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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida (1871) [151.53]
Leontyne Price (soprano) – Aida, Rita Gorr (mezzo-soprano) – Amneris, Jon Vickers (tenor) – Radames, Robert Merrill (baritone) – Amonasro, Giorgio Tozzi (bass) – Ramfis, Plinio Clabassi (bass) – King of Egypt, Franco Ricciardi (tenor) – Messenger, Mietta Sighele (soprano) – Grand Priestess, Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. venue and dates not given, original issue 1961
ALTO ALC2031 [79.17 + 72.36]

It may seem hard to credit now, but back in the 1950s nearly all classical performers of international standing were positively sought out by record companies anxious to place them under exclusive contract – and deny their availability to rivals. In the late 1950s the first breach was made in the walls of such practices when RCA and Decca agreed to pool their resources, not only in distribution but also to make their exclusive artists available to each other. At the same time, however, they continued to set up and promote recordings which entered into direct competition with each other, and rival sets of operas in particular appeared with each of the labels poaching each others’ artists to enhance the value of their own product. So we had two versions of Carmen, Otello and so on – and two versions of Aida, the RCA set being conducted by Georg Solti, hitherto regarded as Decca’s exclusive property.

The Decca LPs, which appeared a couple of years earlier, were recorded in Vienna under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, and set new standards in attempts to secure recorded fidelity. Indeed they went well beyond the mere project of capturing a performance to be heard in the opera house; John Culshaw at his team tried to mimic the effect of chanting from a distant temple in the Nile Scene, contrasting this with the internal acoustic of the Temple Scene, the Judgement Scene conducted in a cellar, the sounds of offstage crowds in the streets in the opening of the Triumphal Scene, and even adding a hint of echo for the final entombment; the results, quite impossible to reproduce in the opera house, excited controversy at the time and remain as a benchmark to this day. At the same time Karajan, aided and abetted by his performers and engineers, made a serious endeavour to shed new light on the music itself, emphasising atmosphere – if necessary, at the expense of dramatic passion. When Solti went to Rome to record his set, on the other hand, his approach was more traditional, with plenty of emphasis on Verdi’s sometimes noisy scoring; and the distant voices are no more than that, simply singers from offstage in a normal backstage opera-house acoustic.

It would of course be wrong to expect Solti to adopt an entirely traditional approach; his control over the performance certainly has none of the occasional sense of slapdash that one might have expected at this era from an Italian opera house orchestra or chorus in an old warhorse like Aida. For most of the time the orchestral playing has a sense of rhythmic compulsion and precision that enables Verdi’s often piquant syncopations in the ballet music, for example, to sparkle as they should. His flautist in the opening of the Nile Scene is not very atmospheric, and his Egyptian trumpets in the Triumphal Scene are rather flabby, but by and large the standards of the orchestral playing do not fall appreciably far short of those Karajan obtained (doubtless with much less effort) in Vienna. The chorus, too, sing with incisive vigour, although their internal balances are sometime suspect with the priests in the Triumphal Scene decidedly outgunning the rest of the crowd during their passages of ensemble. The Grand Priestess in the Temple Scene makes an unexpected reappearance offstage in one solitary passage during the Nile Scene – perhaps she was on secondment from one establishment to another.

On the whole, Solti’s singing cast is actually superior to Karajan’s. Leontyne Price made a speciality of Aida, and her smoothly beautiful voice fits the role much more satisfactorily than Karajan’s sometimes stressed Renata Tebaldi. Similarly Jon Vickers is more naturally heroic than Karajan’s Carlo Bergonzi (just compare them in the trio at the end of the Nile Scene!) although he is far from convincingly lyrical at the end of Celeste Aida where he manages his final high B-flat on a perfectly floated pianissimo only to spoil the effect with a vulgar crescendo in total defiance of Verdi’s instructions. Rita Gorr is more trenchantly dramatic than Giulietta Simionato for Karajan – she makes a real meal of the Trial Scene, and hardly ever suggests any sense of vulnerability – but here honours are more even. As Aida’s father, Robert Merrill is more lyrical, less dramatic, than the stentorian Cornell MacNeil chez Karajan – which means he is less effective when threatening his daughter than when he is pleading for clemency. Giorgio Tozzi is a well-rounded High Priest, less gritty than Arnold van Mill for Karajan. Only in the casting of the King is Karajan decidedly superior, Fernando Corena providing a voice of real class by comparison with the comparatively workaday Plinio Clabassi.

Where Karajan does score over Solti, as well, is in the sheer quality of the recorded sound. I presume that these Alto discs are taken from LP pressings (and very good ones, at that) rather than the original tapes. The recording itself was undertaken by Decca engineers, but the sound – at any rate as presented here – is very forward and brassy, considerably lacking in bass, in a manner which recalls some of the more blatant examples of RCA technicians during the 1950s. The recording venue is not stated in the booklet (the producer was Richard Mohr, although this is not stated either), which does however provide useful biographical background on the singers and some attempt to evaluate their contributions to the undoubted success of the set. The recording is rightly described as “legendary” on the cover, but it does sound a bit dated now. Those looking for a primary Aida for a collection can probably be directed to more recent versions such as those by Muti, Abbado or Pappano, all of which also display a greater sense of the delicate effects in which the score abounds. The Solti recording itself remains available on Decca CDs, either on two CDs or in a remastered version with Blu-Ray alternative included; it was at one time spread over three discs as opposed to the two here. I have not heard the remastered recording, but while Hugo Shirley in Gramophone described the sound as a “little mellower than on previous reincarnations” he still applied to it adjectives such as “raucous” and “brittle”. Otherwise the remastering here reflects what I imagine was the sound on the original LPs, and of course it costs a fraction of the price of the 2017 Decca set.

Paul Corfield Godfrey