In my recent article
‘Blu-ray Audio: gimmick or game-changer?’ I discussed the new format’s potential as a high-res music carrier. At this stage I’m cautiously optimistic about these discs, but there are issues that could sink this project before it leaves port. Briefly, Universal Music Group - who own DG - are key players in the High Fidelity Pure Audio Group (HFPAG) launched in May 2013; unhelpfully they branded their Blu-ray Audio discs as HFPAs, to distinguish them from the standard BD-As offered by Naxos and the more innovative Pure Audio Blu-ray Discs from 2L, Sono Luminus and, most recently, Gimell.
Without wishing to reprise too much of that article I must point out that UMG’s HFPA discs are among the most basic on offer; they have a simple on-screen menu with a ‘keypad’ of track numbers top right and, below that, a list of audio options. That’s it; there are no extras - not even on-screen librettos, which would be most helpful in these operatic collections. Also, given that the Sempre libera
disc was issued as a hybrid SACD with a multi-channel mix it’s odd that UMG only provide two-channel versions on the HFPA, albeit at 24bit/192kHz. The Villazón disc is much more recent - it first appeared on CD in 2012 - and yet it only offers 24/96 audio.
So why would anyone covet these Blu-rays, as they already exist on perfectly decent - and much cheaper - CDs and SACDs? If they included extra content - surround options, downloadable high-res audio files for instance - they might just be worth the premium; or perhaps if they were truly special re-masters, such as this revitalised War Requiem
). They could be sonic marvels - we’ll find out soon enough - but visually and technically these packages are low-rent. Indeed, UMG’s grudging, parsimonious presentation is enough to prejudice me against these discs before I’ve even heard them.
It doesn’t stop there. Another MWI reviewer had difficulty playing other discs in the HFPA catalogue and I found these two discs were noticeably noisier than CDs or SACDs when starting up. Fortunately it all quietens down thereafter. Anything else? Oh yes, the discs start playing as soon as they are read; this is a major drawback and it’s very irritating if you aren’t quick with the Pause button. Also, instead of detailed on-screen info - track names, for instance - all we get is a redundant ‘Track x’ in the appropriate bar. Are we done? Not yet. Selecting the audio options would be so much more satisfying if UMG opted for a tick box or underline rather than a subtle change of colour.
Sticking with my naval metaphor I want to fire a warning shot across UMG’s bows; this scrappy, counter-intuitive approach simply isn’t good enough, and unless they rethink the entire package the HFPA boat will sink without trace. It doesn’t have to be this way, as the superior, feature-rich 2L, Sono Luminus and Gimell BD-As demonstrate. Consumers are tired, confused and - if internet audio forums are a reliable guide - they are unimpressed by UMG’s lack of imagination and chaotic release schedules. Hardly an auspicious start, is it?
So much for the technical broadsides; now for the music. Mexican-born tenor Rolando Villazón needs no introduction. He wowed audiences the world over in the early noughties, but vocal surgery in 2007 seems to have taken its toll. As Simon Thompson hinted in his review
of the CD, that’s only part of the story. In any event the Oberto
aria at the very start finds Villazón in less than confident voice. One of Simon’s most damning criticisms is that he over-emotes; I have to agree. Still, it’s a pleasant, inoffensive voice - carefully husbanded - but it’s also clear that Villazón doesn’t have much in reserve.
I warmed to him in Foscari,
but there’s no spark - no virility, perhaps - and that makes for a mellifluous yet generalised delivery. Noseda’s conducting isn’t of the best either, with less than supple rhythms and bloated tuttis. Balances aren’t very natural and, unusually, I preferred the warmer, more rounded sound of the dts-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD layers to the cooler PCM one. That said, the latter is very refined, and it only gets a little edgy in the upper frequencies. Some may find Villazón is a little too close in the three Berio arrangements which, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, aren’t grouped together.
The Berio is unfamiliar, as is his very different sound world, but Villazón seems very relaxed. Again one senses there are no real challenges here, and that he is well within his comfort zone. The unnecessary vocal lunges and over-emphatic delivery in Lombardi
aren’t only distracting they’re also faintly risible. After that he seems almost relieved to switch to easy-listening mode in the Berio version of In solitaria stanza
. Alas, his tendency to add a catch here and a tremor there undermine the usually thrilling Rigoletto
showpieces; as for Traviata
, Villazón spoils it all with his crude vocal posturing.
This tenor has been likened to the young Domingo, yet one only has to hear the latter’s Alfredo or Don Carlo to realise such comparisons are wide of the mark. Where Villazón is hesitant, Domingo is supremely confident, and where Villazón lacks presence Domingo’s subtle, varied and virile singing is seldom less than compelling. It’s also about unremitting focus and intelligence; for instance it’s hard to imagine Domingo giving such a lachrymose, self-regarding account of the Ingemisco
from the Requiem
. As for Villazón’s rather bland Falstaff
it does little to inspire admiration or affection; the lacklustre playing of the Turin band doesn’t help.
So, a dispiriting collection that will only appeal to Villazón groupies; that said, even they must wonder where he goes from here. Others will be just as equivocal about UMG’s decision to issue this as a BD-A; sonically it’s inoffensive - there’s that word again - but the corollary is that it’s unmemorable too. I was rather less unforgiving about Anna Netrebko’s Opera
). This Sempre libera
Blu-ray reprises some of the material presented there - DG were in a marketing frenzy at the time - so I was keen to hear whether the 24/192 sound on this BD-A is a significant improvement on the CD’s distinctly low-res 16/44.1.
My colleague Chris Howell had no qualms when he listened to the SACD version in 2004; indeed, he was unstinting in his praise of both the voice and the sonics (review
). At the start of this review I wasn’t enthusiastic about either. Yes, Netrebko’s Violetta is immaculate - there’s nothing erratic or approximate about her phrasing and high notes - but what I miss in her gleaming tones is weight or warmth. By contrast Abbado and his orchestra bring much-needed passion and vitality to the proceedings; not only that, the playing is wonderfully pliant and the music is sensitively shaped. All this makes a welcome change from Noseda’s awkward and unsubtle accompaniment for Villazón.
are another matter; exquisitely shaded and perfectly pitched these are performances of real distinction. Indeed, I’d say that the bel canto
rep suits her better than Verdi, as it plays to her unerring sense of line and astonishing control of dynamics. As ever Abbado is a most sympathetic accompanist, and he reveals all the detail and seamless beauty of Bellini’s scores. Balances are close, but there’s slightly more headroom as it were, which allows the voice and orchestra to bloom very nicely indeed.
The highlight of this recording is her Lucia. I’ve long been a fan of Sutherland in the role, her second Decca recording and the DVD of her 1980 Met performance in particular. For the first time I was impressed and affected by Netrebko’s depth of character and her command of the notes; also, there’s a palpable sense of drama that one associates with live performances rather than studio ones. At last my reluctant hair follicles started to stir, helped in no small measure by the ethereal echoes of the glass harmonica - a memorable feature of Beverly Sills’ old Westminster recording - and the beautifully sprung orchestral playing. Even though the chorus sound very murky and perspectives are foreshortened, that doesn’t detract from Netrebko’s remarkable artistry. In the theatre this mad scene would surely have brought the house down.
Having just said Netrebko is better in bel canto
than Verdi I was won over yet again by her Desdemona, the poise and inwardness of her Ave Maria
especially. No steeliness here, or in the unmistakable smile and affection of ‘O mio babbino caro’. A man of the theatre Abbado is attuned to both the dark drama of Verdi’s Otello
and the light and comic charm of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
; just listen to the harp playing in the latter, it’s gorgeous. Indeed, this recording has done much to convince me - albeit belatedly - that Netrebko is something rather special. I must now make the effort to hear her in complete performances, which I much prefer to these ‘bleeding chunks’.
Goodness, what contrasts; Villazón’s recital fails to convince on so many levels, but Netrebko’s has much to commend it. That said, the engineering of both these BD-As is not as accomplished as that of the War Requiem
or Gimell’s first BD-A. The latter is MusicWeb’s Recording of the Year 2013, not least because it realises so much of the new format’s potential (review
). Which rather begs the question; why release the Villazón and Netrebko recordings on BD-A at all? Frankly it smacks of skewed priorities, and that could just scupper the whole project.
Villazón disappoints, Netrebko impresses; production values are questionable, though.
Previous reviews (CD/SACD):
(Villazon) ~~ Christopher Howell
Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio
Act 2 "Ciel che feci!... di qual sangue..." [4:10]
I due Foscari
Act 1 Scena: "Qui ti rimani". Arioso: "Brezza del suol natio" [7:39]
8 Romanze per tenore e orchestra
Act 2 O madre mia, che fa colei - La mia letizia infondere [1:58]
8 Romanze per tenore e orchestra
In solitaria stanza [3:51]
Act 3 "Eccomi prigionero!" [3:44]
Act 1 "Questa o quella" (Ballata) [1:55]
Act 3 "La donna è mobile" [2:07]
Act 2 "Lunge da lei ... De' miei bollenti spiriti" [3:36]
Act 2 "O mio rimorso!" [1:56]
Un ballo in maschera
Act 1 "La rivedrà nell'estasi...Il cenno mio" [3:25]
Act 1 "Fontainebleau! Foresta immensa e solitaria!" [4:13]
Messa da Requiem
Act 3 "Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola" [4:01]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Act 1 "E strano!" - "Ah, fors'è lui" [4:55]
"Sempre libera" [3:39]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Act 2 Ah! Se una volta sola [5:38]
Ah, non credea mirarti [4:47]
Ah! non giunge uman pensiero [2:41]
Act 2 O rendetemi le speme...Qui la voce [4:36]
Ah! tu sorridi [4:02
Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna [2:57]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor
Act 2 "O giusto cielo!" [3:18]
Ohimè! Sorge il tremendo [3:15]
"Ardon gli incensi..." [5:01]
"Spargi d'amaro pianto" [3:37]
Act 4 Era più calmo? [5:00]
"Piangea cantando nell'erma landa..." [7:04]
Ave Maria, piena di grazia [5:17]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
O mio babbino caro [2:51]