This group of recordings is a selection of the first releases
in the Decca Singer series. They are digital re-masterings from
the original tapes. It is an awesome undertaking. Each of ‘The Singers’
is, or was, a world leader. Most were benchmark practitioners of their
With that musical platform you might be forgiven for
thinking that presentation and packaging take second place. Not a bit
of it. Decca are taking the past and modelling it in the present. Each
disc has extensive CD-ROM features: some useful, some intriguing, some
fascinating, but all stimulating. Look at the photographs of the artists
– some youthful, some mature. Read the discography. Link yourself into
the web site. Then come back to the libretto or text of each chosen
excerpt or song. The only slight reservation is that the sticky label
warning that not all computer users will be able to access the enhanced
portion of the disc, appeared on only one of the seven packages reviewed
here: which packaging is itself novel. No hard sleeve. An acrylic type
disc housing sits on one side of the card folder: the other side is
itself sleeved for the accompanying booklet. That frame is held together
by a plastic cover. Very twenty first century. Very professional. Very
Decca tells us in each booklet that The Singers is
"dedicated to the late John Ardoin whose tireless enthusiasm and
knowledge made this unique series possible". Elsewhere we learn
that he supervised the selection of titles for this first series. The
back of the double sleeve gives brief details of the chosen tracks.
The booklet gives additional details. There is also an article in each
booklet by different authors; some comment on the history of the artist,
some comment on the extracts and the performance.
You might think that each disc ‘stands alone’ – which
it does; but because it is a series there are some seriously interesting
duplications of extracts. For example you can hear Beverly Sills and
Joan Sutherland each singing Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!. For the
ultimate of indulgent treats you can then hear Joan Sutherland, Renata
Tebaldi and Luciano Pavarotti sing O holy night by Adolphe Adam.
I just cannot resist the comment that the attendance problems of the
Church of England would be reduced if not removed if a playing of any
of these three recordings was compulsory at each service.
Having indulged myself I shall now address the CDs.
The order selected for this review is arbitrary – save that it is the
order they came out of the box, which is as good as any self-selected
process. Beverly Sills appeared first and her opening
is Konstanze’s famous Martern aller Arten. The orchestra sets
off rather too quickly and whilst they are crisp it reduces Sills’ opportunity
for expression. Further when singing forte at speed there is a reduction
in her clarity of diction and also her tone which becomes a little harsh.
That said, there are some lovely middle register notes and she descends
delightfully into almost a mezzo register. This recurs in the next track
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! where in addition a succession of high
notes sung piano is an aural delight. Inevitably Sutherland’s singing
of the same, sounds effortless. Whilst Sutherland’s tone is smooth and
trills come naturally, her mezzo notes do not quite match those of Sills.
Sills moves on to two tracks from Meyerbeer. Here we
have a seriously smooth toned Sills with falling notes and coloratura
second to none. They are followed by two tracks from Thomas and one
from Charpentier. Whilst there is strong soprano singing with some high
notes held faultlessly there does appear to be a slight lack of expression.
I was not convinced she was Titania in the extract from Mignon. Adam’s
Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman is a nursery tune delight. We have clear
diction, accurate vocal leaps with exciting coloratura. Similarly in
Bishop’s Lo! here the gently lark both the accompanying flute
and Sills capture the bird’s notes and brightness. We learn from the
booklet that she requested her Strauss recordings be included as her
favourites. This disc so concludes with two tracks from her earliest
recording on this disc. She was then 35 and returning to the stage.
Here she seems somewhat hesitant on some of her coloratura. Whilst singing
forte she loses some of her clarity of diction which returns quickly
for the gentler passages.
With the omission of some Donizetti and Verdi, which
on other discs she seems to enjoy, this CD brings together examples
of the range of works and vocal powers of this American star.
You would not expect Joan Sutherland to
start with anything other than Lucia. So it proves. Curiously, and on
these seven discs I think it is the only time it occurs, the text starts
at the beginning of the scene, whereas the singing commences later,
indeed, as you would also expect with Regnava nel silenzio. This
is 1959 Sutherland with her distinctive tone, full of expression and
lyricism. That said I do wonder why this recording form Paris was preferred
to Decca’s 410 193-2 (ROH Bonynge) with Pavarotti (and incidentally
Ghiaurov) where the orchestra does not attempt to overpower her. Nevertheless
this is a cracking start. Onto Mozart, as referred to above, and onto
Wagner. Yes, Wagner. Bill Park in the accompanying notes says this selection
"gives an idea of how well she might have sung this repertoire."
Maybe. Maybe not. Elsa seems an ideal character for Sutherland but the
music is so very different. Further I am not sure of her interpretation.
She sounds too vocally certain and confident rather than in a state
of enraptured anticipation of Lohengrin’s arrival.
Return to bel canto and Rossini’s orgy. This does show
her vocal repertoire: superb note hitting, coloratura with trills, extensive
register. This sounds a fun recording with her husband’s accompaniment.
It is the first of five tracks, which Bill Park tells us were recorded
at her home and which have not previously appeared on CD. So nearly
13 minutes here and later 14 minutes on Noël Coward; but no Bellini,
Puccini or Verdi. Look at the accompanying discography for what might
have been. We will pick up some Verdi on Pavarotti’s disc but it does
seem an imbalance on this CD.
The songs, which follow those recorded at her home,
are excellently sung with some superbly pure notes – particularly in
Reynaldo Hahn’s Si mes vers avaient des ailes. Whilst bringing
the operatic performance / treatment to Noel Coward is fascinating this
sounds more of a head voice Sutherland than the deep vibrant tone we
The concluding songs will leave you weak at the knees.
These are not big operatic arias but they do enable her to conclude
with songs showing off her consummate skills: particularly her note
colourings. The line "o night divine…" in Adam’s o holy
night sounds just that: divine. And Gounod’s O divine Redeemer
will have you reaching for the tissues. It is power packed with expression;
there are superb mellow tones; she extracts every emotional and vocal
nuance from every word and note. This makes a stunning conclusion to
an otherwise slightly disappointing selection.
Now let us reverse order and start at the end of the
CD of Renata Tebaldi. She concludes with her (curious)
signature tune If I loved you from Carousel. It seems in such
stark contrast to the preceding two tracks, which are…yes …the same
as Sutherland’s last two tracks, apart from a different second verse
in the Adam. Decca should be given heartfelt thanks for the opportunity
of back to back comparison. Similarities abound but the one contrast
in the Adam is the very slight edginess of timbre from Tebaldi which
seems to add a touch of fervour to the inspirational music. The Gounod
is delivered with more power without loss of tone; the vibrancy is magnificent.
The last section will require several boxes of tissues. It has a beauty
of tone and delivery which for me even tops Sutherland and I thought
that just not possible. If you needed a reason to buy both, this is
Of course there is a great deal more to the Tebaldi.
She starts with Gounod’s Faust. This first track recorded in 1949 has
a little background noise, but is still a technical marvel. It illustrates
the richness of her tone with which she starts and the light delicate
sound she can produce later at "La chiave è là".
Her superbly clear diction in the Jewel song leaves the text a superfluity.
Into Puccini and extracts from four operas. Her Mimi
extract is faultless: the teller of a simple story with musical complexity
and full of tonal contrast. Her Lauretta is a lyrical delight to which
most Father’s would respond with jewellery not merely a ring.
Restrained passion in Gluck, followed by dignity in
Catalini, are marks of later recordings. Also recorded later is the
role of Amneris which Bill Park in the booklet tells us is of particular
interest because she usually sang the title role. Whilst there are some
wonderfully deep notes and some seriously expressive tones this is not
as immediate or urgent as I would prefer. We move onto a selection from
five more composers but all recorded late, when she was over 50. The
power remains, whilst the creaminess has receded she can still move
seamlessly from chest to head voice as she shows particularly in the
This CD must go on your birthday present list. So must
the next: Luciano Pavarotti. I shall not leap to the end:
Adam’s O holy night. I shall start at the beginning with the
booklet and commentary by JB Steane. Instead of a resume of the history
of the singer, he discourses on the tracks and their raison d’être.
It is informative and entertaining and will be referred to here extensively.
We start with two rarities. In the Gluck (the Parisian
tenor version) Pavarotti extracts the full anguish of Orfeo’s loss.
It drips with emotion and has wonderfully deep vibrant colouring. He
reins back for Beethoven with gentle controlled power and the rest in
a dark tomb.
Bellini’s bel canto lyricism is Pavarotti’s home territory.
Here brilliantly clear diction oozing with emotion would have delighted
Bellini. Contrast this with the homebuilding in the Donizetti where
I am far from sure that Pavarotti sounds happy. The tra-la-la seems
to have a somewhat perfunctory sound. Tosti’s celebration of the arrival
of April sounds just that: welcomed with gentleness and moving through
colourful tones to a bold statement of invitation to his love. Onto
Pavarotti’s ever-popular Mattinata by Leoncavallo: he makes it sound
so simple as he does singing high C’s. Steane reminds us Tonio has 9
in Ah! mes amis, which Pavarotti flings about like confetti.
This is a youthfully exuberant exhilarating Pavarotti of definitive
sound. It is a superbly crisp rendition retaining all lyricism and supported
by the Royal Opera House Chorus on top form conducted by Bonynge: which
leads neatly to the duets with Sutherland.
Linda!…Da quel dì with Pavarotti and
Sutherland in deep sincere tonal mode produces an affecting duet. In
Aida Steane reminds us that Radamès requires a dramatic tenor:
which Pavarotti is not and answers by intensifying his lyricism. In
this concluding scene for Aida he succeeds well in an excellent recording
(in which you can actually hear the final blessing from Amneris which
is so frequently drowned). In Otello’s Già nella notte densa
he does not succeed so well. There is plenty of lyricism but where
an heroic voice is needed it is not answered by loudness alone.
Conversely his three religious songs will have the
page awash with superlatives. A perfect Ave Maria followed by
Adam’s O holy night. Again. His very occasional uneven pronunciation
seems to emphasise the beauty and strength of his timbre. Finally to
Nessun dorma! paced for Pavarotti to extract every last shade.
As Steane says " a triumphant conclusion".
So to Leontyne Price whose discography
could be used as an operatic review in itself. Thus why are we limited
to two recorded sessions nearly 25 years after her initial steps into
opera? The first track is Aida’s well known Ritorna vincitor! An
aria full of inner conflict, anguish, doubt and sorrow. The concluding
plea is delivered with her rich soft tone; but the earlier conflict
does not have the same depth of sound nor immediacy as the 1962 recording
with Solti – also on Decca 417 416-2. Smoothness is diminished and power
replaced by sound. The high notes are still beautiful but overall this
recording is nowhere near the standard of the one 18 years before.
Verdi’s Amelia, in the first aria from Un ballo in
maschera, is falteringly going to collect herbs. Price’s Amelia does
not sound nervous or hesitant at the beginning; later when overtaken
by fear, Price captures superbly the mellow toned gloom. Transfixed
by apparitions there are clear held notes at the extremes of range.
In the second aria where she makes her pre-death plea to hold her son,
expression seems to have diminished. It sounds more like a concert piece
than an aria in expectation of death. That is odd because the Willow
Song, which follows, is full of expression. Harshness does creep in
but contrast and tone return in strength as they do in Elvira’s Ernani
involami for her scorn of Silva and her love for Ernani.
At which point we leave opera behind and proceed to
religious songs or hymns. Although recorded 3 years after the first
series Price is much more comfortable where, with one sad exception,
extremes are not demanded. Her gathering of the lambs in Handel’s He
shall feed his flock is sung with low voiced gentleness. Later,
and again with quiet ease, she moves from chest to head voice. Similarly
in How beautiful are the feet we hear a beautiful round lyrical
tone. We move through Panis angelicus and two more songs to conclude
with Away in a manger and Oh come, all ye faithful. The
latter, given a celestial choir, is an unfair conclusion. Her attempt
at power loses most tonal beauty and is not a comfortable track for
her or us. The former, sung in mid-range with gentle smoothness, should
have concluded this CD on a rounded polished note
Our penultimate CD of Teresa Berganza
once again has JB Steane as the informative commentator on the music.
We are reminded that Mozart and Rossini are Berganza’s favourite composers
with a special interest in Spanish song.
I would like to mention first my one and only reservation
about most of the disc: it is light on expression: love, anguish, wistfulness,
or talk of death sound much the same. The exception is at the end and
we will come to that. That reservation aside this is a splendid compilation
of note hitting clarity.
With certain inevitability it starts with Cherubino:
Non so più followed by Voi che sapete. This is
a clear toned Cherubino with precision notes: here is a confident Cherubino
with none of the doubts. From Cherubino we descend to true mezzo sounds
with Sextus. Here are some wonderfully sung notes in the chest register
with runs through to the higher register without even a slight waver.
Mozart’s Ch’io mi scordi di te? is an opportunity to listen to
falling notes with a truly smooth and creamy tone and another demonstration
of her wide register.
From smoothness we proceed to some vocal gymnastics
in Fiordiligi’s Come scoglio. Venom and thrust are missing but
the vocal challenge is met and despatched with consummate ease. Transferring
to Dorabella we have another example of her superbly clear diction and
ringing tone. I had not heard previously any of her Spanish songs. All
three are sung with outstanding clarity of word and note and with more
tonal variation. They do not come as a revelation but they are a seriously
The disc concludes with a generous offering of Rossini.
Here is a Rosina who just occasionally ‘lets go’ in the higher register
to provide a vibrant sound. Whilst technically secure it is sad that
the shrewish ‘vipers’ are so tame.
Bel raggio lusinghier is a chance for more coloratura
particularly in the higher register – some forte some piano – and again
there is no technical hesitation. The last three tracks are, for me,
examples of ‘what might have been’ for here there is expression and
emotion to match character and libretto. Did Berganza identify in some
way with Isabella or Cinderella? I shall never know. What is apparent
is that she becomes Isabella: lyrical, expressive, emotional and when
you combine that with her coloratura and breadth of register you have
tracks for replaying. Similarly Cenerentola’s aria is delivered with
such assurance that there is a definite ‘wow’ factor in this concluding
track which ends the disc on a serious high point.
I conclude with the almost ubiquitous voice of Nicolai
Ghiaurov. It would be tedious to search for a serious bass role
which he has not sung; and it would probably take months to complete
because of the irresistible temptation to play this or that. So to save
us from such a fate Decca have provided a disc which does give the opportunity
to appreciate the huge spectrum of roles: starting with rogue Leporello’s
catalogue. The stage is filled with deep tones. The list is read with
pride. The categories are sung with tenderness. Here is a henchman to
support any Don.
About turn: and into the superbly Satanic Méphistophélès.
The Golden Calf is a real monster to be contrasted with the Sérénade
with its melodic warning. It is a role which Ghiaurov has almost made
his own; and, as the informative notes by Alan Blyth remind us, was
his Metropolitan debut. Persuasive melody abounds for the Le Comte in
Manon. Shudderingly deep notes appear in Marcel’s battle song whilst
military precision and melody successively take centre stage for Escamillo’s
Now move on to darker music where Ghiaurov’s gloriously
deep and full bass resonates. Susanin’s aria is deeply moving with dark
shading. The Demon almost rouses sympathy for his first tears when Ghaiurov
slowly extracts the tender conclusion. Emotion rules for King René’s
prayer and not a jot is missed. The concluding lines of deeply felt
and sung supplication alone are justification for purchasing this disc.
We are then treated to two more arias (Konchak’s and
Galitsky’s) before the dramatic song of the Viking guest. Next comes
Pimen’s narrative, a role the notes tell us Ghiaurov liked to undertake.
Selfishly I would have preferred to hear something from the title role,
but let that not detract from the power of the singing. The lyrical
bass sonority for Gremin is another treat with the disc concluding with
the tour de force of Aleko’s cavatina.
For those who are familiar with the range of roles
for the bass voice this disc will be a re-acquaintance with delights
at the depth of tone, rich expression and fine dark colouring; for those
who are not so familiar this CD will be a revelation. It is a master
class of a disc.