Thu, Dec 04, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Classical CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

GREAT PERFORMANCES, by The Royal Opera.

GREAT PERFORMANCES

The Royal Opera

Boxed set of 32 CDs

Opus Arte OA CD9024 D

COSI FAN TUTTE

Mozart, Currentzis

Sony 88765466162

THE WELL-TEMPERED CLAVIER, Books 1 and 2

Bach

John Butt, harpsichord

Linn CDK 463

FOUR LAST SONGS and EIN HELDENLEBEN

Strauss

Barenboim, Netrebko

DG 4793964

September saw the release of a boxed set of CDs called Great Performances. It features 12 operas recorded between 1955 and 1997 at London’s Covent Garden, now the Royal Opera House, and preserved by the BBC (which had originally broadcast them live).

The operas come with remastered sound on 32 CDs from Opus Arte. Many, however, have been issued before on other labels. They’re here also available individually, but only as downloads.

There’s absolutely no doubt as to the legendary status of some of these recordings. I will consider two of them here, and return to the set again next month.

One strange feature of this product is that, though the operas are advertised as coming from 1955 to 1997, there are none at all from the period 1963-70, and only one from 1963 to 1980. Technical and/ or copyright reasons may account for this.

The set opens with Verdi’s Otello from 1955. Conducted by Raphael Kubelik, and with the Chilean tenor Ramon Vinay in the title role, this is an absolutely stunning performance. Iago was to have been sung by Tito Gobbi, the very informative notes (by Nicholas Payne) tell us. But the great Italian baritone didn’t show up by an “already adjusted deadline,” so the house soloist Otakar Kraus, who was due to sing the role later in the run, took his place. He was nervous, and might have been more so, Payne writes, had he known that Gobbi was in the opening night audience.

The excellence of this recording is due to its overall ensemble singing, and the magnificent orchestral playing. In addition, Vinay is outstanding as the entrapped and cornered Moor of Venice. The whole production is a notable tribute to the early days of Covent Garden as an opera house of international standing. It was established with a full-time company in 1945, and singing operas in their original languages only commenced some years later.

Madama Butterfly from 1957, conducted by Rudolf Kempe and with Victoria de los Angeles in the title role, was for me, less impressive. The celebrated Barcelona-born soprano is appropriately girl-like (Butterfly is, after all, meant to be 15), but I found it impossible to forget the 1980s recording from Giuseppe Sinopoli with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Teresa Berganza and Juan Pons, surely still the finest available.

Names from previous reviews had a habit of reappearing this month. Back in May we reviewed a recording of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro from Russia [Taipei Times, May 29, 2014]. Now the same conductor, Teodor Currentzis, has come up with a Cosi Fan Tutte in similar style — crisp, beautifully recorded, and with piano rather than harpsichord continuo.

As we said in the earlier review, the commitment is extraordinary, with long rehearsal periods and an isolation from the normal pressures of recording, in this case far away in the Russian steppes. Currentzis is determined to do something new with these often-recorded operas, and what he comes up with is a modern immediacy that aspires to have its roots in original 18th century practice. Not everyone will like the result, but I found it sharp, piquant and engrossing.

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