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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Turandot (1926) (sung in German)
Christel Goltz (soprano) – Turandot; Karl Schiebener (tenor) – Altoum, Emperor of China; Wilhelm Schirp (bass) – Timur; Hans Hopf (tenor) – Calaf; Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano) – Liù; Horst Günter (baritone) – Ping; Peter Offermanns (tenor) – Pang; Jürgen Förster (tenor) – Pong; Heiner Horn (baritone) – Mandarin; André Peysang (tenor) – Prince of Persia;
Kölner Rundfunkchor,
Knabenchor des Humboldt-Gymnasiums Köln,
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Georg Solti
rec. 13-19 May 1956, Funkhaus, WDR, Cologne. ADD. MONO
CAPRICCIO 67 193 [56:46 + 61:46]

Georg Solti never recorded Turandot commercially, which makes this issue extra welcome. He recorded on the whole very little Puccini – only La Bohème and Tosca. It is quite possible that Puccinian sentimentality wasn’t to his taste. If that was the case Turandot should be the ideal Puccini opera for him with its big mass-scenes, its intense drama and colourful orchestration. He also makes the most of the score’s meatier passages in his typically high-strung striving for maximum dramatic effect. He is well served by the excellent mono recording, impressively dynamic and with an almost analytical clarity that allows us to hear every strand of Puccini’s scoring. Since this is a studio recording there is almost perfect balance and none of the disturbing noises that often mar live productions.

He makes his mark from the outset with typical precision, rhythmic drive and eager forward movement. The chorus at the beginning of the first act is a real tour de force, just as the spectacular introduction and chorus in act 2, after the Ping, Pang and Pong scene. These are two isolated examples, chosen because they are easy to sample for those who have the opportunity to listen before buying. Time and again Solti wrings out every drop of intensity, while sometimes losing momentum in the more lyrical music.

By and large it’s a winning performance. With excellent support from orchestra and chorus this is a reading to challenge some other recordings of the work. Truth to tell there wouldn’t have been much competition had this version been issued when it was new: the old pre-war Cetra and the then new Decca with Inge Borkh, Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi. Leinsdorf’s RCA recording with Nilsson, Björling and Tebaldi again was to appear within a couple of years. These were starry casts and on paper the present group of singers doesn’t look too promising, but in practice it isn’t to be easily dismissed. One immediate drawback is of course that they sing in German, a language that, with its many tricky consonant-combinations, is difficult to adapt to Italian legato singing. To some extent the impression of squareness is due to the language but some of the singers would probably have sounded four-square in any language. The Mandarin is loud and barking, which doesn’t matter much, but a wooden Calaf is a serious defect. Hans Hopf was, during the 1950s, a leading Heldentenor in Germany with a strong and penetrating voice but not very subtle. I learnt Tannhäuser through Konwitschny’s HMV recording with a fine cast, including Fischer-Dieskau and Gottlob Frick, but it was hopelessly marred by Hopf’s loud and strained singing of the title role. He isn’t much different here, apart from more brilliance at the top. He is almost constantly loud, rather shaky and often barks his way through the score. It is not until the last act that he seems to read the dynamic instructions and halfway through Nessun dorma there comes a metamorphosis when he suddenly ends the first stanza of the aria with a finely honed diminuendo. And lo and behold: in the finale – this is the Alfano completion – he even scales down to some truly lyrical phrases. Love can transform even the woodiest tenor. But of course this late awakening can’t compensate for all the barking in the previous acts.

Christel Goltz, a sadly under-recorded dramatic soprano, has the volume and voice-type for Turandot. At the top, which is exposed almost constantly through the short but extremely strenuous part, she has an icy brilliance to challenge even Birgit Nilsson. That said, she lacks the steadiness of the Swedish diva. But she is fearless and deeply involved in the role. By and large this is one of the greatest readings of the role. In my experience only Birgit Nilsson in either of her two recordings and Alessandra Marc on the recent RTVE recording from Bilbao are better – and that’s only marginally. The present recording has another trumpcard: Teresa Stich-Randall who is certainly one of the loveliest Liùs ever. Compared to Christel Goltz she has a smallish voice and in the only scene where the two sopranos meet this means that there are no problems to know who is singing what. Few singers in the role have managed such heavenly pianissimos as Ms Stich-Randall, holding on to the tone seemingly forever in her first act aria. At forte she can be a mite unsteady but this is soon forgotten in view of so much superb phrasing. The aria in act three, directed to Turandot, is the high-spot of the performance.

Wilhelm Schirp, a singer I hadn’t heard before, is a warm and steady Timur. Karl Schiebener is a thin-voiced but beautiful and not very old sounding Emperor. The trio Ping, Pang and Pong are good actors, led by Horst Günter who was an important baritone in the German repertoire half a century ago.

There is an essay on the opera and a generalized synopsis, both in three languages, but no texts. While this can’t be a general recommendation for a first choice Turandot there are so many good things that it should be of interest to more than specialists. Solti collectors should definitely acquire it.

Göran Forsling


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