Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Aida - opera in four acts (1871) [137:09]
Il Re, King of Egypt: Salvatore Baccaloni (bass)
Amneris, his daughter: Maria Capuana (mezzo)
Radames, captain of the guards: Aroldo Lindi (tenor)
Amonasro, King of Ethiopia: Armando Borgioli (baritone)
Aida, his daughter: Giannina Arangi-Lombardi (soprano)
Ramfis, High Priest: Tancredi Pasero (bass)
Un messagero: Giuseppe Nessi
Chorus of La Scala/Vittore Veneziani
Milan Symphony Orchestra/Lorenzo Molajoli
rec. Milan 8, 10, 12-17, 19-21, 23, 26, 28 November and 1 December 1928
Transfers and re-mastering by Ward Marston
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO 054 [76:22 + 60:56]

The two rival companies of HMV and Columbia each recorded “Aida” in late 1928. The latter has always tended to be overshadowed by the more celebrated HMV version conducted by Sabajno, mainly perhaps because it starred tenor Aureliano Pertile, Toscanini’s favourite and frankly a more talented singer than his rival for Molajoli, Aroldo Lindi. Any neglect of the Columbia set is certainly not because of an inferior Aida: Arangi-Lombardi is maybe the most neglected and truly great soprano I know – and this recording provides ample evidence of her stellar artistry.

As far as I understand it, the HMV version was recorded a month earlier in October 1928 and appeared on the market considerably before the Columbia set, so I am not quite sure why Pristine has discreetly labelled each CD “World premiere full recording” unless they mean that this is the first properly re-mastered, digital CD version of this particular recording. Or are there cuts in the HMV set? I would welcome any contribution from better-informed readers.

The sound quality that Ward Marston - his name is mis-spelt on the reverse of the CD - has achieved in his re-engineering is extraordinarily good and now quite the equal of many a recording a decade or two later. Most punters will be buying this to hear the voices rather than the orchestra and will not be disappointed, although the Milan chorus and band emerge perfectly satisfactorily and Marston has added just a little reverberation to provide some welcome sonic ambience. The ear soon adjusts to the papery sound and the opening strings intoning that plaintive, exotic love motif followed by the descending cello riff are all remarkably immediate, even if things do then get a bit congested when more instruments enter. But let’s get real here; we are listening comfortably to a studio recording made only twenty-seven years after the composer’s death and a mere fifty-seven years after the premiere of the opera in Cairo. As such, it provides an invaluable souvenir of a performing tradition which would presumably have been familiar to Verdi and provides aural evidence of that same performance practice being alive and well in inter-war Italy. It is also worth recalling that complete recordings of that time were not necessarily and invariably always entrusted to the opera super-stars of the era. They recorded best-selling extracts and arias and usually left the complete recordings to excellent, but nonetheless, second-rank artists. We are thus all the luckier to be able to hear three very great singers in Arangi-Lombardi, Maria Capuana and Tancredi Pasero. I do not say that this Columbia set is superior to the HMV, but I think it is its equal on a number of counts.

While I know that some will welcome the chance to hear Aroldo Lindi, there is no denying that his contribution sometimes constitutes a definite weakness. He had an unvarying, stentorian tenore di forza of a kind once more common and recognisable in such singers as Tamagno, Zenatello and Martinelli but now increasingly rare if not extinct – perhaps Corelli was its last exponent. While his brazen top notes and vocal stamina are admirable he does himself no favours by launching into a “Celeste Aida” characterised by a lumpen delivery and a most unalluring tendency to yell his beloved’s name, but he improves considerably as the opera unfolds and wouldn’t be the first tenor to fall foul of that most demanding of entries. Born Gustav Harald Lindau he was in fact a Swede who made a good career worldwide and sang frequently in the United States, dying on-stage singing “I Pagliacci” in San Francisco in 1944. His solid, tireless and sterling virtues are shown to better advantage in the concluding duet where, despite his occasional unsteadiness, he partners Arangi-Lombardi worthily, producing exciting top notes.

Arangi-Lombardi’s lirico-spinto soprano is a beautiful and expressive intrument, with a dark, honeyed timbre, haunting oboe-tones in her lower register - indicative of her previous vocal incarnation as a mezzo before her switch upwards in 1921 - and exquisite, almost disembodied pianissimo B-flats and top Cs that make you catch your breath. To hear her at her best, sample her “O patria mia”; her steadiness of line, impassioned utterance and faultless technique are all the more remarkable when you consider that her comparative restraint and economy of means were unfashionable in an age newly enamoured of the more demonstrative verismo style. I put her up there with similar rich-voiced sopranos such as Ponselle and Muzio.

Almost as impressive and representative of another vanished voice-type is Capuana’s Amneris. Occasionally, there is evidence of a lack of integration between the two registers but her sound is powerful, dramatic and incisive without forcing. Armando Borgioli is inclined to bark and is certainly not the peer of Stracciari or Ruffo but he is a proper Italian baritone who has a clean, long-breathed tone and makes the most of his impassioned confrontation with Aida. Like Lindi, his life was prematurely cut short, not by a heart-attack but in an Allied air-raid on a train in 1945. Tancredi Pasero deploys that most dark, silky and elegant of basses to present us with an authoritative, implacable High Priest. A young Salvatore Baccaloni is a firm, vibrant King. The admirable soprano who sings the priestess in the invocation to the god Ptah is not credited.

I can understand a prospective buyer’s hesitation to invest in so venerable a recording when there are so many deeply satisfying modern, stereo recordings available but this set has a special historical value and aesthetic quality which have been greatly enhanced by Pristine’s superb remastering.

Ralph Moore

This set has a special historical value and aesthetic quality which have been greatly enhanced by Pristine’s superb remastering.