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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohème – opera in four Acts (1896)
Rodolfo - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Mimì - Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano)
Musetta - Lucine Amara (soprano)
Marcello - Robert Merrill (baritone)
Schaunard - John Reardon (baritone)
Colline - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
Parpignol - William Nahr (tenor)
Benoit/Alcindoro - Fernando Corena (baritone)
Customs Officer - Thomas Powell (baritone)
Sergeant - George del Monte (baritone)
Columbus Boys’ Choir
RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 16-17, 30 March; 1-3, 5-6 April, 1956, Manhattan Center, New York
XR Remastering Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO164 [53:43 + 53:31]

Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1956 recording has been amongst the most prized recordings of all time since it was first released. So much has been written about this recording that it almost seems pointless for me to write about its merits. However, this wonderful new transfer by Pristine Audio has offered me the opportunity, which I will happily pounce upon.

For my review I compared the Pristine release with the 2002 remaster done by EMI for its “Great Recordings of the Century” series (5677532). That EMI release proudly announces that it utilized “noise shaping via the Prism SNS system for optimum sound quality”. On paper it all sounds fairly impressive and upon listening the EMI CDs have a clean and well-focused mono sound that is a little lacking in warmth. Upon auditioning the Pristine version, the sound has been completely revitalized with an ambient sound picture that is most noticeable in the orchestra. Here I find the warmth and presence to the sound that I felt was lacking in the EMI release. The bass in particular has just a touch more presence than on the CDs. Pristine has used a clean LP pressing from which to obtain their master recording. The transfer is done so skilfully that you cannot tell that producer Andrew Rose didn’t have access to the original master tapes. I particularly noticed the difference in the increased impact of the plucked strings and harp. The voices are set in an acoustic environment that has just a touch more resonance which brings an increased third dimensionality to the sound. Check out the landlord Benoit’s spoken demand for “Affito” in Act 1; it shows the difference in the acoustic with the EMI CDs quite plainly. The EMI version often sounds slightly muffled in comparison.
The cast of this recording could hardly be bettered. Jussi Björling is a golden-throated Rodolfo, his sensitive caressing of “Il resto per terminar” in Act 1 takes me by surprise. This is the phrase where Rodolfo sings to his friends about staying behind to finish his article for “The Beaver”; normally it passes without notice, but Björling turns it into an inspired moment. His voice rings out splendidly in the “Il suo venir completa” in Act 2. He also wins points with me for singing the lower alternative in the conclusion of the Act 1 duet, an option which is far more dramatically convincing than the usual pair of high C’s.

Victoria de los Ángeles is a truly touching Mimì. In most of her singing she achieves such delicate, caressing effects that the listener is completely charmed. A perfect example is the point when Mimì describes the pink bonnet to Rodolfo’s friends in Act 2. Once or twice, a note of strain creeps in, such as in the offstage “Amor” at the end of Act 1 or, in the dramatic outburst in Mimì’s duet with Marcello in Act 3. These moments are short lived, however. I was captivated by the tiny little breaths she inserts into phrases when she arrives at the tavern searching for Rodolfo in Act 3; they contribute splendidly to our impression of a severely ill woman.

Robert Merrill was at the height of his powers when this was recorded. His tone is rock-solid and he moulds his phrases with a beautiful legato line. At the beginning of Act Two, he conveys a perfectly-judged sense of bravado and later on at the conclusion of Musetta’s waltz his tone rings out excitingly.

Lucine Amara makes an utterly charming Musetta. Her voice is sweet sounding and I note that the little “catch” in it here is less evident than it would become in subsequent recordings.

John Reardon makes an elegant-sounding Schaunard and his voice is slightly “reedy” sounding so it contrasts extremely well with Merrill’s. Giorgio Tozzi completes the line-up by singing his brief coat aria with a gorgeous, velvety tone and exquisite phrasing. His rendition of the aria has rarely been equalled.

Beecham’s approach to the score has a definite French ambiance about it. By this, I mean that he does not let a string section become overly luscious and overwhelm the pithier woodwinds. In “O soave fanciulla”, for example, he does not overheat the orchestra in the Straussian way that Herbert von Karajan did on his recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. There is one quibble that I have with Beecham’s reading and that is the perfunctory way he pushes through the orchestral introduction to “Sono andati” in the final act. It is rather as if he can’t wait to get it over with. Surely there is more emotion to be mined from this little orchestral gem.

Of course, the increased sonic presence of the Pristine transfer also increases the one annoying thing I find in this recording, which is the extremely irritating child chosen to demand a trumpet in Act Two but the blame for this can hardly rest on Mr Shore’s shoulders.

This is a wonderful new version of a much-loved recording. The curious should not hesitate to hand over their money even if they own a previous version.

Mike Parr

Previous review: Ralph Moore

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