I note that distinguished sound restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn is producing significant re-masterings for Pristine these days, so it’s faintly ironic that comparison between his production of this opera recording for Naxos and this for Pristine by Andrew Rose reveals the latter to be hugely superior. This recording should in any case have been made in stereo in 1956 but Walter Legge’s refusal to countenance its superiority delayed EMI’s adoption of the technology. Consequently there is a pleasing justice in its finally being released in Ambient Stereo, full of life and sparkle with air round the voices, tape speed drift addressed and pitches corrected. It really is a revelation and compares favourably, too, with the electronically reprocessed, phoney "stereo" version of the Beecham on the Membran label – which I still like. If you want more modern sound, the safe option is Karajan's famous 1973 stereo recording with Freni and Pavarotti - and there are valid artistic and interpretative reasons for preferring it overall, depending on your taste.
Otherwise, I reprint here a slightly adapted version of my previous review
of the re-mastering Mark Obert-Thorn engineered for Naxos (8.111332/3):
1956 was the sixtieth anniversary of the première of "La Bohème" and in that same year two celebrated recordings were made: this one and the Beecham set, generally acknowledged as a great success despite the occasional blemish in ensembles - testimony to the speed at which it was recorded once its distinguished cast had been hastily assembled to record in between other engagements. This recording, however, was clearly executed with great care and affection, and nothing Callas ever recorded was ever less than painstakingly prepared - even though she never actually performed the rôle of Mimì on stage. Similarly, although Votto might not have had Beecham's élan and charisma, he was very experienced and phrases tenderly, bringing plenty of flexible rallentandi into this leisurely account and allowing his singers time to make their points. He instantly establishes an authentic Christmas Eve ambience and at the start of Act III, the liquid flutes, haunting pizzicatos and harp create exactly the right, hushed aural image of a snow-scene; only in the more rumbustious passages does one wish for a touch of Beecham's verve and swagger. In truth, Votto can be just a little dull and lacking in sparkle - and he also stands convicted of what "Gramophone" huffily describes as a "monstrous unwritten crescendo" at the end of Act I; guilty as charged and presumably a habit acquired in the theatre to prevent unwanted premature applause - but artistically vulgar.
I have, in the past, under-estimated this recording but the Pristine re-issue has provided an opportunity to reassess its virtues. The surprise for me is Di Stefano's performance; he is inspired by Callas to produce his best work and is in finest voice, the only flaw being a tendency to shout his two top Cs. The incipient hardness in his tone prevents him from sounding quite as beautiful as either Björling or Pavarotti but his ardour and sincerity are great compensations; he is every inch the ardent lover, tender in the recitative and desperate in his outpourings of grief. Both he and Callas are so moving in their intimacy and restraint that they make the concluding moments of this famous tearjerker genuinely harrowing rather than histrionic or sentimental.
Callas is very successful in lightening her voice to create a vulnerable and loveable Mimì in Act I, but expanding beautifully, for example, into "Ma quando vien lo sgelo". She exhibits all the artistic and vocal touches we expect from her: exquisite portamenti, wonderful variety of tone, verbal acuity and insight. For me, Act III, even more than the concluding Act, shows her at her best: the succession of duets culminating in the great quartet is what you should sample if you are not sure whether you want this set. Callas is inspired and, in turn, inspires her partners. The pathos of her utterance at such moments as "Buon giorno, Marcello...tutti qui sorridenti a Mimì" is quite unmatched by any other singer, however good. In a sense, singing the supposedly less demanding Mimì was for her like a holiday from killer roles like "Turandot", but she brings all her customary dedication to her characterisation of the little seamstress.
Panerai is, as ever, in lean, incisive voice, inflecting the text sensitively and sounding very little different from his performance eighteen years later with Karajan but perhaps less inclined here to croon; the duet with Di Stefano opening Act IV works its magic triumphantly. Moffo is in her vocal and temperamental element as the "tart with a heart", Musetta. Zaccaria is a grave and comically lugubrious Colline. The Schaunard could be better, but there are no real weaknesses in the supporting cast even if you have favourite singers in other recordings.
Neither the Karajan nor the Beecham is overtaken in my affections by this set; both have marginally more warmth, casts slightly better suited to their parts, and the advantage of superlative conducting - but this version runs both very close and I would not like to be without it.
Masterwork Index: La Bohème