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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Boris Christoff – The 1976 Lugano Recital
Alfredo Kraus – Live in Las Palmas 1995
Renata Scotto – The 1984 Tokyo Recital

See complete details after the review.
DYNAMIC 33683 [3 DVDs: 69:00 + 94:00 + 84:00]

Experience Classicsonline

Boris Christoff – The 1976 Lugano Recital
The Boris Christoff (b. Plovdiv, Bulgaria 1914, d. Rome, 1993) recital at Lugano in 1976 includes dramatic and beautifully sung performances. The voice takes a while to regain its famous bronze lustre. The first items are well vocalised and firm – no hint of a wobble – but a little anonymous. ‘Hopak’ – a song by Mussorgsky – is loud and unrelenting without the variety which makes his Phillip II so extraordinary. The third item – ‘Wer ein Liebchen’ from Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail – is in German which does not pose any problems for Christoff. His tone is unified, the high notes are more integrated and vibrant, while his stylish phrasing is a pleasure with no woofy tone – how many Osmins make ill-focused sounds! One hears what he describes in the interview as his attempt to use the Italian School of Singing: fine legato –‘smoothness’ in phrasing combined with clarity of diction. The velvet, limpid quality of Alexander Kipnis is missing. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni or Ezio Pinza similarly sang ‘La Calunnia’ more smoothly. However the emotions are communicated vividly and the control of dynamics is varied and polished. The last two items from Don Carlo and Boris Godunov are a class ahead of these other selections regarding the theatrical possibilities they offer. Including selections from Boito’s Mefistofeles or Gounod’s Faust for instance would have provided Christoff more opportunities, as would items from Attila or Nabucco. His pronounced Slavic accent does mean that at time this Mozart sounds like the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’. All the same, I don’t think anyone except perhaps Gottlob Frick has sung this aria as well since the 1960s.

The verbose interviews grate as the interviewer’s personality dominates when it should be the other way round. Nevertheless, Christoff’s answers are invariably interesting. He is really energised in the extract from Don Carlo! His Phillip II was always a triumph and although he stands very still throughout these arias he is completely ‘inside the character’. The recital format, evening suit, lack of staging, and the thirty intensive years since his debut do not inhibit his performance one bit. The voice rings out boldly and his singing is rhythmically alert. Nothing is extraneous. The technique is hardly less assured than in his youth although some may carp about taking more breaths. The low notes, gritty at times in the Mozart and Rossini, are excellent here. The soft singing provides vitality to this interpretation and does not become breathy or threadbare. Christoff was 63 years old here but bears comparison not only with Cesare Siepi or Nicolai Ghiaurov around the same age but also with much younger singers. These qualities are also evident in the Boris Godunov which showcase the pathos and energy of this artist. I’m wondering if the choir at the end was somehow taped on top of this recording? The result is good but confusing – I wondered if they were somewhere behind the scenes but that must be unlikely? The conducting and playing are fine throughout, respectable in the Verdi extract. The picture quality is not great – blurry and faded but this is to be expected from tape stock from the 1970s. I would recommend this recording with the proviso that the DVD on its own might not appear great value for money - the playing time without interviews must be only around the half hour mark.

Alfredo Kraus – Live in Las Palmas 1995
It is worth saying straight away that the voice of Alfredo Kraus (b. Las Palmas, 1927, d. Madrid, 1999) was in remarkably fine fettle for a man of his age at these performances. The voice had not thinned as many tenors’ voices do. There is no dreaded ‘wobble’ - so typical in ageing singers - in the quick ‘Chanson de Kleinzach’ from Hoffmann or ‘Tombe degli avi miei’ in which he sounds good if not as fresh as twelve years earlier with Joan Sutherland at the Met. I suppose that only a very few singers have sounded this ‘polished’ at advanced stages in their careers. There are no occasions where he has to bend the music out of shape to avoid high notes or introduce intrusive little breaths during phrases.

Perhaps the only comparable ‘elder statesmen’ would be Luciano Pavarotti, who even in recordings from near the millennium did not sound breathy or very worn. Ivan Kozlovsky or Helge Roswaenge who sounded pretty marvellous on records made in his 65th year. Roswaenge and the rest tended to sing heavier repertoire than Kraus but like him they sensibly kept a decent proportion of suitable roles in their repertoire – notably Donizetti, Massenet and Bellini - which did not age the voice or wreck the technique prematurely. If anything Kraus was the most careful of all since he did not perform operas that might have strained his high and flexible voice. Subsequently he continued singing the exact same roles throughout his career with little perceptible decline from one year to the next.

Some of Kraus’s most famous and popular roles are included here. Werther was a calling card around the world. He performed the part from the mid 1960s until the 1990s with notable conductors such as Votto, Rescigno, Prêtre, Bonynge and Plasson. I don’t suppose that this performance adds much to his live and studio recordings in this role but it continues to show his ability in this repertoire – especially his graceful style of phrasing. Edgardo was in his repertoire from even earlier; I notice that he performed the role in 1963. I question putting this scene at the start of this DVD but it is not uncommon in recitals to throw arias, overtures and intermezzos into a mixing pot which does not make much sense.

As this concert was a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the orchestra’s founding they share top billing with Kraus. They provide good music-making without the polish or excitement of some international competition. The concert is not a totally happy marriage of ‘two halves’ since you have intermezzos and overtures showcasing the orchestra mixed in with arias in a haphazard fashion. We hear overtures from Luisa Miller and Don Pasquale for example but no arias from these operas which seems a shame as not only would they have lent cohesion to the concert but might have shown a little more imagination than the nth repeat of his Des Grieux from Manon or some more Werther.

I find his tone dry in ‘Ah! Leve toi, soleil’ from Roméo et Juliette. However, it does showcase the smooth, elegant style that made him a famous Faust and Werther. His French is exceptionally clean and clear throughout. His soft singing in ‘Lamento di Federico’ is beautiful although at times the result is a bit effortful. ‘La donna e mobile’ rounds out a recital which if not very innovative is enjoyable. It is capped throughout with solid high-notes. The orchestral playing is fine and the conducting no worse than many similar recitals.

A studio recital by Kraus, which must have been made around the same time, was released on Philips called ‘The Incomparable Alfredo Kraus’. It included a more interesting selection with little overlap. On that set we can hear his Faust, Tonio from La Fille du Régiment and a terrific ‘Deserto In Terra’ in beautiful stereo sound. That is the more tempting prospect – indeed the recording and performances there are so successful I count that among the best recitals by Kraus from any period in his career. Kraus does not burn up the stage so seeing him is not essential as it can be with some singers. As part of this box set I enjoyed this but otherwise I suggest you seek out the ‘Incomparable Alfredo Kraus’ album.

Renata Scotto – The 1984 Tokyo Recital
Hearing Renata Scotto (b. 1934) recorded in 1984 may not be the most tempting proposition on record. A great singer, she started off with amazing potential in the late 1950s as Lucia di Lammermoor and Gilda and matured into one of the great Butterflys. You can hear her at her ‘peak’ singing the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in a bonus feature on this DVD also from Japan but dating from the late 1960s. Unfortunately her high notes, always ‘bright’, sounded wobbly, and shrill as the 1970s moved into the 1980s with examples like her second studio Traviata with Riccardo Muti and her studio Tosca with James Levine both being spoilt whenever she was called on to belt out a high note.

This Tokyo recital begins with ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and the sound is hard, the singer still warming up. The tiny soft ‘mezza-voce’ she employs is not very expressive; the high notes are there but not pleasurable. The performances grow increasingly attractive within the next three or four songs albeit still fluctuating alarmingly at times between inaudible and strident.

The next samples by Scarlatti sound relaxed. Perhaps the songs projected well in this large auditorium. The effects occasionally overwhelm the close microphones and camera. The piano playing, it must be noted, is adept throughout with an ideal combination of clarity and precise rhythm. Scotto’s vibrancy and flexibility of phrasing, notably in the Rossini excerpts, grow smoother through these first songs although the last notes in ‘La Promessa’ are a little wiry. The voice mellows around the time of ‘La Pastorella’. The singing here is alert, the manner sweet natured but not arch. The piano playing is enjoyable hereabouts with the confidence of a proper partner for the singer in interpreting these songs.

The heart of this recording is the performance of six Verdi songs. This is a step ahead of what we have seen so far with the richer tones of the voice and the diction improved. Limitations are much less in evidence. Starting with ‘La preghiera del poeta’ emotions are internalised and phrasing is legato – smooth – but not at all bland. ‘Al tuo bambino’ is less successful if occasionally steely. However we are back on course with ‘Il brigidino’ which is among Verdi’s most inspired songs. ‘E la vita un mar d’affanni’ has lovely moments while ‘Pieta Signore’ is a little leaden. The results are rarely ‘perfect’ but always creative and evidently the work of a mature artist. The repertoire is varied and intelligent; more creative than the other recitals in this set. All the same, the transition between ‘Stornello’ and the grandeur of ‘Tu che le vanita’ is awkward.

Thomas Fulton nearly steals the show with his cool elegant playing of the introduction to ‘Tu che le vanita’. Scotto’s performance is electric with her natural dramatic talent coming to the fore. She is at home here in the melodrama Verdi created for his prima donna. Yes, high notes are still strident at times but the voice is in finer, if more compact, form than in her studio Tosca. Diction is a little occluded at the start but improves again within a few bars. The swelling of the orchestra is missed here at the climaxes.

The Respighi items leave little in the memory. The Puccini items are emotion-filled and provide a welcome surge of drama. In the encores, which are most successful, ‘Vissi d’arte’ makes you wish for a video of Scotto’s Tosca or at least a decent memento of her portrayal than the disappointing Levine recording. The Madama Butterfly sample is the best selection of all with the finest Butterfly of her generation shedding the years and again making one wish that a video of her dramatic performance was available. The final encore of Rossini’s ‘Tarantella’ is maddening since it manages to spoil the mood created in the Butterfly sample.

The presentation is pretty bare but the Lucia Mad Scene as an extra from earlier in Scotto’s career is a welcome bonus. There are Japanese subtitles which cannot be turned off but the picture quality and sound are decent without being crystal clear. A libretto would be handy as well.

I would recommend these recitals with a few provisos. None of the artists, wonderful as they are, are in their first flush and as such these recitals cannot give a full picture of their special talents. The presentation is a little bare and the Christoff recording in particular is a little on the short side. Kraus’s recital is more generous but a lot of time is taken up with orchestral interludes and overtures which are not quite in the first rank. I still treasure what is left and the reduced price makes up for some of my concerns regarding their durations. Prospective customers should however be aware of these limitations.

David Bennett

Boris Christoff – The 1976 Lugano Recital
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov - Death of Boris; Hopak (song)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail - Wer ein Liebchen
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia - La callunia
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo - Ella giammai m’amò
Boris Christoff (bass)
Orchestra della Svizzeria Italiana/Bruno Amaducci
rec. live, Palazzo dei Congressi, Lugano, Switzerland, 1976
Interview with Boris Christoff conducted by Giorgio Gualeriza

Alfredo Kraus – Live in Las Palmas 1995
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Don Pasquale – Overture
Lucia di Lammermoor – Tombe degli avi miei
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller - Overture
Rigoletto – La donna e mobile
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
L’Arlesiana – Lamento di Federico
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana - Intermezzo
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann – Chanson de Kleinzach
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut - Intermezzo
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon – Ah! Fuyez douce image
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Oberon - Overture
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Roméo et Juliette – Ah! Leve-toi solei!
Jose SERRANO (1873-1941)
El trust de los Tenorios – Tu quiero moreno
[image] Alfredo Kraus (tenor)
Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria/Jose Collado
rec. live, Teatro Perez Galdos de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1995

Renata Scotto – The 1984 Tokyo Recital
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rinaldo - Lascia ch’io pianga
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Cara e dolce (song)
Bellezza che siama (song)
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La Promessa (song)
La Pastorella (song)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Six songs
La preghiera del poeta
Al tuo bambino
Il brigidino
E la vita un mar d’affanni
Pieta, Signor
Don Carlo - Tu che le vanita
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Petrarch Sonnets
Pace non trove
Io vidi in terra angelici costumi
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)
Soupir (song)
Au milieu du jardin (song)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Sole e amore (song)
Edgar - D’ogni dolor questo e il piu gran dolor
Tosca – Vissi d’arte
Madama Butterfly - Tu? Tu? Piccolo Iddio!
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Zanetto - Senti, bambino; M’ama non m’ama (song)
Renata Scotto (soprano)
Thomas Fulton (piano)
rec. live, Kan'i Hoken Hall, Tokyo, 6 September 1984








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