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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Il Trovatore (1852) [128:48]
Leontyne Price (soprano) – Leonora; Franco Corelli (tenor) – Manrico; Ettore Bastianini (baritone) – Conte di Luna; Giulietta Simionato (mezzo) – Azucena; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Ferrando; Laurence Dutoit (soprano) – Ines; Siegfried Rudolf Frese (tenor) – Ruiz; Chorus of the Vienna State Opera.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. live, Neues Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 31 July 1962. mono. ADD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4476592 [67:22 + 61:26]
Experience Classicsonline

This recording is the stuff of legend. The sound is mono and the cuts are regrettable, but if you could choose to be present at only one evening in the history of the Salzburg Festival, it would surely be this one.
Karajan was responsible for effectively reinventing the Salzburg Summer Festival - as well as starting up the Easter Festival - after the Second World War. This set’s booklet note talks in depth about how important his interpretations of Verdi were. This recording represents the most famous of these. Karajan has always been a controversial interpreter of Verdi, mainly for his choices of tempi. His studio recordings have been criticised for controversial tempi and, in his later EMI recordings, for manipulation of the voices and orchestra in a false acoustic. Here, however, we hear the great maestro at his greatest in the element in which he thrived the most: the live performance. There are imperfections in the singing and playing, the audience noise is sometimes intrusive and the sound is rather dry; but over-riding all of this is an undeniable sense of throwing caution to the winds and everyone involved giving of their absolute best. Never have I come across a live opera recording with such a palpable sense of electricity.
The soloists are all at the peak of their form. Leontyne Price was famous for the role of Leonora: she recorded it successfully in the studio for Mehta (on RCA) and later for Karajan (EMI). This was her first recording of it and her voice is caught in full flow. The rich, creamy tone is ravishing in the first act aria and cabaletta - get your ears around the endless top note with which she ends Di tale amor! - and ecstatic at Manrico’s reappearance at the end of Act II. The poignancy of D’amor sull’ali rosee is unrivalled on disc, even by her later performances, yet she also summons all of her dramatic powers for her ensuing confrontation with the Count. It is only a shame that Karajan saw fit to cut Tu vedrai che’amore in terra. As the Count himself, Bastianini has never sounded better on disc. He achieves the almost impossible by making this stock character sympathetic and believable. Even at his first entrance in Act I he sounds virile and exciting and his frustrated rage turns believably into vindictive joy in the first scene of Act III. He does not cope quite so well with Karajan’s rather rushed tempo for Il balen with a few notes going flat, but he broadens out luxuriously for the final section of the aria.
Whatever your opinion of Franco Corelli, this recording will merely confirm it! If you admire him for the heft and heroics of his voice then you will thrill to Deserto sulla terra and, especially, Di quella pira, where he takes extraordinary liberties with the tempo and even the written notes! If, on the other hand, you find him vulgar with little sense of line and even less sense of attack then this recording will give you plenty of ammunition. The recitative-like passages are full of scooping and swooping in a way that would never be allowed today - why didn’t he just sing the note? - and he indulges in histrionics that have little regard for the drama and far too much regard for indulgent self-glorification. On balance, however, there is more to enjoy than to criticise: I have never been a fan of Corelli’s but even I yield to his singing in Act III (where Ah, si, ben mio even ends with a quiet note!) and his sense of momentum. Either way, this is infinitely preferable to the studio recording he made with Schippers for EMI.
The stand-out star among the soloists, however, is Giulietta Simionato who redefines the role of Azucena. It is well known that Verdi was originally going to name the opera after Azucena and he saw her as the principal character. Simionato hammers home her primacy in the drama, and she does this by singing in a deeply resonant chest voice throughout. When you first hear her in Stride la vampa it feels like a contralto is telling the story. She moves on to a thoroughly hair-raising Condotta all’era in ceppi, conveying her unhinged hysteria in a way I have never heard before: at the end she sings :”My hair still stands on end when I remember it.” So did mine! She is good at playing the wounded mother in her subsequent duet with Manrico and she is a convincing caged animal in the first scene of Act 3. Her clarion call of vengeance rings out at the end of the opera in a way that no other mezzo has ever done. Fassbaender (Giulini on DG) and Obratszova (Karajan on EMI) come closest to matching her but she remains a nonpareil in this role.
In short, Caruso famously said that all you need to perform Trovatore is the four best singers in the world. On this recording you get them. The smaller roles are well done too. Zaccaria, in particular, is inspired by the occasion to raise his game significantly higher than he had done for Karajan’s studio recording at La Scala with Callas, and he points the opening narration most effectively. The orchestral playing is predictably good throughout, as is the chorus, though they are not helped by being balanced relatively far back, especially problematically at the end of Act III.
Karajan is at the centre of this whole recording. Trovatore was always a favourite of his and you can hear it in the loving detail he builds around each moment of the score. He changes his conception to meet each moment, whipping up the tension for a thrilling conclusion to Act I, but framing a surprisingly tender opening to the final scene in the dungeon. What is most telling, however, is the way he responds to his singers. He never imposes a view on them but opens out to allow them to express themselves in the role as they see fit, especially in the slower solo moments. Listen to D’amor sull’ali rosee to hear how Price repeatedly bends the tempo to suit her view of the role but, more remarkably, how Karajan ensures that the orchestra follows her as closely as her own shadow, allowing her the freedom to take the music how she wants it rather than imposing his own view on her. Singers famously loved Karajan: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once said the “he sticks to you like gum to a shoe”, and this recording illustrates that sense of collaborative partnership working wonders. Those who see Karajan as a hysterical dictator will find this recording illuminating.
All told, then, this recording is an unmissable treat. If you’re looking for studio perfection or modern stereo sound then this recording won’t do for you. It’s worth pointing out though that the sound on this Austrian Radio recording is a million miles better than the various pirate versions doing the rounds, and is surprisingly immediate and clear, particularly for the soloists. If you want to hear the sheer theatrical magic that can be produced by the best in the world in a live performance then do not hesitate.
Simon Thompson


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