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Luciano Pavarotti (tenor)
Celeste Aida: The Verdi Album
rec. 1967-1995
Presto CD
DECCA 478 1497 [79:13 + 77:30]

The recordings here span twenty-eight years, the last being the live duet with Leo Nucci – whose bleat and bluster are never assets, even though Luciano still sounds pretty good, if somewhat thinner of tone - but I would certainly have selected something else from the archives where he is in more youthful voice and better partnered. Otherwise, this selection really does present an anthology of what made Pavarotti great. One might argue that some of the Verdian roles here lay on the heavy side for his essentially lirico-spinto sound and that to hear him at his very best we should turn to his recordings of Donizetti and Bellini but if I were to select one role which encapsulated the essence of his appeal, it would be the Duke in Rigoletto, which is liberally represented here.

While there were some vocal issues over his career, for the most part he preserved his voice well and was remarkably consistent. Digging into my collection to make comparison between his 1972 and 1986 recordings of Aida, for example, reveals no vocal deterioration apart from an increase in the slightly irritating habit of emitting an emphatic “uh” on vowels at the end phrases and a noticeable increase in heft accompanied by less willingness in general to incorporate refinements – yet in both versions of “Celeste Aida” he prolongs and executes a diminuendo - as Verdi requested – on the concluding B-flat. The excerpts from Il trovatore in 1971 and 1976 respectively exhibit very little difference, if any; if anything, he is steadier in 1976 and there is a little more heft in his timbre, which was always somewhat lacking for this role, in any case, and he executes the gruppetti more fluently in the later studio recording. Likewise, there is no significant variation between his recordings of Macduff’s aria - and so it continues; his technique was very reliable.

From a marketing point of view, a problem for Presto with their re-issue here is that the majority of tracks here are culled from eight complete sets recorded over two decades and seasoned collectors who are admirers of Pavarotti (moi, par exemple) will already have them. However, it is now fourteen years since he left us and perhaps there is now a new wave of music-lovers who specifically want a collection of his “best bits” from Verdi – and that, we are certainly given.

We first hear him in the Macbeth excerpt in his absolute youthful prime but it is not only the voice which impresses; throughout the recordings on CD 1, all made in the 70s, the degree of expressivity and emotion with which he invests the words he sings are very apparent. He frequently sings softly with les larmes dans la voix but without becoming maudlin, because there is always that hard core of bright tone at the centre of his vocal production, which is not nasal but contains that potential for squillo which makes his loud, high notes so exciting. He is ideally partnered in Luisa Miller with Caballé who displays a similarly exquisite morbidezza and capacity for soft, delicate, floated notes – Maag’s impassioned conducting is also a great asset. (There is also a cameo appearance for papa Pavarotti in the first number.)

The libidinous Duke in Rigoletto was always a role right up Pavarotti’s alley and to my mind no-one except perhaps Björling has equalled him – so it quite appropriate that the lion’s share of tracks on this album be devoted to that role. The thrust and ping in his voice and the swagger of THAT TUNE are irresistible and he still manages to make the heartless swine temporarily likeable while he is singing. He even fearlessly caps the often cut “Possente amor” with a secure top D.

It was always debatable whether Pavarotti – or indeed Dame Joan, for that matter - should have sung Il trovatore; the role of Manrico really calls for a heftier voice of the Bonisolli type, but the sweetness of Pavarotti’s timbre and the evenness of his legato still make his singing of the more lyrical passages a joy – and of course, he had the high Cs, if not the baritonal weight.

The items from La Traviata feature – and here I quote from my survey of that opera - “Pavarotti mostly in Stand and Sing mode, but for many that will be enough and he brings some passion and energy to his Alfredo. His tenor is in prime condition, ringing and honeyed by turns. He is still very good for Levine eleven years later but this remains the better recording.”

The single aria from the original French version of I vespri siciliani is a comparative rarity which Verdi wrote specifically for the French tenor Villaret at the Paris Opéra. It is lifted from the album of rare Verdi arias “Pavarotti Premieres”, recorded with Claudio Abbado in the late 1970s on CBS. Pavarotti sings it most seductively in his best French. Copies are still available cheaply and I recommend it to the curious; meanwhile, this is a fine sample of what is in that recital.

The second CD opens with five excerpts from what was certainly one of Pavarotti’s most admired and successful Verdi roles, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera. This is his second, superior studio recording and I quote here from my survey:

“It is immediately apparent that Pavarotti now inhabits the role of Riccardo in a manner which escaped him a dozen years earlier; he might not have been the best stage-actor but he brings his words emotions alive so much more vividly here simply through vocal means. There is much more of a lilt and chuckle in his lighter arias but he rises magnificently to the moments of high drama. My only gripe is that habit he acquired of ending some phrases with an emphatic ‘uh’!”

I have already commented in my introduction above on the live performance of the duet from La forza del destino and I think it might be significant that the extracts from both Aida and Otello below exclude any contribution from Leo Nucci; I, for one, am grateful for that.

Regarding the Don Carlo excerpts, I again quote from my survey:

“Pavarotti, in what I believe to be the last role he learnt, seems rejuvenated; his singing is impassioned, nuanced and frequently delicate as well as thrilling. He often sings quietly, especially in that heavenly concluding duet, and there are few of the mannerisms or flaws which dogged his declining years. For heaven's sake, he is only in his fifties here, in any case - hardly in his dotage. Nor is there any appearance of the single, infamous cracked note which prompted boos from the boorish La Scala audience” and I refer to Paolo Coni’s voice as “dark and handsome…a proper Verdi baritone.”

Following the sensitive “Celeste Aida” I mention above, it was a good idea to dedicate the bulk of the Aida extracts to the concluding Tomb Scene, as both the power and tenderness of Pavarotti’s singing there are especially striking and we are also reminded of the beauty of Maria Chiara’s assumption of the eponymous role, sounding very similar to Mirella Freni's. Once again, I quote from my survey of Aida as it summarises my response to the tracks here. I refer to “the brightness of Pavarotti’s tenor and articulation. [His] tenor isn’t really the right voice for the role, but he is on record as saying that he took Björling’s example as an indication that he, too, could sing it in that manner with his leaner, lighter timbre, and he has a point. I certainly enjoy his sound, even if a few mannerisms by this stage of his career are creeping into his singing; the clarity of his diction and the penetrating quality of his tone are still a joy, and he is one of the tenors to hit that top B-flat square on then rein back his voice in a beautifully controlled “morendo” as Verdi stipulated. He does many beautiful things, especially in the Acts 3 and 4 duets with Aida, including some lovely soft singing.”

Pavarotti always excelled in the Verdi Requiem, as evinced early on by his singing in Karajan’s La Scala video and his contribution to Solti’s studio recording here is even better; again, I think only Björling can rival him for liquid beauty of tone and power of utterance.

The final extracts from Otello wisely start with the best thing Pavarotti does in that live-composite recording: the exquisite love duet with Kiri Te Kanawa. Thirty years old as I write, it deserves re-evaluation for the care and cunning with which Pavarotti tackled this notoriously difficult and dangerous undertaking. Knowing that he did not have a “real Otello voice” of the Del Monaco type, he exploited its lyrical and penetrative qualities, relying upon the focus, clarity and squillo of his timbre to compensate for any lack of raw power. I find the results highly satisfactory, especially when he is paired with Dame Kiri, similarly sleek and soaring of tone. The conclusion, as “the burning Pleiades descend below the horizon” and Venus confers its blessing on the lovers, is magical. The two great, anguished arias which conclude this recital give the lie to the idea that Pavarotti was a poor vocal actor; his death scene is riveting.

Any admirer of this beloved and greatly-missed tenor who loves Verdi and does not already have the complete sets will welcome this re-release from Presto.

Ralph Moore

Disc 1
Macbeth (Revised version 1865)
1. "O figli...Ah, la paterna mano" [3:34]
2. Scena: "Dove siam?" [2:51]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Macduff; Riccardo Cassinelli (tenor) - Malcolm; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lamberto Gardelli
rec. 1971
Luisa Miller
3. Il foglio dunque? ... Io tutto già vi narrai [2:49]
4. Quando le sere al placido chiaror d'un ciel stellato [3:46]
5. M'ardon le vene [7:34]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Rodolfo; Montserrat Caballé (soprano) - Luisa; Fernando Pavarotti (tenor) - Contadino; The National Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Maag
rec. 1975
6. "Questa o quella" (1:49]
7. Scena ed Aria. "Ella mi fu rapita" [2:28]
8. "Parmi veder le lagrime" [2:16]
9. "Duca, duca!" (Scena) - "Scorrendo uniti" (Coro) [2:17]
10. "Possente amor" [2:56]
11. "La donna è mobile" - "E là il vostr'uomo" [3:01]
12. Quartetto. "Un dì, se ben rammentomi" [1:33]
13. "Bella figlia dell'amore" [4:00]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Duca di Mantova; Sherrill Milnes (baritone) - Rigoletto; Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano) Gilda; Huguette Tourangeau (mezzo-soprano) - Maddalena; Martti Talvela (bass) - Sparafucile; Christian Du Plessis (baritone) - Marullo; Riccardo Cassinelli (tenor) -Borsa; John Gibbs (baritone) - Conte di Ceprano; Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 1971
Il trovatore
14. "Quale d'armi fragor" [2:11]
15. "Ah sì ben mio" [3:01]
16. "L'onda de'suoni mistici" - "Manrico!" [1:55]
17. "Di quella pira" [3:20]
18. "Miserere d'un'alma" [4:59]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Manrico; Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano) - Leonora; Graham Clark (tenor) - Ruiz; The London Opera Chorus; The National Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 1976
La Traviata
19. "Libiamo ne'lieti calici” (Brindisi) [2:53]
20. "Un dì felice, eterea" [3:30]
21. "Lunge da lei" - "De' miei bollenti spiriti" [3:52]
22. "Annina, donde vieni?" - "O mio rimorso!" [3:48]
23. "Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo" [4:59]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Alfredo; Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano) - Violetta; Marjon Lambriks (soprano) - Annina; The London Opera Chorus; The National Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. 1979
Les vêpres siciliennes
24. À toi que j'ai chérie [3:55]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Arrigo; Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Claudio Abbado
rec. 1980

Disc 2
Un ballo in maschera
1. "Su, profetessa...Di'tu se Fedele" [4:02]
2. "E scherzo od è follia" [3:29]
3. "Teco io sto...M'ami, m'ami" [9:10]
4. "Forse la soglia attinse" [2:42]
5. "Ma se m'è forza perderti" [2:53]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Riccardo; Margaret Price (soprano) - Amelia; Kathleen Battle (soprano) - Oscar; Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano) - Ulrica; Malcolm King (bass) - Tom; Robert Lloyd (bass) - Samuele; London Opera Chorus; The National Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. 1983
La forza del destino
6. Fratello...Riconoscimi! [7:51]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) – Don Alvaro; Leo Nucci (baritone) – Don Carlo; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Leone Magiera
rec. 1995
Don Carlo [1882-83 Version]
7. Io l'ho perduta! Oh, potenza suprema! [1:38]
8. Io la vidi e il suo sorriso [1:45]
9. Dio, che nell'alma infondere [4:05]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) – Don Carlo; Paolo Coni (baritone) - Rodrigo; Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Muti
rec. 1992
10. Se quel guerrier io fossi!...Celeste Aïda [4:09]
11. Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aïda [3:23]
12. La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse [2:11]
13. Presago il core della tua condonna [3:49]
14. O terra, addio; addio valle di pianti [4:36]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Radamès; Maria Chiara (soprano) - Aida; Ghena Dimitrova (soprano) - Amneris; Paata Burchuladze (bass) - Ramphis; Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Lorin Maazel
rec. 1986
Messa da Requiem
15. Ingemisco [3:37]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Sir Georg Solti
16. Già nella notte densa...Venga la morte [9:36]
17. Dio! mi potevi scagliar [3:08]
18. Cassio è là! [0:49]
19. Niun mi tema [4:38]
Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) - Otello; Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) - Desdemona; Leo Nucci (baritone) - Iago; Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) - Cassio; Dimitri Kavrakos (bass) - Lodovico; Alan Opie (baritone) - Montano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. 1991

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