Although previous issues going back to 1987 are fine, EMI managed to botch
its 2002 re-mastering of this famous recording in their Great
Recordings of the Century series, which is muffled, with
all the upper frequencies removed. I found a very acceptable
alternative in an issue on the Alto label which retains a little
background hiss but no more than I would expect from a 1959
recording transferred from LPs, the very occasional click being
in evidence. However, this Pristine transfer from clean LPs
is now easily the best option: some slight sharpness in the
LPs has been corrected, all clicks removed and the now celebrated
Pristine Audio XR re-mastering treatment by Andrew Rose has
rendered it superlative: warm, clear and spacious. The original
EMI engineering was in any case always very good indeed.
For all its fame and excellence, there are reasons to deny this
account the epithet "perfect" - but a heck of a lot is very
right indeed, starting with Giulini's magisterial direction,
which is sprung, flexible and subtle, with none of the excessive
leisureliness which sometimes afflicted his later conducting.
The Philharmonia Orchestra is simply wonderful.
The cast is superb, though I have reservations about a couple
of things, starting with Taddei's tendency to ham it up too
much with some nasal affectations and barking to accentuate
things that are already intrinsically funny and are better delivered
in a sly rather than a histrionic manner. He also loses tonal
quality too often, such as in an ugly sustained D on "maestosa".
Nonetheless, he is a good foil to Wächter's silky Don in
their quick-fire exchanges, despite their voices being too similar
in recitative if you are used to a bass such as Siepi or Ghiaurov
as the Don. Wächter is aggressive, driven and able to signal
that he is deliberately and cynically turning on the seductive
charm to further his sex addiction. Many will welcome a baritone
Don as more appropriate both to the tessitura of the music and
the character of opera’s favourite roué.
Sutherland's Donna Anna is a surprise and simply the best on
record: agile, huge and gorgeous of tone and even well characterised
in so far as it is possible to enliven such a starchy soul.
The contrast with Schwarzkopf's febrile Elvira is telling; she
had already been singing this role for a decade and it suited
her voice and talents ideally. Luigi Alva sings with both more
beauty of line and steel in his tone than I had remembered.
Sciutti is average as Zerlina, Cappuccilli hectoring as Masetto
and the great Gottlob Frick very unsteady indeed in the opening
scene - but he warms up nicely for an appropriately chilling
and sepulchral Commendatore in the crucial final showdown.
As is normally the case with Pristine, there is little in the
booklet apart from the tracking cues, excerpts from a “Gramophone”
review of a previous issue and a note from the engineer; otherwise
one may go online for full programme notes. What is presumably
a printing error on the spine of my review copies suggests that
the catalogue number is 077; however, on the reverse covers,
the discs themselves and the Pristine website the three discs
are is listed as 078A, B and C.