth reissuing..
 
Göran Forsling



 


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