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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
The Complete Works
rec. 1959-2013
DECCA 4789574 [75 CDs]

The seventy-five CDs in this collection are divided among 35 numbered and titled cardboard slipcases, each of 1 to 4 discs. These in turn are held in one sturdy box along with two CD-sized hard-backed books. The books give descriptions of most of the contents, including artists involved, recording details, a brief essay on each opera and biography of the composer, all in English, French and German.

Part 1. Prologue - Introduction to this collection
In tackling a review of the contents of this collection I have followed my previous practice in reviewing the complete operas of Bellini (review) and Mozart (review) along with the complete studio recordings by Maria Callas (review) by weaving my comments into facets of the composer’s life-story. It is also important to note that this Verdi collection, claimed to be complete, is that the selected examples of the operas in particular differ, albeit in a relatively small degree, from a similar collection that was sold in Italy in 2012, the year before the Verdi bicentenary and with copies imported into the UK. The claim The Complete Works is an exaggeration albeit much of the oeuvre of the man described as "The Glory of Italy" is present in the contents.

Large CD boxed collections of a composer’s oeuvre, or sections such as symphonies or concertos, are appearing with regular frequency and at a very affordable prices, particularly compared with the price of CDs when they first appeared on the market and quickly supplanted LP records in the early 1980s. Very often this practice allows the recording companies to continue reaping financial benefit from their often-extensive archives. In the case of opera and a composer’s oeuvre in particular, the matter is often more difficult and, as here, one has to look back into recorded history and practice to see what and suggest why particular recordings have been chosen particularly if there are worthwhile alternatives within the company archive, or elsewhere.

The advent of the 33rpm long-player in 1948 gave a massive boost to the recording of opera. An abbreviated La Traviata no longer required eighteen or so 78 rpm records, of significant weight, to encompass the work. They were replaced by a much more practical two or three vinyl discs. Whilst vinyl discs became thinner it was the advent of stereo, less than a decade later than the debut of the LP, which really stimulated the recording of opera. Each recording company or label rushed to sign up, often on exclusive contracts, major singers and conductors to cover at least the popular repertoire, say the top thirty or so of the most popular and performed operas. This sometimes posed problems in casting as potential purchasers wished that other combinations of singers had been chosen rather than those contracted to the issuing company.

As far as Verdi’s operas are concerned, the last half of the twentieth century was a golden period with singers capable of meeting his demanding repertoire in terms of weight of voice, suitability of timbre, capacity for expression and all the other qualities that determine a singer's status. Decca, as well as signing up the likes of Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco, stars of La Scala, had a very big ace up its sleeve in respect of technical recording quality. This derived from their parent company’s World War 2 work in electronics and sonics. They saw a marketing dream of using this knowledge by recording, for the first time ever, Wagner’s Ring Cycle complete in spectacular stereo under the direction of John Culshaw. To achieve this they signed up the leading singers in the repertoire and a European conductor called Solti who was not particularly well known at the time. The consequences of that project were felt throughout the industry and ended up spinning off into the recording of many operas by the six or seven extant major labels. Without doubt Decca FFRR sound was the best. Along came RCA with its roster of singers from the Metropolitan Opera and the two exchanged contracted artists. It was not a marriage made in heaven and the arrangement soon ended in divorce. However, as the century passed the recording of opera became routine and multiple issues of the more popular works from the competing companies proliferated seemingly leaving little for the recording minnows. The smaller Philips label were doing Mozart proud in respect of his lesser known, even his juvenile, works under the eye of producer Erik Smith (see his memoirs and essays in Mostly Mozart, Porcellini Publications, 2005). Smith had been producer of Decca’s renowned Vienna recording of Nabucco - CDs 5 and 6 in this collection.

At Philips, Erik Smith and colleagues recognised a big gap in the recording policies of the major rival companies in respect of the most performed and popular operatic composer of all, Giuseppe Verdi. The gap they saw focused on the earlier of his twenty-eight operas. These were works written in the period that the composer himself called his "years in the galleys" as he went from place to place staging his works and writing others at a hectic rate of knots. Every summer, at various venues, with Smith as recording producer, Philips ticked off another early Verdi opera, one each year from 1971 to 1979. Most of those recordings made under Smith’s direction feature in this collection and are sometimes notable as still being the sole recordings of the title in the CD format. Lamberto Gardelli (1915-1998), a consummate Verdian who had learnt his trade at the feet of Tullio Serafin, had made a significant impact with his conducting of Nabucco for Decca in Vienna in 1965 (CDs 5 and 6), was signed up for the series. Gardelli was notable for his pacing of the works and his ability able to draw elegant Verdian phrasing from a variety of singers. Following that decade the project, to the chagrin of Verdi enthusiasts, seemed to fade as Philips recorded the composer’s more mainstream works, duplicating the efforts of other labels. Then in 1997, as Philips moved towards integration into Decca and Universal, the project emerged again with a recording of Verdi’s first opera Oberto. There was already competition from Orfeo conducted by Gardelli featuring the great Verdi tenor Carlo Bergonzi. However, it was not readily available. Somewhat surprisingly, and perhaps influenced by Gardelli not being available, producer Erik Smith, still around, turned to Sir Neville Marriner as conductor. Marriner provided a sure pair of hands, or hand, to wield the baton. Philips followed Oberto by filling the remaining gaps with recordings of Aroldo in 1997 (Vol. 22. CDs 45 and 46), Jerusalem (Vol. 12. CDs 23, 24, and 25) the following year and Alzira, the least successful on stage of all Verdi’s operas, in 1999 (Vol. 8. CDs 15 and 16). All are included in this collection. These latter recordings were made under the baton of Fabio Luisi, recognised in the opera world as an up-and-coming star, a state of affairs confirmed when he later became de facto Musical Director of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, during James Levine’s protracted absence. Unaccountably, Philips waited nearly four years before publishing the Aroldo recording, the other two making it to the shop shelves in 2001.

The Philips label became subsumed into Decca who had, some years earlier, signed the notable Italian tenor and Verdi specialist Luciano Pavarotti. He wished to record some early Verdi items which appear in this collection, perhaps to the detriment of other recordings as I amplify below. The greater opportunity then came about with the incorporation, along with the Decca and Philips labels, of Deutsche Grammophon into the conglomerate that is Universal Music. Others have since followed this path of rationalisation resulting in a few conglomerates dominating the much-slimmed down classical music recording schedule. However, the upside is the possibility of collections such as this. DG had Karajan as a regular contributor to their recorded repertoire mainly in the orchestral field. The company had ventured forth in the early 1960s with an adventurous stereo recording of Don Carlo featuring the redoubtable duo of Boris Christoff and Ettore Bastianini. Along with others this was based on La Scala performances, but marred by some second division singers in other roles. What did come along with the DG label, and which are notable inclusions in this collection, were studio recordings of the revisions of both Macbeth in 1976 and Simon Boccanegra in 1977. Both were under Claudio Abbado’s baton. These projects followed highly successful stagings by Giorgio Strehler at La Scala. Also originating with the DG label, and included, is Abbado’s recording of Don Carlos, the original French version, with appendices of music excised before the premiere in 1867 because of time limitations. Also arriving with the DG label were recordings conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, considered a great Verdian who in 1955 had conducted, to wide acclaim, Maria Callas in Visconti’s renowned production of La Traviata at La Scala. A shy and even diffident man, he had seemed, for a period, to have missed out on recording opportunities until DG remedied the deficiency with the live and studio recordings included here. Also from DG was the conducting genius that was Carlos Kleiber in one of his all too rare visits to the recording studio with his version of Verdi’s most performed opera, La Traviata.

Whilst Universal’s stable provides nearly all the recordings in this collection there are notable exceptions as well as confirmatory denials of the claim for the contents to be all of Verdi’s music. Most notable is the EMI insignia on the recording of Verdi’s twentieth opera I Vespri Siciliani, the Italian version of Les VÍpres Siciliennes composed for the Paris Opťra, Verdi’s first wholly new opera for that theatre and premiered in 1855. The only other studio recording of this work specifically destined for the record industry was made for RCA in 1973 and features Martina Arroyo, Domingo, Milnes and Raimondi under a rather hectic Levine. The EMI recording included here is taken from several live performances in the notoriously difficult acoustic of La Scala at the end of 1989 and the following month. A recording of the original French version was made by the BBC under Verdi scholar Julian Budden’s aegis in 1970 and has since been issued in CD format by Opera Rara (review). The recording of the original version of the composer's La Forza del destino is taken from performances on the Philips recording in the year that the theatre presented the work in reproductions of the original 1862 sets. A recording of the production is also available on DVD made a couple of years later (Arthaus 100 078). As with Les VÍpres Siciliennes the only other generally available recording comes from Budden’s BBC series of recordings and is issued on CD by Opera Rara (review).

In the above paragraph I question the claim for this collection to be of all Verdi’s music. As is generally known there are twenty-eight opera titles in Verdi’s oeuvre. In this collection there are thirty operas titled, each given its own package number. The difference concerns, first of all, the two versions included of La Forza del destino. The first, that performed at the premiere in St Petersburg in 1982 and the second, that premiered at La Scala in 1869 after Verdi had made his peace with that theatre and which has significant alterations of both sequence and musical content to the original, especially in the final act. The second semi-duplication, for want of a better phrase, concerns the two editions of Don Carlos, one in French, the original language of the opera as presented in Paris in 1867, the other in Italian, as Don Carlo, with significant musical modifications as well as language translation and presented in Modena in 1886. The inclusion of both of these operas raises fundamental questions in respect of both Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra in particular; both operas exist in two different versions composed several years apart. The version included in this collection is, in each case, the later one. In the case of Macbeth, that for Paris in 1865 rather than the original of 1847, and in the case of Boccanegra it is the 1881 version with Boito’s addition of the magnificent Council Chamber Scene rather than the original premiered at La Fenice, Venice, in 1857. Extant recordings of both originals are available on Opera Rara CDs that derive from the BBC sources referred to above (review ~ review). The music style of the two versions of Macbeth vary significantly. The earlier one, as might be expected, has all the hallmarks of his early operas, the later one the orchestral maturity that he had gained in the intervening years. It was the immediate predecessor of his two great final operas Otello of 1887 and Falstaff of 1893. If not so marked as the two Macbeth versions, the mature 1881 Boccanegra is quite magnificent in its dramatic totality compared with its earlier relative.

In respect of the non-operatic material all except CD 31, The Requiem and Quattro Pezzi Sacri and CD 73, titled Songs, Arias and other Rarities derive from specific Decca studio recordings with Riccardo Chailly on the rostrum. The second of those is derived from various sources which are detailed on page 69 of Volume 2 of the books enclosed with the issue. In considering the contents of CD 70, titled Sacred Works I imply questions as to the provenance of the Messa Solenne.

Perhaps more than many creative artists, Verdi’s operas in particular were influenced by the harsh vicissitudes and circumstances of his early life. These also formed his character, one that varied between irascibility and great material and spiritual generosity. I examine these facets in greater detail in my four-part Verdi Conspectus on this site the contents, which, in respect of the recordings mentioned, are now dated. However, the personal life and chronology of arguably the greatest opera composer ever, and certainly the one whose compositions form the backbone repertoire of local and international opera companies worldwide, remain the same and if particularly relevant I relate them here.

Verdi Conspectus
Part 1 - Verdi's background, getting established and first five operas from Oberto to Ernani
Part 2 - Verdi’s anni de galera (galley years). The ten operas from I due Foscari to Luisa Miller
Part 3 - Verdi’s middle period. The eight operas from Stiffelio to Un ballo in Maschera
Part 4 - Verdi’s great final operas from La Forza del Destino to Falstaff

Part 2. The operas ~ Part 3. Other works ~ Performance & Recording Details


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