booklet baldly states “recorded in 1956”. Looking around the
internet for more details it turned out that most of what I
wanted to know was to be found on this site. I turned to a review
Fifield of an EMI reissue of the recording and to a survey
Lace of the “Bohème” situation at the time of writing (2000).
So thank them for the dates and location given above.
recording was arranged in a considerable hurry when it dawned
on HMV that de los Angeles, Björling and Beecham would all be
in New York at the same time. There were certain links at the
time between HMV and RCA so it was the latter who actually made
those days opera recordings tended to be made in well-established
places with regular teams. EMI’s series based around Maria Callas
and La Scala, and Decca’s rival series based around Tebaldi
with Florentine or Roman forces, are obvious examples. The process
of snapping up three star artists and bunging them together
to make a recording in eight days may seem in retrospect something
of a blueprint for more recent developments. The performance
itself, by adopting some unusual tempi for those days, probably
heralded a move from “traditional” Puccini in favour of “personalized”
have already reviewed for MusicWeb a reissue by Naxos of the
1951 Decca recording with Tebaldi, Prandelli and Gueden, made
in Rome under Alberto
Erede. On the whole I think that anyone intent on getting
to know “La Bohème” through a cheap reissue of a famous early
LP recording would do better to get that.
five years more recent, the present recording, at least as transferred
here, is technically inferior. The 1951 Decca is clearer, warmer
and more open. This 1956 recording is a little boxy, sometimes
strident and congested. Which is not to say that, away from
comparisons, it is less than adequate if you are drawn to these
One, after the opening portrait of life in the Bohemians’ garret,
presents us with the two leading artists. Jussi Björling was
reportedly not well at the time of these sessions. His timbre
is somewhat pinched and strained, something we do not find in
the earlier recordings added as a supplement. He is also curiously
inert in his expression. “Che gelida manina” is spelt out phonetically,
with little feeling of the burgeoning love that lies beneath
it. When Mimì, halfway through “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”, asks
him if he understands her, his “sì” has all the enthusiasm of
a husband who, jaundiced by thirty years of marriage, comments
on his wife’s new floral arrangements from behind his newspaper.
Prandelli, on Naxos, has true Italianate warmth in his voice.
He can expand thrillingly and is always attentive to the words.
I have also been able to hear extracts from the later Tebaldi
recording, with Carlo Bergonzi. Magnificent singing, but there
is something too aristocratic about Bergonzi’s phrasing for
this role. His greatness was as a Verdian.
has been made of the vulnerability or fragility which Victoria
de los Angeles brought to certain roles, making virtue of the
fact that her voice was theoretically a size too small for them.
I find these arguments work better with her Madama
Butterfly. There are innumerable lovely touches here. But
there are times when Puccini seems to expect the singer to step
out of her “fragility” and soar upwards with full, strong tone.
He isn’t Massenet and at key moments the singer without sheer
heft will not deliver the goods. Well as “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”
begins, it fails at the climax.
has the heft for this, of course. Some have found her too dominating
for the role. Perhaps this is true of the later recording, where
slow tempi induce her into a more mannered approach. In 1951
her voice was in its pristine glory, and she was as attentive
to the more intimate moments as to the moments of expansion.
Surprisingly, it is she who makes the most of her suggestion,
timid and bold at the same time, that she should come with Rodolfo
to the Caffè Momus.
earlier stages of this act are a bit noisy and bullish from
Beecham. Perhaps as a result of having a mainly Italian cast
under an Italian conductor, there is a conversational ease about
the Erede version which seems to flow from the words themselves.
Then, with the arrival of Mimì on the scene, Beecham draws the
music out unnaturally. A tell-tale example takes place at the
exchange “Vorrebbe? … s’accomodi un momento … non occorre”.
The singers get badly ahead of the orchestra here. This is because
they can hardly help enunciating their parlato phrases
in natural speech rhythm, and it just doesn’t fit into what
Beecham is doing. Erede keeps things moving at a more realistic
pace. Erede, too, is better at finding flexibility without getting
stuck. Take the climax of the act, in “O soave fanciulla”, where
Mimì sings “Ah, tu sol comandi, amor!” while Rodolfo sings “Fremon
già nell’anima”. Erede prepares better the orchestral crescendo
so the singers can sink into their phrase, but he is also infinitely
subtle in getting things moving again, slowing again, getting
on again, all in the space of a few bars. Beecham tries but
is less natural. Serafin was by then very old, better at slowing
down than at moving on again. Twenty years earlier it would
have been a different tale, no doubt.
Two is dominated by Musetta. Despite the haste with which the
Beecham cast was assembled, some notable singers were found
for the smaller male roles. For Musetta, Lucine Amara was evidently
all they could get – an anonymous singer with an unpleasant
top B. Hilde Gueden, for Erede, was sheer luxury. Even the whiff
of a Viennese accent only adds to her coquetry. She graces her
waltz with the creamiest of tones, but she also bites into her
words and creates a petulant, impulsive character. The shoe
episode is hilarious and her subsequent behaviour, as she ditches
her elderly escort and sweeps Marcello back into her arms, all
Serafin, Gianna D’Angelo has always been the stumbling block
for admirers of the set. Her vinegary, soubrettish voice doesn’t
seem compensated, at least in the extract I’ve heard, by any
sort of vivid characterization. The waltz is almighty slow,
but elegant, not heavy, and might have worked with a better
enjoys himself with the cocky march at the end of the act. He
always was a dab hand at this sort of thing.
Act Three Marcello comes to play a more important part. This
is the one role where the Beecham set has an advantage. Robert
Merrill presents a sympathetic, understanding character in his
scenes with Mimì and then with Rodolfo, where 57-year-old Giovanni
Inghilleri, for Erede, is not much more than bluff. Beecham’s
slower tempo for the snowy opening scene is perhaps more atmospheric
than Erede’s. Neither chorus is ideal here. For much of this
act it is a question of swings and roundabouts between Tebaldi
and de los Angeles, while Prandelli continues to impress as
more inside the role of Rodolfo. A symptomatic passage is that
beginning “Una terribile tosse”. The orchestral triplets, with
their delayed upbeat, are resolved by Beecham with elegance,
rather like a Viennese waltz, while Erede and his singers dig
more deeply into the music.
comes more into his own in the last act. He has evidently established
his presence with the orchestra by now and there are many little
touches of phrasing and pacing in the opening scene by the side
of which Erede seems a little plain. His long-drawn final scene
is so deeply felt, so exquisitely expressed as to make me feel
“Erede isn’t going to be able to cap that”. But in all truth
I found Erede’s swifter-paced interpretation no less moving
and perhaps more natural. Again, it has something to do with
relating the pace of the music to the speech-rhythm of the words.
Surprisingly, Beecham is more passionate with Rodolfo’s final
outburst, which Erede imbues with tragic weight.
los Angeles provides much that is exquisite here, but so does
Tebaldi. Furthermore, at that great moment where Mimì leaves
her frail body, so to speak, and sings with grand passion “Sei
il mio amor … e tutta la mia vita”, Tebaldi has all the power
to rise to the occasion. De los Angeles just isn’t up to it.
It’s no use trying to justify her response with phrases like
“moving fragility”. The right word is “inadequacy”.
conclusion, then, with the minor exception of Marcello, the
Naxos version is better cast, better conducted and better recorded.
Neither version comes with a libretto, but Naxos has a much
more detailed synopsis and a good introduction to the recording.
the idiot! The twit! Call himself a critic! Doesn’t he know
that the Beecham “Bohème” is one of the greatest recordings
ever made of anything and is only to be
spoken of in bated breath? Doesn’t he know that
de los Angeles was an adorable artist and Tebaldi a boring
one? Doesn’t he even know that for any self-respecting
British critic, a recording conducted by Beecham is automatically
better conducted than any other version?
perhaps he does but tried to listen with unbiased ears.
seven bonus tracks show Björling earlier in his career, his
tone firmly focused and powerful. But what a dull interpreter!
Donna non vidi mai gets a bull-at-the-gate rendering
while the Tosca and Turandot arias are turgid
affairs, demonstrations of tone-production but no more. The
aria from La Fanciulla del West is more enjoyable, maybe
because we hear it less often, and it is remarkably well recorded
for the date.
are two historical “Bohème” recordings I haven’t taken
into account. The Callas, like everything she does, is a case
apart. The readers should know by now whether they’re Callas-people
or not. For those who aren’t particularly, Mimì is not one of
her roles, like Violetta or Lucia di Lammermoor, which no one
should miss hearing.
know the Toscanini recording only by a brief extract on a sampler,
from the friends’ dialogue under the window to “O soave fanciulla”.
The dialogue is rattled through at full tilt but with “O soave
fanciulla” a different Toscanini emerges, infinitely gentle
and malleable. But what struck me is that the pacing is virtually
identical in the Erede recording, slowing down, picking up,
slowing down again, moving on again in exactly the same places.
Is Erede’s interpretation just a Toscanini clone? Well, he worked
with Toscanini in Salzburg before the war. I doubt if he deliberately
copied the recording but he possibly modelled his interpretation
on Toscanini’s, which he would have known in its more relaxed
its day Erede’s “Bohème” very likely seemed just a “normal”
piece of Puccini conducting. Since then tempi have got slower
and slower, a process set in motion by Beecham. Beecham claimed
to have the composer’s authority for his tempi, but so did Toscanini.
They were both such outsize personalities that they probably
believed Puccini had said whatever they wanted him to say. To
modern ears, the Erede has all the freshness of a return to