Montserrat CaballÈ (Aida), Placido Domingo (Radames), Fiorenza Cossotto (Amneris), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Ramfis), Piero Cappucilli (Amonasro), Luigi Roni (King of Egypt), Chorus of Royal Opera House, Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music, New Philharmonia Orch/Riccardo Muti, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 67617 (3 CDs) (ADD) TT: 39:44 / 41:16 / 65:27
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Samson et Dalila
Here are three more mid-priced reissues in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series. All three deserve the title. All have been issued before but are now "remastered at Abbey Road Studios and noise shaped via the Prism SNS system for optinum sound quality." They sound better than ever, particularly Rosenkavalier which in its initial CD release was relentlessly strident.
Rosenkavalier is most important of the three on anyone's list of preferred recordings. Richard Osborne's informative notes tell many of the circumstances of how it came to be. Karajan first conducted the opera in 1932 when he was only 23; in 1952 he presented the opera at La Scala and it was planned to record it there as well. Orchestral costs were too high in Milan so the decision was made to record in London instead. Sessions were held in London's Kingsway Hall over a period of 12 days in December 1956. Casting was problematical; of course Schwarzkopf (41 at the time) would sing the Marschallin but Karajan wanted Sena Jurinac as Octavian. As Jurinac couldn't do it for contractual reasons, Karajan asked for Irmgard Seefried for the role -- however, producer Walter Legge instead chose 28-year old Christa Ludwig. Sophie was to have been sung by Rita Streich, but for whatever reason, the 28-year old American singer Teresa Stich-Randall was selected. As Baron Ochs and completing the youthful cast was 34-year old Otto Edelmann, who had worked often with Karajan earlier. This was the last of the Karajan/Philharmonia EMI recordings (the others were Hansel and Gretel, Ariadne auf Naxos, Cosi fan tutte, Die Fledermaus and Falstaff).
Aida also is surely among the finest recordings ever made of the work. Again the informative notes by Richard Osborne give details of how it came to be. Placido Domingo offered to subsidize the project as he wanted to record it with CaballÈ and, particularly, with Riccardo Muti with whom he had performed Aida in Vienna. EMI followed Domingo's wishesand what a cast it is! CaballÈ is in magnificent form, capable of exquisite floating notes whenever needed (her "O patria mia" is exceptional) and the final duet between Aida and Radames is glorious. Fiorenza Cossotto's Amneris is a perfect foil for CaballÈs femininity. Nicolai Ghiaurov and Piero Cappuccilli could not be bettered as Ramfis and Amonasro. However, the real "star" is Muti whose understanding of the score is total. This is an incredibly exciting Aida, with a superb chorus and the brilliant sound of Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall. The recording was made in London's Walthamstow Assembly Hall over a period of 9 days in July 1974. The performance could have been squeezed onto 2 CDs but that would have meant interrupting the dramatic flow of the Act II finale.
Lovers of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila doubtless have the Naxos reissue of the 1946 PathÈ Paris recording with JosÈ Luccioni and HÈlËne Bouvier with Louis Fourestier conducting (Naxos 8.1100063-64). With this EMI reissue of their 1962 recording, thanks to notes by Richard Osborne, we have a behind-the-scenes glimpse of circumstances of the recording. The label needed a stereo recording to replace the 1946 effort and the project was put together rather hastily. Reception to the recording was mixed, particularly Anton Diakov's French pronunciation and the sometimes scrappy orchestral playing although PrÍtre's conducting is vigorous enough. EMI lucked out. In spite of its initial rather negative reception, this recording has stood the test of time doubtless because of the two leading singers. Jon Vickers sang Samson from 1963 to 1987; Rita Gorr continued for many years to be the leading Dalila of her time. Sonically the recording belies its near-40 decades.
These Great Recordings of the Century have been handsomely packaged, with complete librettos. Rosenkavalier and Aida come in a slipcase. At midprice these are recordings that should be in every opera collection.
R.E.B. (Sept. 2001)