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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca (1900)
Maria Callas (Tosca), Giuseppe Di Stefano (Cavaradossi), Tito Gobbi (Scarpia), Franco Calabrese (Angelotti), Angelo Mercuriali (Spoletta), Melchiorre Luise (Sacristan), Dario Caselli (Sciarrone/Gaoler), Alvaro Cordova (Shepherd),
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Victor De Sabata
Recorded 10th-14th, 16th and 18th-21st August 1953 in the Teatro alla Scala, Milan
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110256-57 [2 CDs: 42:35, 65:56]


This set has been so unanimously regarded down the years as one of the all-time greats of the record catalogue that it is faintly embarrassing to have to write about it; surely everything that can be said has already been done so?

Well, one question that prospective buyers will wish to know is, can a transfer made, however musically and intelligently, with original LPs, match EMIís own version(s) using the master-tapes, to which they retain their unique access? The answer is partly supplied in transfer engineer Mark Obert-Thornís brief note, which it is worth quoting fairly fully.

"The original LPs featured pitch discrepancies between and even within sides. There were also bad edits and sudden, obtrusive volume fluctuations. On EMIís three CD issues, some of these problems were corrected in one edition and then undone in the next, while other, new editing errors crept in .... The most recent GROC transfer compounded the problems by pitching the recording noticeably flat, an error which, in addition to adding nearly a minute and a half to the running time of this relatively brief opera, also affects the listenerís perception of tempo and vocal timbres.

"For the present transfer, I assembled no fewer than ten LP copies of the set, and spent the greater part of eight weeks transferring, listening, comparing and re-doing the project until I was satisfied with the results".

The question of pitch is obviously of considerable importance and my only query is that Obert-Thornís version may still be very fractionally low. I have no very sophisticated instruments to hand and base myself on the consideration that I know my domestic piano has slipped just slightly from the 440í currently used in Italy to about 438í, and most recordings, including an Italian EMI LP pressing of extracts from this recording, sound just fractionally sharp of my piano. This recording sounds in tune with it!

However, this begs all sorts of questions. For one thing, LP turntables sometimes varied a little between each other, or even fluctuated slightly while playing. They also had a tendency to play a fraction faster when they got older, as the mechanism that clawed back the motor got old. Iím not for a moment suggesting that Obert-Thorn would use anything other than highly sophisticated and constantly checked equipment, but this might be the problem with mine, although I donít normally notice a particular difference when I compare the same recording in LP and CD formats.

But another question is, did La Scala use 440í back in 1953 or something slightly lower? Is c.438í actually right? Did the EMI engineer who transferred the GROC version at a lower pitch still have historical evidence for doing so? Just to compound the mystery, the Garzanti Enciclopedia della Musica (in Italian) states that the 440í standard was set at the Congress of London in 1939, well before this recording (but would Mussoliniís Italy of 1939 have paid heed?) while the Grove Concise Dictionary says it was decided by the International Organization for Standardisation in 1955, which would leave open the possibility that La Scala was still using something lower in 1953. I also note that the 1956 Cetra set under Basile, recorded in Turin, plays at the same pitch as Obert-Thornís transfer of the present set, suggesting that he is right and pitch in Italy did remain fractionally low in those years. As I happen to live in Milan I will try to make enquiries, but itís amazing how some things can sink without trace.

Need the general listener care a hoot? Well, even the minute dichotomy between my LP and the CDs alters our perceptions; the CDs have a warmer, less strained sound, generally with a fine body to it and only minimal distortion at strenuous moments. The acoustics of La Scala were less sympathetic than those of Romeís Santa Cecilia which Decca were using at the same period and that cannot be changed, but all things considered there seems no reason why anyone who doesnít have this performance yet should pay more than Naxosís rock-bottom price.

But what about the performance? It was a pace-setter in many ways. For one thing, Italian operas in those days were invariably recorded under the baton of an "Italian operatic conductor", a soundly trained gentleman who knew the ins and outs of the repertoire, understood the human voice and was respected by singers because he "let them breathe" (which could be a synonym for "let them do what they liked"). I donít want to knock the talents of such capable artists as Serafin, Votto, Erede, Molinari-Pradelli, Capuana, Basile, Previtali et al, or to suggest that they were all on an equal level, but it is odd that during Toscaniniís reign at La Scala HMV recorded a long series of operas there, but under Carlo Sabajno; another great conductor, Vittorio Gui, got to record a few operas thanks to his Glyndebourne associations, Antonio Guarnieri none at all. Victor De Sabata, in his only studio opera recording (a few live performances have turned up), was therefore the first Italian conductor recognised internationally as a "great conductor" to record Puccini in Italy (Toscaniniís late New York performance of "La Bohème" preceded this). After this came the Karajan/Callas "Butterfly" and the Beecham "Bohème" and the pendulum went too far the other way, leading to personalised interpretations by the likes of Sinopoli and Bernstein with the result that the work of the "Italian operatic conductor" needs reassessing for its enshrinement of a lost tradition.

De Sabataís contribution to this "Tosca" cannot be overestimated, for the performance is totally integrated. After so many Callas sets where the diva shines, the others do what they can and the conductor follows along, here she is obviously happy to collaborate with an artist of her own stature. This is a "Tosca" of seething tension and menace (surpassed in my experience only by a short video extract under Mitropoulos) in which every note falls into place in the overall drama. Callas, who was still notable in 1953 for sheer vocal beauty as well as gut conviction, gives so much more than in, for example, the (too-) often re-released video of Act 2 from Covent Garden under the noisy, messy Carlo Felice Cillario, and Giuseppe Di Stefano, an inconsistent artist, gives of his very best as Cavaradossi. Tito Gobbiís celebrated Scarpia is a non-pareil of slimy nastiness. Nobody else much matters in this opera, but they are all good, an unattractive shepherd apart.

In short, the mythical set lives up to its reputation and those who do not have it should set this to rights. The presentation is consistent with this series: good notes and detailed synopsis but no libretto, which you can get from Internet easily enough. Will Naxos and others please get it into their heads that "De" and "Di" in Italian names, unlike equivalent words in virtually every language, have capital letters because they are an integral part of the surname and you look upDe Sabata and Di Stefano in the encyclopedia under "D" not "S".

Christopher Howell

See further discussion of the EMI transfer by Chris Howell


 

In his review of the Naxos release of "Tosca" with Callas, Christopher Howell claims that I have pitched the recording at A=438 because it seems to be in tune with his piano, which he knows to be slightly flat. In actuality, I used a precision instrument (a Korg Autochromatic Tuner) in order to check my pitch when transferring this recording, and I pitched it at A=440. The EMI "Great Recordings of the Century" CD and their new budget "twofer" which was sonically cloned from it both start out at A=436 -- much lower than any major orchestra would have tuned in 1953, and lower than EMI themselves pitched the recording in their first two CD traversals. The original LPs start at about A=441 but vary thereafter, going down considerably in pitch during the end of Side 2 (the first part of Act II). I selected A=440 as a conservative choice supported by international standards of the time.

As to the issue of whether the "di" and "de" in the names of the principal tenor and conductor of this set should be capitalized, it is worth noting that EMI themselves use lower case in the listings for their GROC CD edition. While that doesn't necessarily make it right, I also would note that on his own "GDS" label LPs, the tenor's autograph as reproduced on the album covers appears to show him signing his own name as "di Stefano," rather than "Di Stefano."

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mr Obert-Thorn, whose transfer of the Callas/Di Stefano/De Sabata Tosca I basically much admired, raises two points about my review.
As regards the pitching of the recording I have to bow to the judgement of the piece of technical equipment he refers to, and would only add that if this recording really does run at 440 then most others in my collection run slightly above. Is it possible that CD players vary a hertz or two between themselves? I'll come back on this if I find any technically supported evidence.
But as for Di Stefano or di Stefano (and De Sabata or de Sabata), Mr Obert-Thorn really should not try to brush me off as an ignoramus when I have been living in Italy for 28 years, have dual British-Italian nationality and an Italian wife who is a stickler for correct Italian.
In any case, if he wishes to pretend expertise over a matter which every Italian child learns at elementary school, he is going to get egg over his face.
So let it be clear once again, Italian surnames beginning with Di or De have a capital D (Di Stefano, De Sabata)and the ONLY exception to this is when a noble title is followed by a locality, which is not actually a name (Principe di Savoia, Duca d'Aosta etc).

I can't answer for what the British wing of EMI does, when there was an EMI Italiana with a measure of autonomy they were always scrupulous over the matter. If Mr Obert-Thorn thinks he has seen evidence that Di Stefano bends the rules to suit himself, then as the gentleman in question is still alive I suggest he asks him to clear the matter up.

Christopher Howell

I did not mean to suggest that Mr. Howell is "an ignoramus" nor that he is wrong in his assertion that the "D's" ought to be capitalized. As I stated in my reply, the fact that EMI listed the tenor's name with a small "d" does not make it correct. When I put the discographic information together for the Naxos booklet, I followed their spelling. For future releases, I will heed Mr. Howell's advice.

Mark Obert-Thorn

From Robert E. Seletsky


I should preface my remarks by saying that I wrote a commentary published in the booklet accompanying this Naxos set. I am the author of "Callas at EMI: Remastering and Perception," _The Opera Quarterly_ (OUP, Spring 2000). I just read Christopher Howell's review of the TOSCA and engineer Mark Obert-Thorn's responses. Mr. Howell implies that the standard of a=440 Hz was standardized in 1936 (or 1955) to bring pitch *up.* In actuality, it was an effort toward bringing pitch *down,* as "a" was always creeping up, sometimes nearly as far as 450 Hz, especially in Italian opera houses; indeed in 1896, there was a previous unsuccessful attempt. Mr. Howell says that most of his old opera records seem sharp when compared with his piano, and he assumes that his piano is flat; and because the Naxos TOSCA matches his piano, he deduces that it must therefore be flat as well. He will be happy to know that if it matches the Naxos TOSCA, his piano is accurate. Most of the original Columbia/Angel EMI releases (and other Italian recordings) were actually sharp, either because of recording equipment, LP mastering decisions, or simple day-to-day pitch inconsistencies at opera houses.

The 1953 TOSCA, as played on the original LPs at 33.3 RPM, beginning at a=440/1, is among the lowest-pitched of that epoch's Italian operatic recordings. Throughout the recording, however, the pitch deviates from the first measurement. Mr. Obert-Thorn's painstaking, minute corrections to solidify pitch at a=440 Hz throughout TOSCA, about which he and I had much discussion, is actually a first. It is doubtful that the oboe gave the same "a" at every recording session, but by making the entire recording consistent at the standard modern "a," Mr. Obert-Thorn has, at least, minimized the rather extreme variations throughout the recording that probably don't reflect the sessions as much as speed drift in 1950s recording equipment. That EMI never addressed the issue throughout their various TOSCA incarnations, all made with the luxury of the original tapes, is inexcusable. As noted, the 2002 EMI incarnation in the "Great Recordings of the Century" series, and its recently released, cheaply packaged twofer version, is the latest irresponsible act: beginning almost a quarter-tone low, the speed drift from the old tapes played on new equipment yields pitch levels that not only start very flat, but vary so wildly throughout as to make one blush. Clearly EMI now treats Callas as nothing more than a commodity, undeserving of such simple artistic courtesies as the correct or consistent pitching of her work.

While transfers made from original tapes have the possibility of yielding purer results, EMI's generally poor treatment of source material for Callas' oeuvre since 1997, with regard to pitch and overall sonic accuracy, stands in sharp contrast to the care taken in these first legitimate LP transfers which, despite the limits of the LP and LP transfer technology, ironically come closer to the originally envisioned result than EMI's careless tape transfers.

Chris Howell adds:

Len, here are some more considerations if you want to add them to the review with the others,
chris

This is all getting curiouser and curiouser. Recently a friend brought round a reasonably sophisticated pitch detector and according to this, my piano is even lower than I feared (436 - but a very wet day may have brought it down from the 438 I believed it to be) and a test on Vissi d'arte and Recondita armonia from the Naxos Tosca transfer revealed a pitch of 444-445, not the 440 claimed. An EMI transfer of Vissi d'Arte in a Callas compilation (no way of knowing which of their transfers was drawn on) proved about the same, as did the Frazzoni/Basile Cetra set made in Turin not much later. According to Mr. Seletsky this would not be surprising for recordings made in Italy in those days, except that it does not square with the claim that the recording has been transferred at 440. Either my friend's equipment was wrong (in which case my piano is flatter still which seems unlikely since my friend is a singer, she sang with the piano that same day and, faced with anything approaching a quarter of a tone down she immediately notices because it affects the position of her passaggi, and I also note immediately that her voice takes on a different timbre), or Mr. Obert-Thorn's is (which I virtually rule out since I am sure he would have used state-of-the-art and regularly tested equipment), or there is variation between CD players. I'm no technician; I know that LP turntables were sometimes at variance between each other and similarly cassette recorders. Can CD players vary in the same way?

There is another explanation for the variable pitch during the recording. If an orchestra is asked to tune to a slightly lower A than usual, after about half-an-hour they tend to drift back to their normal pitch. I have it on the word of a member of La Scala chorus that this actually happened a few years ago when, for a production of Otello, they were asked to tune to the "original Paris pitch", about a quarter of a tone down, ostensibly for musicological reasons but also, it was suggested, to ease the famous tenor's top notes; by about halfway through each act they had pretty well got back to normal pitch again! So if for these Tosca sessions a deliberate attempt was made (by De Sabata? Legge?) to impose a 440 pitch (Mr. Seletsky tells us the LPs start at this pitch) then the original tapes may document a continual tussle between retuning and drifting back upwards. So far I have not located anyone in Milan with memories that go far enough back to tell me what pitch was adopted in those days and when (if) it was changed so this is all surmise.

I hope all this correspondence will not obscure the fact that I recommended readers to buy the Naxos transfer!



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