> Decca Singers: Sills, Sutherland, Pavarotti,Tebaldi, Price, Berganza, Ghiaurov [RMK]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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DECCA The Singers Series

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Beverly SILLS
MOZART Martern aller Arten
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! , K418
Robert, toi que j’aime
Robert le diable
Ô beau pays de la Touraine!
Les Huguenots
À vos jeux, mes amis
Je suis Titania
Depuis le jour
Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman – Variations
Le Toréador
Lo! here the gentle lark
Breit’ über mein Haupt,Amor

Recording London 1964 (10,11), 1969 (3-9), 1974 (1,2)
DECCA 467 906-2 [74.57]

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Regnava nel silenzio
Lucia di Lammermoor
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! , K418
Dich, teure Halle
Einsam in trüben Tagen
L’orgia ,La danza
Serate musicali
Les Hirondelles
Au printemps
Oh! Si les fleurs avaient des yeux
Si mes vers avaient des ailes
LA FORGE I came with a song
COWARD I’ll follow my secret heart
Conversation piece
I’ll see you again Zigeuner
Bitter Sweet
O holy night
GOUNOD O divine redeemer
Recorded: Maison de la Chimie, Paris, April 1959 (1); Kingsway Hall, London, May 1965 (16,17), August 1972 (10-12), November 1978 (2-4); Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, July 1966 (13-15); Les avants, Switzerland, June 1978 (5-9)
DECCA 467 914-2 [69.05]

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GOUNOD C’era un re…. Ah! E’ strano poter
PUCCINI In quelle trine morbide
Manon Lescaut
PUCCIN Sì. Mi chiamano MimiI

La Bohème
PUCCINI O mio babbino caro
Gianni Schicchi
PUCCINIUn bel dì
Madama Butterfly
GLUCK O del mio dolce ardor
Paride ed Elena
CATALANI Ebben?..Ne andrò lontana
La Wally
VERDI L’aborrita rivale. Già I Sacerdoti adunansi
Ma, dunque è vero?
Adriana Lecouvreur
HANDEL Ombra mai fu
PAISIELLO Nel cor più non mi sento
La molinara
PERGOLESIStizzoso, mio stizzosi
La serva padrona
MARTINI Piacer d’amor
ADAM O holy night
GOUNOD O divine Redeemer
RODGERS If I loved you
Recorded: Victoria Hall, Geneva, November 1949(1,2,5),September 1972 (8,9);
Santa Cecilia, Rome, July 1951 (3); Teatro Pergola, Florence, July 1962 (4);
Salle Alcazar, Monte Carlo, June 1968 (7); Kingsway Hall, London, March 1969 (16), April 1971 (14,15), June 1973(6,10-13)
DECCA 467 915-2 [73.04]

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GLUCK Che farò senza Euridice?
Orfeo ed Euridice
BEETHOVEN In questa tomba oscura
BELLINI Vaga luna
DONIZETTI Me voglio fà ‘na casa
TOSTI Aprile
DONIZETTI Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!
La fille du régiment
DONZETTI Da quel dì
Linda di Chamounix
VERDI La fatal pietra
VERDI Già nella notte densa
YON Gesù bambino
Ave Maria
ADAM O holy night
PUCCINI Nessun dorma!
Recorded: Kingsway Hall, London, July 1967 (7), August 1972(14), September 1976(8-10), April 1977(1-3,6); Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, August 1982(5); All Saints, Petersham, January 1976(11-13); Bologna, July 1979(4)
DECCA 467 920-2 [72.14]

Leontyne PRICE
VERDI Ritorna vincitor!, O patria mia
VERDI Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa. Morrò, ma prima in grazia
Un ballo in maschera
VERDI "Piangea cantando"…Ave Maria
VERDI Ernani! Ernani involami
HANDEL He shall feed his flock, How beautiful are the feet
FRANCK Panis angelicus
MURRAY What Child is this?, I wonder as I wander. Away in a manger
WADE O come, all ye faithful
Recorded: Mann Auditorium, Tel Aviv, July 1980 (1-6); St-Eustache, Montréal, May 1983 (7-13)
DECCA 4679132

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MOZART 1 Non so più 2 Voi che sapete
Le nozze di Figaro
MOZART 3 Parto, parto
La clemenza di Tito
MOZART Ch’io mi scordi di te?…Non temere, amato bene, K505
MOZART 5 Come scoglio
6 E’ amore un ladroncello
Cosi fan tutte
GRANADOS 7-9 La maja dolorosa
ROSSINI 10 Una voce poco fa
Il barbiere di Siviglia
ROSSINI 11 Bel raggio lusinghier
ROSSINI 12 Cruda sorte!
13 Per lui che adoro
L’italiani in Algeri
ROSSINI 14 Nacqui all’affanno… Non più mesta
La Cenerentola
Recorded: Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, February 1959 (10-14); Kingsway Hall , London, December 1962(1-6); Herkulessaal, Munich, March 1975(7-9)
DECCA 467 905-2 [68.41]

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1 Mamamina, il catalogo è questo
Don Giovanni
GOUNOD 2 Le veau d’or est toujours debout
3 Vous qui faites l’endormie
MASSENET 4 Épouse quelque brave fille
MEYERBEER 5 Piff, paff
Les Huguenots
6 Quand la flamme de l’amour
La Jolie Fille de Perth
BIZET 7 Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre…Toréador, en garde
GLINKA 8 Susanin’s Aria
A Life for the Tsar
RUBINSTEIN 9 The Demon’s Aria
The Demon
TCHAIKOVSKY 10 King René’s Prayer
BORODIN 11 Konchak’s Aria 12 Galitsky’s Aria
Prince Igor
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV 13 Song of the Viking Guest
MUSSORGSKY 14 Pimen’s Narrative
Boris Godunov
TCHAIKOVSKY 15 Prince Gremin’s Aria
Eugene Onegin
RACHMANINOV 16 Aleko’s Cavatina
Recorded: Kingsway Hall, London, November 1962 (1,13-16), July 1964 (2-12)
DECCA 467 902-2 [73.28]
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 art.

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.

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 expect.

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 it.

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 Pergolesi.

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 interesting addition.

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 toréador.

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.

Robert McKechnie

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