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Classical Music Reviews - No. 43 - October, 2003

Jason Victor Serinus


 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Review #36.

 
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Three Worldly Explorations

The appearance of a classical musician on a world or pop music compendium has frequently been decried as “crossover.” The core classics, after all, have long been draped in an overlay of snobbery and elitism that suggests that those who venture beyond the black and white boundaries of the concert hall are betraying their ranks, so to speak. (It was not that long ago that Metropolitan Opera General Director Rudolf Bing fired Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel for singing in a nightclub. And in 2001, mezzo Anne Sofie Von Otter, who makes her long-awaited Cal Performances recital debut next January, temporarily fell from grace in at least one Gramophone’s reviewer’s estimation when she recorded her marvelous, anything but operatic Lost in the Stars collaboration with Elvis Costello).

Sometimes the label “crossover” is appropriate.  Certainly there is no question that major record labels, faced with declining sales, fewer retail and media outlets, and an appalling cessation of music education have been scrambling to ignite the fires of consumption under veteran and new listeners by initiating crossover projects. But it is equally true that many classical performers and composers now feel free to channel their passion for folk, world, and popular music into genuine artistic statements. As a result, the concert hall increasingly welcomes artists whose music crosses boundaries to create original fusions of rock, folk, classical, and electronica.

There is historical precedent for such explorations. 19th century European composers such as Brahms, Janacek, Dvorak, and Canteloube, followed by 20th century Americans such as Ives, Copland, Schumann and Harrison set about adopting and rearranging traditional folk melodies, songs and hymns into classical composition. Classed up in acceptable new guises, folk melodies from around the globe entered the concert hall, allowing so-called sophisticates to reconnect with the simple, enduring music that had nurtured preceding generations. Jazz made its entry as well, with Ravel, Milhaud, Gershwin among others incorporating jazz rhythms into their music.

Which brings us to the present. Three recent releases, two featuring internationally known classical artists, explore the traditional and new music of Brazil, Argentina, Poland, and North Africa. The sincerity of these endeavors suggests that these projects would best be understood, not as “crossover,” but rather as acts of devotion.

A recording that deserves unreserved praise comes from one of our most dedicated ambassadors of cultural exploration, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. With a huge discography, amassed over 20 years, that includes classics from the baroque era onwards; music of Japan, the Appalachias, the Silk Road, and Argentina; and the soundtracks to Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Philip Glass’ Nagoygatsi, Ma now turns his attention to Brazil.

“I’ve always loved Brazilian music,” he explains in the PR that accompanies his latest disc. “There’s an undercurrent of sensuality in it that is incredibly seductive. It’s a place between the conscious and the unconscious – a place where the rational and the irrational meet.” Whatever you wish to make of that last statement, perhaps a veiled reference to the spirit communication and shamanism that are central to Brazilian culture, there is no question that Ma’s love for Brazilian music shines on.

OBRIGADO BRAZIL • YO-YO MA

SONY SK89935

 

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A superb artist, Ma is a wonder. The subtle nuance of his playing enriches every selection, freely flowing between casual understatement, elegiac restraint, and sinuous quasi-vocalism without a hint of self-consciousness. To hear Ma’s cello echo clarinet master Paquito d’Rivera’s insinuating coolness on Jacó do Bandolim’s “Doce de Coco” and Pixinguinha’s sensuous “Carinhoso” is a joy. The contrast between Ma’s relaxed but totally attentive sound in contemporary Brazilian music and his more inward, at times elegaic phrasing on the disc’s two gorgeous Villa-Lobos works (“A Lenda Do Caboclo” sounding as French as it is Brazilian) further attests to his versatility.

The disc features Ma joining three composer/musicians: Egberto Gismonti, whose new treatments of three of his compositions offer him variously playing piano, guitar and flute to Ma’s cello; Sérgio Assad, whose own composition “Menino” and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “A Lenda do Caboclo” spotlight him playing guitar with his guitarist brother Odair Assad and Ma; and Cesar Camargo Mariano, whose disappointingly pop formulaic “Cristal” and more successful “Samambaia” showcase him playing piano to Ma’s cello. Other stellar musicians include pianist Kathryn Stott (as nuanced as Ma in the classical compositions), guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and singer/guitarist Rosa Passos.

Vocalist Passos is superb on bossa nova legend Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “O Amor Em Paz” and “Chega de Saudade,” her voice and phrasing reminiscent of that heard on Jobim and Joao Gilberto’s unforgettable original recordings. Gismonti’s “Bodas de Prata & Quatro Cantos” are in some ways the most forward looking of the works on the program, as engrossing as Villa-Lobos’ compositions. Ending with a so-called “Bonus” track, Gismonti’s “Salvador,” this album could very well win Ma another well-deserved Grammy. The sound, while not ultimately transparent, is certainly rich and colorful enough to do justice to this beautiful, outstanding excursion into the Brazilian realm.

Equal enthusiasm extends to . . .

 

SERÁ UNA NOCHE: LA SEGUNDA

M.A RECORDINGS M062A

 

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A follow-up to the first Será une Noche (M052A), a unique quasi-improvisatory exploration which fused Argentinian tango with “diverse contemporary and ancient musics, Indian classical music, baroque music and free improvisation,” Será une Noche La Segunda deserves as many raves as I gave its predecessor.

One of many unique offerings from the independent M.A label (1- 888-794-6229 or http://www.marecordings.com/) whose Japan-based producer Todd Garfinkle has an uncommon ability to generate music from unlikely sources, Será una Noche: La Segunda is a rare example of a recording in which quality of musicianship and degree of imagination are complemented by outstanding sonics.

This is the first disc from M.A. recorded with a sampling rate of 176.4 kHz. The stellar engineering further highlights M.A.’s specialty, digital recordings that maximize the sense of space around and between sounds. There is a mesmerizing quality to the sound of this disc (and most M.A. discs), light years ahead of most mass-market fare that makes listening to performances recorded in Argentina’s Monasterio Gandara a special experience. And when M.A.’s sonics grace a production that features such accomplished Argentinian musicians as Lidia Borda, Santiago Vazquez, Marcelo Moguilevsky, Edgardo Cardozo, Martin Iannaccone, and Gabriel Rivano on percussion, clarinet, bass clarinet, recorders, harmonica, guitar, voice, bandoneón and that most elevated of art forms, whistling, the rewards are plentiful.

Será una Noche: La Segunda mostly features traditional pieces composed around the beginning of the 20th century, when the tango was young. Although project co-instigator Santiago Vazquez notes that in these thoroughly modern arrangements one can hear older musical styles such as milongas – rhythms with African influence – a habanera, as well as the Argentinian folk rhythms that provide inspiration for original music composed by members of the group, South American music expert and UC Santa Cruz Professor of Ethnomusicology John Schechter reports that these engrossing, sometimes danceable modern interpretations render most of the traditional melodies barely recognizable. While the degree of jazz improvisation heard on perhaps the most far out selection, the opening tango milonga “El Choclo,” may disturb those devoted to preserving indigenous music from the cultural equivalent of deforestation, the results are marvelous. To single out just two of the artists who perform here, Lidia Borda has a wonderful voice and Moguilevsky’s whistling is marvelous. This is great, entrancing stuff, occasionally humorous, and a pleasure to listen to. Don’t miss it.

Note that M.A. is preparing to release another potentially delicious, disc, Buenos Aires Madrigal (M063A). Performed by "La Chimera", it features Furio Zanasi(Italia) and Ximena Biondi (Buenos Aires) singing on many of the tracks. Furio Zanasi often sings with Jordi Savall’s ensemble.

This leaves us with . . .

NIGEL KENNEDY AND THE KROKE BAND

EAST MEETS EAST • EMI 7243 5 57512 2

 

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This is the latest offering from the classical violinist formerly known as Kennedy who shocked the establishment by performing Brahms in casual dress. A thoroughly 2003, quasi-electronic exploration of traditional and traditionally derived music from Eastern Europe and North Africa, the disc features Kennedy (violin and electric violin) and the Kroke Band of Krakow, Poland -- Tomasz Kukurba (villa, vocals, flutes, percussion), Jerzy Bawol (accordion, additional vocals), and Tomasz Lato (double bass).

This disc, recorded at higher rock music levels, sounds nothing like the offerings from Sony and M.A. reviewed above. Although parts were recorded at EMI’s superior Abbey Road facilities, there is a raucous, electronic edge to many of the selections that, even when reproduced on euphonic tube equipment, can lead to pronounced discomfort. That, of course, may be the point -- electronic, rock-influenced music is rarely recommended as a digestive aid – but it does suggest that the man who has reverted to calling himself Nigel Kennedy is still into getting under people’s skin by whatever means possible.

The recording also raises essential questions of aesthetics. Do we need or even want electronic updates of traditional fare? What is gained by transforming the insinuating timbres of acoustic instruments into electronic buzz saws? What is the point?

A number of selections are original syntheses either created or arranged by the four musicians, while others are arrangements of traditional melodies. Assuming that sonics are not an impediment – start with the volume low – a light may go off when you hear the traditional “Ajde Jano,” a song that virtually every folk dancer knows by heart. Guest vocalist Natacha Atlas sounds very much like the woman I used hear sing this song on a scratchy ’78 a good 35 years ago at weekly folk dances at Yale, but that rendition was a bit slower and more heart-touching. The lovely “Lullaby for Kamila” seems slyly extrapolated from the traditional melody that begins the disc, but is slower and far more moving. “T 4.2” also draws on “Ajde Jano,” but features some exceedingly bright, psychedelic rock riffs that will send traditionalists running for cover. “Eden” is a typically beguiling Eastern European tune, progressing from a slow, sweet beginning to an increasingly faster, spirited dance. “Kazimierz” will again ring a bell for folk dancers, while Nigel’s beautiful violin solo on “Lost in Time,” meant to describe winter living conditions in a quarter in Poland near where he now lives, impresses with its emotion. Even the strings of the Krakow Philharmonic make an appearance on “One Voice,” described as “a simple melody played in turn on three instruments by three musicians of three faiths.”

Nigel Kennedy jointly funded this disc with EMI. Clearly it is a labor of love. Despite a few beautiful selections, whether or not that love will be returned remains to be seen.

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EIGHTH BLACKBIRD: THIRTEEN WAYS

 

CEDILLE 90000 067

 

 

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Think the expansive vision of Kronos, the freshness of youth, and an unusual complement of instruments. Note that their name derives from Wallace Stevens’ enigmatic poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” whose complete text is recited in the course of the longest work on the program, Thomas Albert’s 29-minute Thirteen Ways (1997). Add in members’ names and instruments: Molly Alicia Barth, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Matt Albert, violin & viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano.

Eighth Blackbird is one of the most adventurous and exciting contemporary music ensembles on today’s scene. Its members first joined together in 1996, while working toward Bachelor’s degrees in performance from the Oberlin Conservatory. Currently Ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago, their host of awards and commissions includes the Naumburg Chamber Music Award and three CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming. In the past year, they’ve performed at numerous U.S. music festivals and institutions, including a recent stint at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival.

The music, of course, is the thing; thankfully, quality of repertoire and musicianship are stellar. The disc begins with an arrangement of Joan Tower’s Petroushskates (1980). Tower, who like the other composers on the disc contributes her own liner notes, explains that her homage to Stravinsky’s Petroushka invokes an imaginary company of skaters, “thereby creating a sort of musical carnival on ice.” It’s the most carefree work on the disc, quite delightful and upbeat, with sharp rhythmic bursts and bubbling melodies that are quite endearing.

Eighth Blackbird was surprised to discover that the 2000 Naumburg Prize included a commission by then 85-year old composer George Perle. Perle’s 11-plus minute Critical Moments 2 (2001) consists of nine variations, some under a minute in duration. The composer, known for his radical “12-tone tonality” reinterpretation of the music of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, imitates the instrumentation in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with percussion substituted for quasi-spoken Sprechstimme. Lest this sound like “old hat” nostalgia from an over-the-hill octogenarian, there’s a huge variety of fascinating musical and emotional expression in Perle’s short variations. Ensemble member Michael J. Maccaferri calls them “fabulous.”

The same can be said for David Schober’s Variations (1998). The composer shared an Oberlin dorm room with Eighth Blackbird’s Matt Albert, and wrote the work when he was 24-years old. His variations are based on harmonic modes developed by the late Olivier Messiaen. It’s great stuff, and bodes well for the concerto Schober is writing for Eighth Blackbird.

As for Thomas Albert’s Thirteen Ways (1997); Albert knows the sextet’s members well; string player Matt Albert is his son. Honoring Matt’s love for soaring melody, father Thomas has composed a series of musical comments on visual images that sprang to his mind while reading Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” (He was also obsessed by the Fibonacci series in mathematics, but that discussion would get as heady as Schober’s comments on the “general Shoenbergian sense of the Grudgestalt). Instead, imagine inspiration springing from such Stevens stanzas as:

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after

These words only begin to suggest the musical flights of fancy that await the adventurous. Check it out.

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CONTRALTO EWA PODLES ON HER HOME TURF 

Two recent releases from Polish label DUX, both available from http://www.qualiton.com as well as major outlets, feature the great Polish contralto Ewa Podles recorded in her homeland.

KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI: TE DEUM, LACRIMOSA

DUX 0402

 

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was released this year but recorded March 1983 in the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall. It features Podles (billed as a mezzo-soprano) joining three other soloists and The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir in Cracow in two sacred choral works by the great Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

Vocal lovers who have anxiously awaited Podles’ star turn in the twice-postponed New York Philharmonic debut of Penderecki’s as yet unfinished Phaedra can now go back to the beginning of her career 20 years ago to get a less than sonically ideal sense of how she sounded when Penderecki conducted her in two of his sacred works. Both compositions premiered in 1980. They join a body of liturgical work composed over the past 35 years that on August 7, 2003 won Penderecki the European Sacred Music Prize.

In a discussion conducted five years ago in Lyon, France by Joel Kasow, Podles revealed that countertenors are not the only singers on the planet who suffer from gender confusion: “People don't know my type of voice, a true contralto. At the start of my career, people called me a mezzo-soprano, but I am not a mezzo like other mezzos, I am a contralto. The first prize I won was for ‘Rare Voices.’ And a true contralto is almost unknown in the 20th century. You must have a range of more than three octaves, high notes like a soprano, low notes like a real alto, as well as the technique to sing coloratura.

“If I sing with three voices, it's because it is impossible to sing over three octaves with the same voice - you can't sing a high C the same way you sing the low C three octaves down. The important people who decide don't know the kind of voice I have. What can we offer Mme. Podles? Rosina, perhaps, Dalila, not sure because the voice is so masculine. I often hear that my chest notes are too forced, too heavy, too coarse, but that's the voice I was born with, grâce à Dieu . . . .

“My voice comes from my mother, who is also a true contralto, but in her day she didn't have the opportunity to have a big international career; she sang in Poland, but because of her baritone-like voice she sang in the chorus, but she also sang Rosina as she had the high notes. She always had a problem, even when she recorded for the radio, because when her name, Juliana, was announced, there were listeners who thought that a mistake had been made and they were hearing Julian.” [See http://www.culturekiosque.com/opera/intervie/rhepodles.html for more].

The Podles’ voice we can make out on the 20-year old, far from ideally recorded early digital performance is lighter, brighter, and less husky than what we hear now. While the raw power of Penderecki’s Te Deum (contrasted with the far more ethereal Lacrimosa) seems ideal for Podles’ vocal and emotional expanse, she is hardly the star of the recording. Rather it is the music itself, definitively conducted by the composer that is most imposing.

Penderecki first made a name for himself with such startling, polytonal works as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The element of shock remains, refined into a striking musical language that extends from the sacred, tonal intimacy with which the 200 year-old hymn that begins the final part of the Te Deum, to the raucous clangor that accompanies the words “Incessabili voce proclamant.” Imagine taking the loudest, most heart-wrenching, declamations heard in the Mozart and Verdi Requiems and translating them into a late 20th century musical language that replaces tonal prettiness with a terrible yet indescribably beautiful sense of awe, terror, power, dread, misery, and wonder. This gives you a hint of what Penderecki has to offer. Soloists have appropriately strong and cutting voices, and the chorus sings with great immediacy. If only the recording, handicapped by noise in the loudest passages, were less veiled and one-dimensional. Still, as a definitive performance, this recording must be heard.

EWA PODLES GARRICK HOLSSON: LIVE

DUX 0405

 

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Recorded December 8, 2002 in the Concert Hall of the Warsaw Philharmonic, this recital unites Podles with pianist Garrick Ohlsson for songs by the Polish Fryderyk Chopin and the Russians Modest Mussorgsky and Sergey Rachmaninov. The concert may have been a recent affair, but the recording cannot come close to the vibrancy and color that distinguish Podles’ recent recordings for Delos. What we do hear, nonetheless, is echt Podles, her somewhat husky, powerful middle range (and slightly mealy-mouthed pronunciation) sandwiched by cavernous lows and sterling highs. Her conviction is total, making the best case possible for Chopin’s frankly old-fashioned songs about a girls’ desire, a handsome lad, wedding rings and the like.

The centerpiece of the disc, the battles and suffering of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, have a much more immediate impact. I have not heard Podles’ 1995 recording of the work with Graham Johnson at the piano (Forlane UCD 16683), but she did record Dmitri Shostakovich’s far more haunting orchestrations of the songs with Constantine Orbelian and the Philharmonia of Russia (Delos DE 3298) in 2001. The sound on that recording is again superior. Since Shostakovich prepared his orchestrations in 1962 for the great soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, by all means seek out their live 1963 performance by Vishnevskaya with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the Gorki State Philharmonic Orchestra (Melodiya/BMG 74321 53237 2).

The remainder of the disc offers Ohlsson playing Scriabin Etudes and the duo performing a set of lovely Rachmaninoff songs. The high note on the concluding “Spring Streams” is alone worth the price of admission.

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PUCCINI: TOSCA • FRANCO CORELLI, TENOR ET AL. • ORCHESTRA E CORO DEL TEATRO REGIO DI PARMA, G. MORELLI COND

MYTO 2MCD 032.277

 

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PUCCINI: TURANDOT • BIRGIT NILSSON, MONTSERRAT CABALLÉ * CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA OF THE COLON THEATRE, F. PREVITALI, COND.

LIVING STAGE LS 1020

 

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These two live opera recordings from the 1960’s feature three of the greatest artists of the era singing their considerable guts out. The immediacy and electricity of live performance encourages them to deliver interpretations so breathtaking as to make them required listening for all opera lovers.

The Tosca, recorded on January 21, 1967 in Parma’s Teatro Regio, captures tenor Franco Corelli’s riveting Mario Cavaradossi on a night when he sang with at least 175% of his usual intensity, Corelli was hardly a stranger to the role of the painter/patriot, having sung the part as early as 1954. By the night of this performance, he had already sung the role throughout the world and recorded it commercially on disc and film.

Regardless of the number of times he had sung the role, something special happened on the night of January 21. Corelli sang as if totally possessed by the spirit and pathos of his character. His thrilling, virile voice alternately produced powerful ringing tones and the full-throated mezza voce for which he was equally prized. Notes were held for extraordinary lengths, in a manner that would seem self-indulgent in an artist incapable of maintaining Corelli’s degree of animal magnetism.

The first act’s “Recondita Armonia” is unquestionably beautiful, but it is the third act “E lucevan le stelle” that drives the audience wild. Corelli has to work hard to produce his sustained pianissimo, the voice exhibiting an occasional flicker as he holds his hushed tones for what seem like seconds on end. But he perseveres, the extra struggle making the performance even that more riveting. Instead of cutting notes short, Corelli holds them longer than most would deem wise, stretching out phrases and taking risks as though his life depends upon it. The results, abetted by conducting that allows him all the time he needs to spill his heart out, are incredible.

Myto’s stereo captures every second of applause after “E lucevan le stele,” every cry of “Bis” (encore). Conductor Morelli attempts twice to continue the performance, but the audience interrupts with more and yet more cries of “bis.” Corelli, who rarely indulged audiences with encores, remained silent. Finally, after minutes of clatter, the performance continued. At the opera’s conclusion, renewed chants of “Bis, Franco” could only be quieted when the house manager had a piano rolled onto the stage so that Corelli could sing “Core ‘ngrato” as an encore. I would love to report how he sounded in that performance, but my review pressing inexplicably lacks the promised encore track.

As for the other artists, Virginia Gordoni (born Virginia Copeland) studied in New York but mainly made her career abroad; she returned to New York in 1954 to sing the lead role in the Broadway world premiere of Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street. Gordoni gives her all, but the voice lacks Corelli’s tonal beauty. Baritone Attilio D’Orazi sings Scarpia with conviction, but memories of Titto Gobbi are hardly effaced. Ultimately it is for Corelli that this performance must be heard.---

The previously unpublished Turandot offers the estimable pairing of Birgit Nilsson as Turandot and Montserrat Caballé as Liu. Nilsson was perhaps the finest ice princess of the last 50 years, with the cutting tone and blazing high C that are essential for the role. The performance dates from September 1965, with Nilsson in her prime and Caballé captured less than six months after her show-stopping, last minute New York City debut in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The other performers are merely adequate.

You may have a hard time convincing yourself that Nilsson warms to produce requisite melting, sensual tone in the final scene, or that this performance differs significantly from her other recorded Turandots (see below); regardless, the chilling impact of her “In Questa Reggia” remains unquestionable. Caballé, on the other hand, delivers a performance of unparalleled intensity and vocal beauty. Eschewing her tendency to float exquisite pianissimi at every possible opportunity, she sings most of her opening aria, “Signore, ascolta” forte. There is a surprising idiomatic gasp at one point. Then, as she approaches her final high note, Caballé softens the voice to produce an extended thread of fabled floated tone. Her impeccably focused pianissimi are extraordinary, seeming to rise from the deepest center of her being. Without missing a beat, she float up to the final high note, flawlessly swells to double forte, and holds onto the note for what seems like an hour or two before releasing it with a desperate cry so startling as to transform any self-respecting opera queen into a screaming lunatic. This is a performance to die for.

Other live and commercial performances: This same Parma performance of Tosca is also available complete on Bel Canto Society BCS 5013. I do not know how it sounds compared with the Myto set. Cavaradossi’s two great arias plus excerpts from a number of important scenes from the same performance are available on Myto MCD 92464; this best buy single disc also contains excerpts from Corelli’s Parma performances of Norma and Il Trovatore. Corelli’s first studio recording of the opera, featuring Leontyne Price as Floria Tosca, is preferable to the later commercial outing with Birgit Nilsson available in a bargain Decca two-fer. The 1956 film of the opera is available from Bel Canto/Allegro].

Both Nilsson and Caballé recorded Turandot commercially. Nilsson recorded the role first with Tebaldi and Bjoerling, later with Scotto and Corelli; Caballé sang Liu to Sutherland’s Turandot and Pavarotti’s Calaf, and later sang Turandot to Freni’s Liu and Carrerras’ Calaf. Caballé also recorded Liu’s arias commercially. For alternate live performances featuring Nilsson as Turandot, Myto MCD 014250 and Legato LCD 153 pair her with Price and di Stefano; Myto MCD 982181 and Opera D’Oro OPD 1152 pair her with Vishnevskaya (a strange choice for Liu) and Corelli; and OPD 1256 pairs her with Carteri and di Stefano. The DVD “Great Stars of Opera” VAI 4201 features Nilsson singing “In questa reggia” on a 1963 Bell Telephone Hour; Kultur D 2528 also contains Nilsson footage from the Ed Sullivan Show. While there is a Gala recording of Caballé singing the role of Turandot, Living Stage offers the only live document of her singing Liu.

 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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