Fri, Jul 12, 2002 - Page 19 News List

CD Reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  STAFF REPORTER

There are opera recordings and opera recordings -- sparkling new digital versions on the one hand where you can hear the musicians turning over the pages of their scores, and ancient classics still treasured despite their ever-increasing age, usually on account of their soloists, on the other.

EMI have just reissued three exceptionally celebrated examples of the latter category as new additions to their Great Recordings of the Century series. The sound quality, as must be expected, varies according to their date, but no collector would dream of being without them.

La Boheme (EMI 7243 5 67759 2 3)

Great Recordings of the Century series

Thomas Beecham said that each of Puccini's operas took you into a different tonal world. His recording of La Boheme, dating from 1956, has long been accorded mythical status. Although featuring Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Bjorling, top stars in their day, it is nevertheless Beecham's drawing out the subtlest details of the orchestral score that has appealed to connoisseurs.

"Uniquely magical" insists the Penguin Guide to Classical CDs. Originally in mono, it has now been digitally remastered yet again. Acoustically it still shows its age, of course, but at around NT$500 opera lovers will be happy to have it alongside a more modern version, perhaps Antonio Pappano's of 1996, also from EMI.

Tosca (EMI 7243 5 67759 2 3)

Great Recordings of the Century series

Maria Callas needs no promotion, yet her distinctively fiery, passionate style was not equally suited to every role. But many felt that in the title role of Tosca you had Callas personified, and her first version, from 1953 with Tito Gobbi as the police chief Scarpia and Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi, has always been judged her most powerful performance.

This recording for many years received a rosette from the Penguin Guide (their top accolade) and it still remains their first recommendation.

Once again, the sound will not have you leaping from your seat, though the passionate commitment of all the soloists may well do. And Victor di Sabata's conducting has the virtue of being consummately Italian (unlike, for example, Karajan's oddly unidiomatic version of 1980 with Katia Ricciarelli for Deutsche Grammophon).

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (EMI 7243 5 67779 2 7)

Great Recordings of the Century series

Also getting a rosette from the Penguin team is the 1979 recording of Shostakovich's extraordinary Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This is the most interesting of these reissues -- certainly the sound quality is the best. It's conducted by the great cellist Mstislav Rostropvich, a friend of Shostakovich's, and stars Rostropovich's wife Galina Vishnevskaya in the tortured (and murderous) title role.

The opera is far less well-known than the two Puccini items but is nevertheless a great, if neglected, classic. Much musing went on at the millennium as to who was going to be rated the century's greatest composer. Was it Stravinski, -- Sibelius, Mahler (but did he count as 20th century?), or perhaps Richard Strauss. There are signs that opinion is hardening in favor of Shostakovich, widely recognized now as having been a Soviet dissident under cover of party conformist and praise-singer.

In this case (or in any case) his only full-length opera must be something of great importance. It was a work created in defiance of official notions of good taste and Soviet political correctness. It tells the story of an abused wife who took a lover and murdered (hence the "Lady Macbeth" comparison) her brutish husband. The shock comes from the heroine being viewed sympathetically, as well as from the erotic explicitness of some of the music and action.

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