Great Moments of Nicolai Gedda

 

“Great Moments” is the title of this three disc compilation, issued in 2000, and EMI certainly had a great deal to choose from. Nicolai Gedda must be one of the most recorded tenors in history. I suppose one should point out that the “moments” here are all purely operatic. To get a more rounded view of Gedda’s output, both as to range and repertoire, one would have to include his work in orotorio and song, embracing music from Bach to the present day, as well as some operetta. But this is a sensible conflation of music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, covering twenty years of recording from 1952 to 1974.

Gedda was a keen linguist and sang virtually without accent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, English and his native Swedish. This linguistic ability no doubt also informed the vast range of music and styles he was able to embrace. It certainly makes for a pleasingly varied selection of excerpts.

Disc one is made up, mostly, of the earliest material, hence we have excerpts from his splendid Dimitri on the 1952 Dobrowen recording of Boris Godunov (with Eugenia Zareska) and the whole of his first recital for EMI, recorded in 1953. A further excerpt from Boris Godunov from a 1969 recital is included, along with an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night which shows the voice virtually unchanged in seventeen years, though the style is possibly a little more assertive.

The 1953 recital is a real treasure-trove of delights, opening with a version of Lensky’s Act II aria, which is so beautiful that it bears comparison with Sobinov. He sings it as an inner monologue, the pianissimo reprise spun out in mastery fashion. Also wonderful are his honeyed performance of Du pauvre seul ami fidèle from Auber’s La Muette de Portici and the glorious mezza voce legato of Nadir’s Je crois entendre encore. The other French items are just as desirable, but he also delivers an ardently poetic Cielo e mar from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and his sad, restrained performance of Federico’s Lament from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. Some may prefer a more overtly passionate rendering in the manner of Corelli, but personally I find Gedda’s vocal restraint quite refreshing and not in the least bit unemotional. This first disc ends with a joyfully ebullient version of Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire from Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau, sung in Swedish and recorded live in 1952.

Disc 2 is also wide ranging, starting with music by Rousseau, Gluck (Gedda coping superbly with the high tessitura of Gluck’s tenor version of Orphée et Eurydice) and Mozart, before moving on to the German Romantic repertoire. Taken from a 1957 recital disc, Don Ottavio’s arias and Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön are much better than on the complete Klemperer recordings, with a lovely smile in the tone for Tamino’s aria. Belmonte’s Ich baue ganz, recorded in 1967 with the Bath Festival Orchestra under Sir Yehudi Menuhin and sung in impeccable English, is brilliantly done. Exciting performances of Huon’s arias from Oberon lead us into the German Romantics. Gedda only once sang Lohengrin on stage, but decided that Wagner wasn’t for him. His lyrical approach to In fernem Land and Mein lieber Schwann is very beautfiful nonetheless.

Best of all on this second disc is a magical performance of Magische Töne, sung in a ravishing mezza voce of ineffable sweetness, the long legato line beautifully and firmly held. This is great singing, no doubt about it.

Disc 3 is of French and Italian arias and duets. It starts with a superb performance of La gloire était ma seule idole from Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, a role Gedda made very much his own and of course later recorded complete under Sir Colin Davis. Next comes a dramatic version of Un autre est son époux from Werther, the joyful Aubade from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys, and the Raoul/Marguerite duet from Les Huguenots (with Mady Mesplé) with Arnold’s Asil hérèditaire from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, with its fabulously ringing top notes, leading us into the Italian bel canto items.

Mirella Freni joins him for duets from La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale whilst alone he sings Edgardo’s Tombe degli avi miei and Ernesto’s Cercherò lontana terra. The Bellini had me wishing he had been engaged for Callas’s studio recording of La Sonnambula rather than the ineffectual Monti. After all he had already sung Narciso in her recording of Il Turco in Italia.

Freni, who had yet to venture into more dramatic repertoire, blends well with Gedda in the duets, but back in 1966 she had yet to learn how to project personality in a recording. Her singing is lovely but a little anonymous. Both the solo items could be considered models of bel canto style but are also sung with appreciation of the dramatic situation, the recitatives vividly delivered.

To finish we have a clutch of encores, including Lara’s Granada and the lovely Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn, which give us a glimpse of Gedda’s prowess in lighter fare and remind us of that Gedda also recorded a lot of operetta.

Given Gedda was such a prolific recording artist, there was a lot to choose from when compiling a set of Great Moments, and no doubt the set could have extended to many more discs. There is no doubt, though, that EMI have chosen some plums from his discography and there isn’t a dud performance on the whole set. Extravagantly recommended.

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Rosa Ponselle sings Verdi

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Rosa Ponselle is known for having one of the most extraordinary voices ever to be recorded. Along with Caruso and Ruffo, she was one of Serafin’s “three miracles” and had a voice of unparalleled richness and power. According to Walter Legge, the voice was “majestic, enormously rich in overtones. Her legato was perfect with a breath control that only makes the listener breathless with amazement.”

Her career was not long, and she retired relatively early at the age of 40. Some say her withdrawal from the stage was precipitated by adverse criticisms for her Carmen, but it could just as well have been put down to her shrinking top register. The rest of the voice remained admirably secure and rich however, and recordings made at her villa in the 1950s reveal it still to be firm as a rock, though she hadn’t sung in public for many years.

Her first recordings were acoustics made for Columbia, but she switched to Victor in 1923, when from 1925, her recordings were made using the electrical process, and all the recordings here have been produced by Ward Marston. The collection gathers together just one recording of every Verdi extract Ponselle recorded, so there are no duplications and, where she did record an extract twice, Marston has chosen whichever he considered to be the best, regardless of whether it was acoustic or electrical.

If we are to think of the ideal Verdi soprano, then Ponselle is undoubtedly the voice to which one would turn, its timbre rich and velvety with ample reserves of power, admirably firm but flexible, limpid and responsive. If there are any faults, they tend to be attributable to the recording process and the strictures of side lengths, thus the recitative to the Ernani aria is somehwat perfunctory and rushed where Callas is incredibly detailed with a much greater range of tone colour.

I wonder too about pitch. Ponselle was known to occasionally employ downward transpositions, so would D’amor sull’ali rosee (recorded acoustically in 1918) be sung at pitch, gven the fact she opts for the optional high Db? It is a lovely performance, the high notes poised and beautifully integrated into the line, so maybe questions of pitch don’t really matter, though they would affect the sound of the voice itself.

Nevertheless all the performances here could be considered models of Verdi style, not only the arias, but the duets with Martinelli, Pinza and Stracciari and the final trio from La Forza del Destino with both Martinelli and Pinza, surely one of the greatest versions of ths scene ever committed to disc. Other favourites for me would be the Miserere (with Martinelli) which exploits her gloriously rich lower register and La vergine degli angeli from La Forza del Destino, her legato perfect and the line spun out on a pure, firm thread of sound the likes of which you will not hear from any other singer.

Of course Ponselle was much more than a Verdi soprano, as we know from recordings of excerpts from Norma, La Gioconda and L’Africaine, as well as songs, but it is good to have here a collection of Verdi arias sug by arguably the greatest Verdi soprano of the twentieth century.

Renée Fleming – Great Opera Scenes

 

If we are to say goodbye to Renée Fleming the opera singer, then now might be a good time to be reminded of this, one of her most successful recital discs, recorded in 1996, when Fleming was at the height of her powers, and before the tendency to indulge in jazzy slides and swoops had become too pronounced.

All but one of the roles represented here were part of her stage repertoire at the time, and she would in fact go on to sing Strauss’s Daphne in 2005.

The programme is both varied and interesting. We start with both of Countess Almavivas arias from Le Nozze di Figaro, sung with ideal poise and beauty of tone, before plunging into the romantic imaginings of Tchaikovsky’s lovelorn Tatyana. Fleming plays the ardently impulsive young girl to the life. She yearns indwardly In Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, and I doubt I have ever heard Ellen’s Embroidery Aria from Peter Grimes sung with such superb control and feeling. Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria crops up on many recitals, but Fleming does not suffer at all by comparison with such well known interpreters as Rethberg, Ponselle or Tebaldi.

I suppose the two cornerstones of Fleming’s repertoire have been Mozart and Strauss, so it is fitting that, having started with Mozart, we should finish with Struass, a suitably ecsatic version of the closing scene from Daphne.

The recital is beautifully presented with Larissa Diadkova contributing as Filipyevna and Emilia and Jonathan Summers as Balstrode. The London Symphony Orchestra under Solti provide excellent support.

The voice itself is stunningly beautiful, but Fleming doesn’t rely solely on beauty of voice. Her interpretations are intelligent and musical, and she presents us with five very different characters. The only criticism I would have is that her diction is not always as good as it might be, but in all other respects this is a classic recital disc.

 

The Very Best of Lucia Popp

 

Lucia Popp, who tragically died of brain cancer at the age of 54, is one of those sopranos everyone seems to love, and with good reason. She had a winning personality, an immediately recognisable voice of great beauty and a rare gift for communication.

She made her debut at the age of 23, a light coloratura, singing roles such as the Queen of the Night, Blonde, Zerlina, Despina, Sophie, Oscar and Susanna, but by her 30s had moved on to the lyric repertoire and her roles would henceforth be Pamina, the Countess or the Marschallin. She was also active on the concert patform and was a superb recitalist, and this compilation, taken from her EMI recordings, is a good example of her work in all fields.

Disc 1 concentrates on works with orchestra starting with a lovely rendition of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, taken from a 1988 recital of Slavonic Arias. She is ideal in the two Smetana arias too, but the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, which closes disc 1, ideally requires a fuller tone. One appreciates the fullness of heart nonetheless.

Gorgeous in every way are the exceprts from the Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Carmina Burana, no doubt the main reason many of us consider his recording a first choice for the work. I was lucky enough to hear Popp sing Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder under Tennstedt at the Royal Festival Hall in the early 1980s and their 1982 recording has long been considered a top recommendation for the work, so it is good to have it here included in its entirety. A further reminder of their artistic collaboration is the inclusion of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no 4, where Popp strikes and ideal note of childlike innocence.

Disc 2 starts with some 1967 recordings of Handel and continues with Mozart, taken both from complete recordings and a 1983 recital, so we get examples of her Queen of the Night under Klemperer and her Pamina under Haitink (both often considered touch stones for the roles). I don’t know if she ever sang Donna Anna on stage and I’m not sure the voice would ever have been right for the role. None the less the line in Non mi dir is beautifully sustained and the coloratura section cleanly articulated in a way heavier voices don’t often achieve. The Schubert songs expose a slight lack of colour, and we note that she is better at expressing joy as in Die Forelle and An Sylvia than the drama inherent in Gretchen am Spinnrade. On the other hand that fullness of heart I spoke about earlier suits Strauss’s Zueignung to perfection.

If one were to find any other fault, it would be to note that her legato is not always perfect. She has a tendency to use what John Steane once referred to as the squeeze-box method of production, where each individual note is given a slight push which impedes the long legato line. One might also note that the voice lost some of its silvery purity in the later recordings. She was a considerable artist, nonetheless, and this compendium, which finishes with Popp letting her hair down in arias from Die lustige Witwe and Die Fledermaus can be considered to live up to its title.

Blow the Wind Southerly – The Art of Kathleen Ferrier

 

This 1997 compilation of recordings by Kathleen Ferrier was no doubt leveled at the popular Classic FM market. Not a whiff about the provenance of the various tracks, no texts or translations, nor a mention of the accompanists, amongst whom would be the illustrious name of Bruno Walter.

There is, however, a great deal of pleasure to be had from this hotch potch of songs and arias, even if it would seem that very little thought has gone into the programming.

Kathleen Ferrier died from cancer in 1953, at the age of 41 at the height of her career. She had made her operatic debut at Glyndebourne in 1946, creating the role of Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and following it with that of Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a role with which she was particularly associated (and indeed there are two versions of Orpheus’s Lament included here, one in Italian and one in English). She also formed close associations with Sir John Barbirolli and Bruno Walter, who later wrote “I recognised with delight that here potentially was one of the greatest singers of our time.” A memento of their association is included here in a thrillingly intense version of Um Mitternacht from Mahler’s Rückert LIeder and of course most people will be aware of their great recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Ferrier, a genuine contralto of the sort that seems to have gone out of fashion today, had a voice that one most associates with a grave solemnity, suited to such pieces as Have mercy, Lord, on me from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, but it could equally turn to gaiety and lightness, as it does here in such songs as Bridge’s Go not happy day and the traditional song I know where I am going, both delivered with perfect, natural, unforced diction, which never impedes her natural legato. I also particularly enjoy the beautiful Quilter songs, which we rarely hear these days.

The Handel and Bach items would get no points for authenticity today, but, if the style and voice might seem old-fashioned, her sincerity and gift for communication do not. Her singing has a way of going straight to the heart in a way that should never go out of fashion.

There are better representations of Ferrier’s art out there, but this one serves well as an introduction to a great singer, who died far too young.

Leontyne Price – The Prima Donna Collection

 

 

 

 

This four disc set gathers together the five recital albums Leontyne Price made under the title Prima Donna. Each one followed a similar pattern, starting with an aria from the Baroque and finishing with something from the twentieth century. Volumes one, two three and five are presented in the order they were originally released, but, inexplicably, volume four is broken up and its contents scattered randomly amongst the others.  The LPs were recorded in 1966 (volumes one and two), 1970 (volume three), 1978 (volume four) and 1980 (volume five), by which time Price would have been fifty-three. The voice changed quite a bit over this fourteen year period, and the first three discs make for much more comfortable listening than the last two, by which time the voice had thickened, with the middle range more occluded, diction smudged and top notes beginning to sound strained. Having so many of the arias from volume four placed side by side with arias from the first three only serves to accentuate this fact. Having a strained performance of Turandot’s In questa reggia from 1978 follow hot on the heels of her 1966 recording of Depuis le jour, which is lovely, if not particularly idiomatic, only goes to empahasise the point.

It goes without saying that there is some glorious singing in this set. At its peak, which is when the first three volumes were made, the voice was an absolutely gorgeous instrument, secure throughout its range and flexible in fast moving music. The selection of music is also interesting, with well known arias rubbing shoulders with some heard less often, especially in recital.

Price once said,

It’s terrible but you know I just love the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I simply move myself to tears. I suppose I must be my own best fan. I don’t care if that sounds immodest – l feel that all singers must enjoy the sound they make if they’re to have others enjoy it too.

Well it’s an interesting point. Callas famously was the opposite. She hated listening to her own records, because she could only hear the faults. She was always striving for the impossible. Price, on the other hand, sometimes gives the impression that she went into the studio, poured out the glorious sounds, declared herself satisfied and left it at that. There is little that is specific to the music she is singing. Though the musical range is vast the interpretive range is not. There isn’t really that much difference between the way she approaches Purcell and Puccini, Handel and Verdi. This is even more pronounced in the final volume, which is, in any case, the least recommendable of the five. Gilda’s Caro nome is placed next to Isolde’s Liebestod, but Caro nome is laboured with no sense of the young girl’s first awakening to love and the Liebstod has no transfiguring rapture. They have the same voice character and just sound as if the singer had strayed into the wrong repetoire, which indeed she had. This final volume also has on it an ill-advised Casta diva, an aria which, in isolation, she might have made a good stab at in 1966, but which, by 1980, is beyond her. The most successful, and surprising, item on volume five is Queen Elizabeth’s Act I Scene and Prayer from Britten’s Gloriana, on which Price certainly has the requisite regal grandeur, but there is nothing else on volume 5, that I would really care to listen to again.

The first three volumes are a different matter and, if few of the performances are particularly revelatory, there is much to admire in both the singing and the voice we hear here, with volume three to my mind being the most successful.

Highlights would include Selika’s Sur mes genoux, fils du soleil from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine and Do not  utter a word from Barber’s Vanessa from volume 1, Paolo, datemi pace from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and La mamma morta from Andrea Chénier from volume 2, Se vano il pregare from I Lombardi, Dis-moi que je suis belle from Thaïs and Mes filles, voilà s’achève fom Les Dialogues des Carmélites, from volume 3.

Though she was known for her Fiordiligi and Donna Anna, Mozart fares less well. Or sai chi l’onore certainly brims with outrage and drama, but, though Non mi dir is beautifully poised, the fast section is laboured and the voice, even in 1970 sounds an unwiledly instrument for this music. Elettra’s D’Oreste d’Ajace, from volume 4 recorded in 1978, suffers even more from a lack of mobility.

Still, we should be thankful for what we have. The first three discs showcase one of the most ravishing voices to have ever graced the operatic age. I used to own volume 3 on LP, which had always been one of my favourite opera recitals, and I was very excited to hear the complete set. If my expectations were not quite fulfilled, I am nonetheless happy to have it in my collection.

 

The Young Domingo

 

These days, with Domingo’s sometimes less successful forays into the baritone repertoire, it is easy to forget just how amazing his career was, not to mention how long it has lasted. This two disc set is a composite of three recitals made in 1968, 1971 and 1972 when Domingo (27 at the time of the first disc) was already an experienced artist, having first appeared on stage at the age of sixteen and singing his first major role (Alfredo) in 1961 at the age of 20.

The earliest of these recitals, which was given the title Romantic Arias heralded the arrival of a major artist, not only a tenor but a musician. The repertoire is wide ranging, taking in music from Handel to Mascagni and he sings in Italian, French, German and Russian. I can’t think of many tenors, even from the golden age of 78s, who could sing Puccini and Mascagni with so much passion and yet give us a wonderfully accomplished Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni, the longest run sung cleanly and accurately and not only spun out in a single breath but phrased through into the next statement of the opening tune. The only other tenor I’ve come across who manages it as well is John McCormack. In all, whether it be in Lohengrin’s Narration or Lensky’s aria, sung in Russian, his singing is musical and immaginative. If we were to nitpick, it might be to note that, especially in the Italian items, there is a lack of excitement, of real intensity. Both are qualities he later added, along with his fine acting that served to make him the best Otello to be heard for many years. So he may not thrill in the manner of a Franco Corelli, but could Corelli have ever embraced such a wide range of differing music styles with such musicality and sensibility? I dount it very much. So let’s be grateful for what we have.

The second disc entitled Domingo sings Caruso is less wide ranging, most of the arias more well known, though it does include an aria for Marcello from Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème, and the third La Voce d’Oro, an apt description of the golden tone that pours forth. Again one might note that his singing can be a little generic, but his musical sensibilities are always evident. Nor does he ever indulge in the vulgar mannerisms of some who preceded him. His singing is always tasteful, his musical manners impeccable.

To the three recitals, BMG have added two Leoncavallo arias (another from La Bohème and one from Chatterton) which were originally included as fill-ups for his recording of I Pagliacci under Nello Santi. Both are attractive pieces, wonderfully sung by Domingo.

Looking at Domingo’s website I see his calendar is still pretty full, with engagements, both singing and conducting, booked up to November next year. It is a remarkable achievement for a man approaching his eighties. There is no doubt the promise of these early recitals has been not only fulfilled but surpassed. Now that we have said goodbye to Domingo the tenor, now might be a good time to go backto these early recitals and remember just how good he was.

Katia Ricciarelli – Verdi Arias & Duets

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This was Katia Ricciarelli’s debut recital, released in 1972 when she would have been 26. For this 1991 CD release, BMG added two items from a duet recital with Domingo, made at the same time.

Ricciarelli had an illustrious career and prolific recording career, but, it always seems to me, has never enjoyed the acclaim of her slightly older Italian contemporaries, Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto. She perhaps asked a little more of her essentially lyrical voice than it would deliver but, unlike singers like Sass and Souliotis, she was intelligent enough to later drop some of her dramatic roles in favour of more lyric fare. Her Turandot might have been ill advised but, like Sutherland’s, it was confined to the studio.

This Verdi disc catches her at her peak singing, for the most part, a selection of unfamiliar arias from Giovanna d’Arco, I Masnadieri, Jérusalem, Il Corsaro and I Vespri Siciliani as well as arias from Otello, Il Trovatore and Don Carlo, plus duets from Un Ballo in Maschera and Otello with Domingo.

The voice is a beautiful one and she is an imaginative singer, responsive to mood and text, but there are occasions when her legato is not as good as one might wish. If one were to compare her performance here of Medora’s Non so le tetre immagini with a late one by Callas, made in 1969, it is to find that, despite Callas’s by this time waning resources, the long line is maintained, the wide intervals bound more closely together, where Ricciarelli can be a little angular. Nor is Ricciarelli’s coloratura technique as clean as Callas’s. One is grateful for the beauty of the tone and her dramatic involvement, nonetheless.

Ricciarelli is a singer I have come to appreciate more with the passing of the years. I heard her live a few times, on the last occasion at a concert at the Barbican when her voice was probably past its best. The programe consisted mainly of bel canto arias, and I remember well her outstanding singing of Giulietta’s Oh quante volte, so good that it held the audience in rapt silence. She was forced to repeat the aria as an encore at the end of the night.

She is always musical, always alert to the drama, always imaginative and this Verdi disc is a good reminder of her excellence in the field. There are very few sopranos singing today who could touch her in this repertoire.

Sylvia Sass – The Decca Recitals

 

Sylvia Sass shot to stardom at the age of 25 after singing the role of Griselda in a 1975 Covent Garden production of Verdi’s I Lombardi which also starred José Carreras. Decca were quick to sign her up and her first recital LP (one side of Puccini, one of Verdi) followed in 1977. A further opera recital followed in 1979 and finally in 1981 a recital of songs by Liszt and Bartók, in which she got to sing in her native Hungarian. She also appeared on Solti’s recordings of Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira) and Bluebeard’s Castle and on the Philips recording of Stiffelio. She was hailed as the new Callas and, like others saddled with the epithet before her, her international stardom was short-lived, though she continued to sing in opera (though mostly in Hungary) until 1995 and made many records for Hungaraton.

From the very first notes of Turandot’s In questa reggia it is clear that this is a singer with a personality, always aware of the dramatic possibilities of the music. The voice can caress, but equally it has bite and power and the top can glare when singing at full tilt. The four Puccini heroines given here (Turandot, Tosca, Manon and Butterfly) emerge as distintinctively different characters, which isn’t always the case in a Puccini recital. There is also much that is fine in the Verdi items, the Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth being particularly good, but here we notice a tendency, also evident in the Puccini items, for there to be too great a gap between her loud and soft singing, where the loud singing can take on a strident, squally edge that contrasts too greatly with the almost disembodied purity of her soft singing.

By the time of the second recital this tendency to veer from ultra soft to ultra loud has become more pronounced, even more noticeable when singing live. I remember seeing her as Norma at Covent Garden in 1980 and you could hardly hear her when she was singing quietly. Not that the second recital doesn’t have its attractions. Lady Macbeth continues to be impressive, and there are some lovely moments in the Il Trovatore aria, with its spectacularly floated high D.

The 1981recital of Liszt and Bartók songs, with András Schiff at the piano, is rather impressive. Sass brings vivid personality to and drama to a song like Liszt’s Die Loreley, as well as a beautiful, comforting quality to Kling leise, mein Lied. She also makes musical sense of Bartók’s sometimes angular vocal lines, brilliantly supported by Schiff’s superb playing of the difficult piano accompaniments.

It is a great shame Sass never really fulfilled the promise of her early successes, but these discs serve to remind us why people found her so exciting when she first burst onto the scene and receive a qualified recommendation from me.

Karajan’s second recording of Aida

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Karajan’s second recording of Aida was recorded, like the first one, in Vienna in 1979 exactly twenty years later. For some reason, it is usually passed over in favour of the first, which starred the more obvious Aida cast of Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Simionato and MacNeil. Personally, I’ve always preferred this later one with a cast which, on paper, might seem lightweight, but actually works in practice very well.

Roughly contemporaneous with Karajan’s Berlin recording of Don Carlo this Vienna recording, though still wide ranging, is much better, more natural, putting the voices in a more natural acoustic, and Karajan in so many places brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score. He paces the score brilliantly and is most attentive to his singers. Not that this is an undramatic reading. Far from it. Though tempi can be measured, Karajan is an experienced Verdian and still infuses them with energy. The orchestral climaxes are stunning and all the singers relish the text and sing off the words. It hardly needs be said that the Vienna Philharmonic play magnificently.

Freni is a little taxed in places, nor does she command the sheer beauty of sound Caballé does on the Muti recording, but what pleasure it is to hear the text so well enunciated, so clearly communicated. Her Aida is lyrically vulnerable and I actually prefer it to many who one might consider more vocally entitled. Carreras is likewise a lyrical Radames, and his voice was still very beautiful at this phase of his career. He too sings well off the text. I like, for instance, the reflective way he sings Se quel guerrier io fossi, becoming more forceful in the second part of the recitative when he sings about the applause of all Memphis, before softening his tone again when he sings about Aida. How much of this is Carreras, how much Karajan I don’t know, but it makes for a more thoughtful reading than we often get.

Baltsa was also at her absolute vocal peak, though she is no barnstorming Amneris. She reminds us that Amneris is a young spoiled princess, used to getting her own way but also vulnerably feminine and a vaild rival for Aida. It is a very convincing portrayal and she is absolutely thrilling in the judgement scene. Cappuccilli is maybe not so implacable an Amonasro as Gobbi, but he also sings well off the words, and Raimondi and Van Dam are nicely contrasted as Ramfis and the King. The silken voiced Ricciarelli is luxury casting as the Priestess.

An excellent set, well worth investigating and, in my opinion, much more dramatically alive than the 1959 set, which has always seemed a little too self-consciously beautiful for my taste.