One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,514 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Some items
to consider


paid for


100th birthday of Mieczyslaw Weinberg on December 8, 2019.
Renate Eggbrecht has recorded all 3 violin Sonatas

FOGHORN Classics

Mozart Brahms
Clarinet Quintets

New Releases

Naxos Classical

Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10

Nimbus Podcast

Obtain 10% discount

Special offer 50% off
15CDs £83 incl. postage

Musicweb sells the following labels

Altus 10% off
Atoll 10% off
CRD 10% off
Hallé 10% off
Lyrita 10% off
Nimbus 10% off
Nimbus Alliance
Prima voce 10% off
Red Priest 10% off
Retrospective 10% off
Saydisc 10% off
Sterling 10% off

Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing

Sample: See what you will get

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
Seen & Heard
Editor Emeritus
   Bill Kenny
MusicWeb Webmaster
   David Barker
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger


Plain text for smartphones & printers

Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat



Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


Conner Riddle Songs

Rodzinski Sibelius

Of Innocence and Experience


Symphonies 1, 2, 3

Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello - Tragic opera in four acts. (1887) (Highlights)
Twenty four major soloists featured
rec. various, 1914-1961
Contents list at end of review
MAGDALEN METCD 8019 [77.17]

Just occasionally the lot of the reviewer brings surprises. Often, like those in life in general they arrive when least expected and are often those enjoyed best.
I approached this CD with some trepidation. For a start I wondered how an opera such as Verdi’s Otello could be split into highlights and then I looked at the varied dates of the recordings. Yes, there are individual items, scenes and arias that can stand alone. As for highlights of the whole could that truly give the flavour of the composer’s penultimate work, which in its entirety seems seamless - I had my doubts. Add the fact that the cast was a mélange of singers recorded over nearly half a century and incorporating recorded sources of acoustic, electric, mono and stereo forms and I approached my listening assignment with misgivings, even apprehension, that one of the greatest works of the lyric theatre might be demeaned or devalued. However, by the arrival of the conclusion of Niun Mi Tema (Tr.13), I was left nearly convinced that I had heard the work complete and had barely noticed any differences in the recorded sound.
Before picking and commenting on individual items, I feel it appropriate to put Verdi’s composition in some perspective. As a composer, Verdi was always incisive, except perhaps in respect of his non-composition of an opera based on Shakespeare’s play King Lear. Of his twenty-eight operas, his first fifteen were composed in a period of ten years between 1839 and 1849, a period he talked about as his ‘Years in the galleys’. After the great middle period trio of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, composed between 1851 and 1853, when financially secure, his pace of composition slowed. He had talked to friends about retirement after the writing of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1858 his twenty third opera. However, if the fee and circumstances were right he was tempted, as with LaForza del Destino for St Petersburg in 1862, Don Carlos for Paris in 1867 and Aida for Cairo in 1871, his twenty-sixth opera.
After the composition of the Requiem in 1874, aged sixty-one, Verdi entered his most arid compositional period. He travelled widely in Europe conducting his works, particularly the Requiem. These trips took him to London, Paris, Cologne and even Austrian Vienna. Everywhere he was fêted as the leading opera composer of the day and national honours were bestowed on him. Early in 1879, and for his own amusement, he composed a Pater Noster for unaccompanied five-part chorus and an Ave Maria for solo soprano and string orchestra. His long-time friend the Countess Maffei chided him about his lack of operatic composition since Aida, by theneight years in the past. Verdi responded “the account is settled.” However, in her salon the literati of Milan would meet. These luminaries included Ricordi, Verdi’s publisher, the conductor Faccio and Boito, the latter a composer, writer and sublime opera librettist. Somewhere along the line a plot was hatched to tempt Verdi to write an opera based on a Shakespearean play, Othello. When Verdi visited Milan to conduct a charity performance of his Requiem, Ricordi and Faccio, with the help of a dinner invitation engineered by Verdi’s wife Giuseppina, broached the subject with the great man. They suggested Boito as librettist and a work based on Shakespeare’s play, a poet the composer revered. The next day Boito was brought to see Verdi and three days later he returned with a detailed scenario - quick work unless there had been prior plotting!
Whilst Verdi encouraged Boito to convert his synopsis into verse with the words: “It will always be good for you, for me, or for someone else”, he would not commit himself to compose. He was to prevaricate on ‘the chocolate theme’, as it was called, for some time. When Ricordi became impatient Giuseppina cautioned, behind the composer’s back, that whilst he liked Boito’s verses he had not as yet clarified his ideas “and without clear ideas he will decide now, or at any rate later, never to compose again …leave things, at least for the moment, just as they are, wrapping the Moor in as great a silence as is possible.Ricordi took the advice and when Verdi indicated he was ready to revise his Simon Boccanegra of 1857 he enlisted Boito as librettist. The composer and his new librettist got on well and the foundations were laid that brought Otello to magnificent fruition at La Scala on 5 February 1887. It was Verdi’s 27th opera and was his first wholly new work for the stage for eighteen years. The composer was then seventy-four years of age and really did think that he had finished with operatic composition.
Verdi’s conception of Otello involved greater and significantly different orchestral complexity compared to Aida (1871) and Don Carlos (1867), its immediate operatic predecessors. It marks a major compositional development. As Budden (Verdi - Master Musicians Series, Dent, 1985) puts it: “the composer conceived it from the start in terms of whole acts that proceed from start to finish without interruption.The drama moves by smooth transition from one event to the next, hence my doubts expressed above. In his conception Verdi was greatly aided by Boito’s taut libretto that reduced Shakespeare’s Othello by six-sevenths. All this was done without losing its essence: the destruction of the erstwhile hero by the genie of jealousy aided by the evil machinations of Iago. Boito dispensed with Shakespeare’s Venice act and focused the whole of the action in Cyprus.
As Budden notes: “the title role in Otello lies well beyond the scope of the average operatic tenor.” It is unequalled in the Verdi canon in the vocal demands it makes on the eponymous tenor. In reality the role is beyond some of the very greatest of tenors. In the latter half of the twentieth century a handful of big voices could do it a measure of justice on stage. These included Giovanni Zenatello (Tr.9), Giovanni Martinelli (Tr.13), Ramon Vinay (Trs.3,8), Mario del Monaco (Trs.1, 10), Jon Vickers (Tr.5) and Placido Domingo whose inclusion here is precluded by copyright restrictions. All those tenors, with the inevitable exception of Domingo, feature in this collection. To them we add the outstanding tenor of the first half of the twentieth century, Enrico Caruso. He, like his compatriots Bergonzi and Pavarotti, never sang the role on stage (Tr.4). Caruso’s vocal strength, tone and characterisation in that excerpt make me regret that omission from his extensive repertoire. A pity that the restricted technology of the time did not allow for him that which was provided by Decca for Pavarotti, whose recording of the opera was taken from three concert performances.
The collection opens (Tr.1) with Del Monaco’s trumpeting tones in Esultate as his boat lands from the storm-lashed sea. Taken from the recording conducted by Karajan in 1960 and with the Vienna State Opera Chorus in full voice it is fearsome if not subtle. Jon Vickers in the nearly contemporaneous recording for RCA I find more appealing. The evil Iago on that recording was Tito Gobbi, who I was privileged to see on stage. He sings the Credo in this collection, but on an HMV studio recording issued on 78s as HMV 21071 not the RCA recording alongside Vickers. His characterisation is biting in intensity if a little raw in tone and not aided by a touch of distortion. Lawrence Tibbett, recorded, in New York in 1939 (Trs.2, 6) is more subtle and covers his tone better.
Meanwhile Ramon Vinay in 1951 is alongside a mature-sounding Desdemona by Eleanor Steber (Tr.3). Elsewhere the role of Desdemona is Leonie Rysanek (Tr.5) with Jon Vickers. She was never my favourite in the role. I much prefer Tebaldi alongside Del Monaco, heard here in a long excerpt from the end of act three (Tr.10). This again is from the Decca recording of 1961 conducted by Karajan and enjoys the best sound in the collection. The great act four demands of the role are met by Rosa Ponselle in the Willow Song (Tr.11) and Elisabeth Rethberg in the Ave Maria (Tr.12). It was particularly interesting to listen to both and compare their tone, diction and characterisation.
I haven’t mentioned Toscanini who played in the La Scala orchestra at the premiere. His 1947 recording of Dio Ti Giocondi from act three (Tr.8) reflects Iago’s machinations to bring Otello to impute Desdemona’s innocence as she pursues Cassio’s cause is frightening in its intensity. Vinay is forceful but not matched by Toscanini favourite Herva Nelli.
Inevitably the sound quality varies, but Magdalen have done a wonderful job in mitigating those differences. It is a collection I shall return to with pleasure from time to time particularly when I get desperate about the scarcity of voices like these in the present day.
Robert J Farr 

Contents List 

Una vela .... Esultate .... Vittoria vittoria
Tom Krause; Nello Romanato; Aldo Protti; Athos Cesarini; Mario del Monaco
Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
recorded in Sofiensaal Vienna, May 1961
Inaffia L'ugola Brindisi
Lawrence Tibbett; Nicholas Massue; Herman Dreeben
Metropolitan Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Wilfred Pelletier
recorded in New York, 3 May 1939.
Gia Nella Notte Densa
Eleanor Steber; Ramon Vinay
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera Association/Fausto Cleva -
recorded in New York, 31 Dec 1951
Vanne... Credo in un dio crudel
Tito Gobbi
Philharmonia Orchestra/James Robertson
recorded at Number 1 Studio Abbey Road London, 14 Mar 1950
D'un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno ... Ora e per sempre
Leonie Rysanek; Miriam Pirazzini; Jon Vickers; Tito Gobbi
Rome Opera House Orchestra/Tullio Serafin  
recorded at the Rome Opera House, 18 July-8 Aug 1960
Era La Notte
Lawrence Tibbett
Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra/Wilfred Pelletier
recorded in New York, 3 May 1939
O mostruosa colpa ... Si per ciel
Enrico Caruso; Titta Ruffo
recorded in New York, 8 Jan 1914
Dio Ti Giocondi O Sposo
Herva Nelli; Ramon Vinay
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini
recorded at NBC Studio 8H New York, 6-13 Dec 1947
Dio Mi Potevi Scagliar
Giovanni Zenatello; Bruno Reibold
recorded in Camden New Jersey, 21 Mar 1928
A terra e piangi ... to end of act
Mario del Monaco; Renata Tebaldi; Ana Raquel Satre; Fernando Corena; Nello Romanato; Aldo Protti; Athos Cesarini
Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
recorded in Sofiensaal Vienna, May 1961
Piangea cantando ... salce salce - Willow Song
Rosa Ponselle
recorded in Camden, New Jersey, 23 Jan 1924
Ave Maria
Elisabeth Rethberg
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Ettore Panizza
recorded New York, 24 Feb 1940
Niun Mi Tema
Giovanni Martinelli; Alessio de Paolis; Nicola Moscona; George Cehanovsky
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Ettore Panizza
recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera New York, 4 Dec 1941.