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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
EMI CLASSICS 5 85644 2 [2 CDs: 43:12+66:22]

 

If you can’t beat’em, join’em! Unable to prevent Naxos’s (and others’) wholly legitimate and hugely successful transferring to CD of some of the plums from their catalogue as year by year they come out of copyright. Having lost a lawsuit in the United States, EMI is responding as it should in a free market economy, by issuing its own transfers at a price similar to Naxos’s and trusting that the public will feel that, economic considerations being equal, the owner of the master tape is likely to do the best job.

My review of the Naxos transfer was posted on the site only recently so, as far as the performance is concerned, I will refer readers to my comments there. They will also find at the foot of the review a considerable exchange of opinions between the transfer engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, Robert E. Seletsky, author of an article on Callas at EMI as well as a note in the Naxos booklet and myself.

Basically, the debate centres around Obert-Thorn’s and Seletsky’s claim that the latest EMI transfer, in the Great Recordings of the Century series, "is 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 listener’s perception of tempo and vocal timbres" (from Obert-Thorn’s note).

Relying on my unaided ear, I was puzzled that the Naxos recording seemed scarcely sharper than my piano, which I knew had slipped to 438 Hertz if not lower. In view of the hornets’ nest this stirred up, something more than my unaided ear seemed called for. Two people, a singer friend and my piano tuner, brought round their pitch measuring equipment and spent some time patiently comparing selected passages (mostly from "Vissi d’arte" since long-held notes are required for a reliable reading).

Before coming to their verdict, however, the actual timings would seem at first to bear out Obert-Thorn’s and Seletsky’s contentions: the EMI transfer takes 109:34 compared with Naxos’s 108:31, over a minute’s difference if not quite the minute and a half claimed. However, if we look at some individual track timings, the Naxos is not always the shorter. Take the last part of Act Three:
  Naxos EMI

Senti, l’ora è vicina

1:30 1:30
Amaro sol per te m’era il morire 1:56 1:54
E non giungono 2:26 2:26
Come è lunga l’attesa! 2:15 2:15
Presto! Su, Mario! 1:20 1:17

(In some cases the variations may regard the decision over where exactly to start the new track).

Whereas the opening sequence of Act One tells a different story:

  Naxos EMI

Ah! Finalmente!

2:02 2:07
E sempre lava 2:13 2:15
Sante ampolle! Il suo ritratto! 1:13 1:14
Dammi i colori … recondita armonia 4:20 4:25
Gente là dentro 1:10 1:10

 

Now my naked ear told me that the EMI version was very fractionally lower pitched at most of my selected points of comparison; but it also had more body and depth to the sound, which might have influenced my perceptions. So what did my technological aids reveal?

As far as Vissi d’arte was concerned, the equipment noted no difference between the two and – and here is the interesting point – gave a reading of 444 Hertz for both of them, in spite of Obert-Thorn’s and Seletsky’s claims that the pitch had been corrected to 440. It also revealed that Callas was about a Hertz sharp on most of her high notes. Another recording made in Italy at about the same time, under Basile for Cetra, also gave a reading of 444 for the orchestra but this time the singer, Gigliola Frazzoni, was about a Hertz sharp right through. Kiri Te Kanawa’s 1981 version, made in London, likewise gave a reading of 444 and seemed the purest of intonation of them all; her 1996 version, made in Lyons, gave a pitch of 445. No wonder she made heavy weather of it!

So, if we assume that two pieces of equipment which give identical readings must be proved right, the possibilities are:

  1. That neither Naxos or EMI have transferred the recording at the correct pitch, despite the protestations of the former.

  2. That my CD player mysteriously raises the pitch of everything it plays by about 4 Hertz. These was common enough with LP turntables and cassette players, but we are told it is impossible with a CD. Still, they told us at the start that they were unbreakable and everlasting …

  3. That the 444 pitch was that of the performance itself, so both transfers are about right and the whole 440 business is a red herring.

Point 2) is the easiest to dismiss. We tested the pitch of my own CD of Cyril Scott, recorded in Milan on a Steinway which my piano tuner has been tuning regularly for some years and which he assures me is kept at 440. The CD played at exactly 440! We also tested a demo-CD made recently by one of my singer-friends, in another studio near Milan. It played very fractionally below 440, nearer to 439. There is no reason to suppose this did not represent the reality. In other words, if a recording plays at 444 on my CD-player, it means the manufacturer has transferred it at that pitch.

Point 3) is more difficult to establish. My piano tuner was kind enough to contact some of his older colleagues, and obtained the confirmation that Italy did respect the 1939 international convention (held in London) which established 440 as the concert pitch, which was previously around 432. 440 was laid down again in 1955. So a recording made at La Scala in 1953 should have been at 440. On the other hand, Seletsky tells us that recordings made in Italy in the early 1950s often did have a higher pitch, and it is well-known that in Vienna and many German cities a higher pitch was regularly used until a further international convention in the 1970s tried once again to fix 440, which is what is used in Italy today. So maybe there was an "unofficial" tendency to tune sharp in those days, but as yet I have failed to find anyone whose memory goes back that far. There is also the question of how much pitch might vary during sessions as the instruments warm up.

Does this matter? Well, since the two transfers differ only minimally in pitch, whatever Naxos claim to the contrary, then this can hardly be an issue in choosing which to buy. If it were to be decided to jack both of them down to 440, I should think the difference would be quite drastic and I hope this will not be done without exhaustive research proving that they have been wrong all these years.

So, having dismissed the pitch issue as a red herring, we come to the actual quality. I have compared several key points, also using an LP pressing of highlights from the performance issued by EMI Italiana. In quiet passages the LP proved to have the most lifelike sound, most closely approached by the EMI transfer, whereas the Naxos produces a leaner, drier sound, just a shade muffled. However, the LP was quite unable to cope with heavy moments like the Te Deum, which distorted badly. Obert-Thorn obviously had to work from the LP but, armed with better copies than mine, and no doubt far superior equipment to play it on, he succeeded in reducing the distortion to an inoffensive level. However, the EMI transfer shows us that the distortion was not on the master tape – the passage reproduces well. So all-in-all, it looks as though EMI still hold the trumps. Not to the extent that you should worry if you have bought the Naxos, but the EMI is now marginally preferable.

To return to another issue raised by my original review: EMI are unrepentant in their insistence on di Stefano and de Sabata instead of Di Stefano and De Sabata. I believe Italian is the only language in which the various "di"s and "von"s etc are written with a capital letter, but on the other hand you look up Ludwig van Beethoven in the encyclopedia under "B" not "V" and people will think it rather odd if you talk about "van Beethoven" instead of just plain "Beethoven"; whereas you look up Victor De Sabata under "D" not "S" and you must not refer to him as plain "Sabata", so the capital letter is there for a reason.

I’ve concentrated entirely on technical matters, so let me close by reminding you that this is one of the very greatest recorded performances of an opera ever made, so make sure you get it one way or the other. Both companies agree that you don’t deserve a libretto at this price, just a synopsis; but both synopses are good and EMI’s note is a particularly informative and well-written affair by Richard Osborne.

Christopher Howell

see review of the Naxos reissue by Robert Farr

Christopher Howell's original discussion of this recording with comments from Mark Obert-Thorn Robert E. Seletsky

correspondence received

Dear Mr. Howell,

A few more comments, I'm afraid. EMI 5 85644 2 is a budget version of the GROTC mastering; it thus also begins quite flat. Apparently, the speed drifts during play, its pitch overlapping for a bit with Mark Obert-Thorn's Naxos version from the old LPs. The difference is that Mr. Obert-Thorn tried to start at a=440 Hz and painstakingly hold it as steady as possible throughout. Perhaps, in your estimation, Mr. Obert-Thorn's efforts were wasted, but they certainly demonstrate real professionalism and enough care for an important musical document to produce a version without such significant speed drift as in GROTC.

The EMI Italiana LPs to which you referred are in fake stereo, so they should not be used as comparisons for anything. All the fake stereo Callas LPs of the 1970s and early 1980s have enormous distortion, probably because part of the fakery was re-recording the channels out of phase with each other.

Speaking of distortion and accuracy, I should say that EMI is perfectly capable of producing an accurate and compelling CD TOSCA, and one without any pitch problems. Listen to EMI 5 56304--the full-priced Callas Edition version (pressed in Holland), remastered in 1997 and corrected in 1999 (after we called EMI's attention to a nasty little problem). It sounds like the best LPs without compression, and there's no extra resonance or strange stuff. As this version and the best mono LPs have much in common, it certainly must be a better representation of the original tapes than GROTC. Moreover, it was mastered by the same man, Allan Ramsay, who apparently decided to create a modernized sound for his GROTC version in 2002. Further, the very first EMI CD version, 7 47175, remastered in 1984 (perhaps by the late Keith Hardwick), was also just fine, if perhaps a trifle reserved. The fact that the unnecessarily enhanced GROTC version and its budget clone are now the most widely available EMI versions is really the justification for the existence of the Naxos edition.

--Robert E. Seletsky ("Callas at EMI: Remastering & Perception," The Opera Quarterly, Summer 2000 & "The Performance Practise of Maria Callas," TOQ, Autumn 2004 [in press])

.................................

Alas, you have not dealt with my main contention that "Vissi d'arte" at least plays at 444hz not 440 in BOTH versions, so that Mr. Obert-Thorn seems to have transferred the recording SHARP (and the EMI one drifts sharp as it goes on).

Maybe the pitch of the performance WAS 444 (although Italy should have respected 440 at that date) so perhaps the first thing to do is to establish the likely pitch at La Scala in 1953. Unfortunately my own enquiries have only produced vague assurances that it "ought" to have been 440.

Christopher Howell

 

 

 



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