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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida (1871)
Hilde Zadek (soprano) Aida; Helge Rosvaenge (tenor) Radamès; Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo) Amneris; Josef Metternich (baritone) Amonasro; Helmut Fehn (bass) Ramfis; Sigmund Roth (bass) King
Chorus and Orchestra of North German Radio/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.
Rec. Hamburg, 1951. ADD
WALHALL ETERNITY SERIES WLCD0036 [138’01: 71’42 + 67’19].

Some fine old names here. Purists should note immediately that this is sung in German, as was the custom at the time. There is less a gap more a chasm between Italian and German as sung entities, which makes the success of this endeavour all the more pleasantly surprising. If this does not have the authority of the Naxos reissue of Tebaldi et al ( ), it nevertheless retains the spirit of Verdi almost intact.

The orchestra (NDR Symphony Orchestra) is superbly trained by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. This is immediately apparent in the perilous string prelude to Act 1. Some background noise is in evidence, but it does not seriously detract and the rise to the climax is gracefully made.

A pity there are so many ‘hard’ Germanic consonants in the opening lines; Ramfis – here Helmut Fehn, making no apology and sounding totally at home. Fehn might be best known to collectors as Nachtigall in the 1943 Abendroth Bayreuth Meistersinger. Yet Rosvaenge, the star of this performance, makes an entirely different impression. Even though he sings in German, ‘Holde Aida’ as opposed to ‘Celeste Aida’, there is a underlay of unmistakably Italianate lyric flow. The preceding statements are, vocally, almost as trumpet-like as the brass that intersperse them.

The Amneris is in the shape of Eliszbeth Höngen, beautifully toned and having a lovely way with her phrases. The scene immediately following ‘Celeste Aida’ is most effective, with Schmidt-Isserstedt keeping the orchestra urgent, yet one of her finest moments comes at the outset of Act 2. Höngen’s voice is fairly light but supremely expressive and she is possessed of supreme legato. Throughout this particular scene, the lyric impulse is kept alive by Schmidt-Isserstedt’s alert sensitivity.

Aida herself is ardently lyrical. Hilde Zadek has a touching way with her melodic lines. Just a shame her voice is a little weak in the lower register. Come Act 4, the final scenes with Radamès carry great emotive force. As an added bonus, the two actually sing in octaves as directed, for a change! Here in ‘Qui Radames verrà’ (‘Bald kommt Radames’), Fehn reveals just how dark his voice can be during Act 3. Of the other roles, Siemund Roth’s King is on the weak side (certainly not very regal); Josef Matternich’s Amonasro is acceptable if not special in any way.

Schmidt-Isserstedt proves to be a convincing exponent of this work without consistently setting the pulse racing. All this might perhaps be expected, but there are some any impressive moments that it is worth the outlay here. His chorus is supremely well-drilled (Chorus Master is uncredited) and the recording stands up surprisingly well to the crowd scenes; by the same token, do not expect digital clarity! As for the orchestra, try the tip-toe dance for orchestra (CD1 track 9), where real pianissimi are in evidence, or at the other extreme how the orchestra blazes at the end of Act 4 Scene 1.

At very much lower-medium price this is more than worth a spin. It provides a fascinating window onto a world some of us missed out on. There is no documentation to speak of, just a track listing; no timings, but at least the German is given alongside the original Italian. A pity the split between the discs occurs so close to the end of Act 2. Not all cast-members are given - the ‘Sacerodotessa’ (High Priestess) remains a mystery. Do try it, though.

Colin Clarke

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