girl-penguinBeer, Joseph

BEER: Polnische Hochzeit / Martina Rüping, soprano (Jadja); Susanne Bernhard, soprano (Suza); Florence Losseau, mezzo-soprano (Stasi); Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Count Boleslav Zagorsky); Michael Kupfer-Radecky, baritone (Count Staschek Zagorsky); Mathias Hausmann, baritone (Casimir von Kawietzky); Bernhard Spingler, bass-baritone (Sergius Korrosoff); Friedemann Röhlig, bass (Baron Mietek Oginsky); Alexander Kiechle, bass (Stani); Gärtnerplatz State Theater Chorus; Munich Radio Orchestra; Ulf Schirmer, conductor / CPO 444 059-2 (live: Munich, November 21-22, 2015)

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Joseph Beer, an extraordinarily talented musician, fell into writing his operetta The Polish Wedding almost by accident, yet it proved a major hit for him in 1934 when he was only 24 years old. Unfortunately, he was Jewish and hounded out of Austria by the Nazis. He fled to France, where he spent the rest of his life, only composing occasional religious and liturgical works for his own edification. Yet this wildly inventive work is one of the finest of its genre and performed here by a talented and committed ensemble cast under a lively and energetic conductor. If you love operetta at all, you simply cannot be without this set.

Beethoven, Ludwig van

BEETHOVEN: Ah, perfido! / Eva Marton, soprano; English Chamber Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (paired w/Symphony no. 4 on CBS LP 37509)

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Inge Borkh, soprano; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Josef Krips, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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Beethoven’s dramatic aria with orchestra has received several fine performances over the years, but few as good as these two. The mono Borkh recording is available for free streaming, while the digital stereo Marton recording is out of print.

BEETHOVEN: An die Ferne Geliebte / Peter Schreier, tenor; Walter Olbertz, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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Jon Vickers, tenor; Richard Woitach, pianist / part of CBC Records PSCD2024. Alternate version from 1972 with Leo Barkin, pianist available for free streaming on YouTube.

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Thomas Hampson, baritone; Geoffrey Parsons, pianist / part of EMI 555147, also available for free streaming on YouTube.

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Everyone has their favorite versions of this superb song cycle, possibly the first one ever written; these are mine. For me, the Schreier-Olbertz recording is sheer perfection in every way, vocally, tempo-wise, interpretation and expression. I have a soft spot in my heart for Vickers’ version ever since I heard him sing it live in his 1975 Carnegie Hall concert. The voice is a bit large for the music, and his German pronunciation was always far from ideal, but you couldn’t discount his commitment and the deep feeling he poured into this cycle. By comparison with these two tenors Hampson, like Fischer-Dieskau before him, seems just a shade reserved, but I love the warmth of his voice and the poetic feeling he brings to every line. Parsons, oddly, sounds a bit reserved and not into the music as much as Olbertz or Woitach.

BEETHOVEN: Bagatelles, Opp. 33, 119, 126; Bagatelle WoO 59, “Für Elise” / Artur Schnabel, pianist / Pristine Classical 049 AS (also see: Piano Sonatas, Stephen Kovacevich)

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Although Schnabel’s Beethoven Sonata recordings have come down a few pegs in my estimation, I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to him in these Bagatelles. Schnabel invests so much passion, intelligence and excitement on each and every one of them that he holds you spellbound from first note to last, and Pristine Classical’s transfers are the best I’ve ever heard, restoring the warmth of the original 78s while cleaning up the surface noise.

BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-5 / Zuill Bailey, cellist; Simone Dinnerstein, pianist / Telarc 80740

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Despite some heavy competition from star-studded cellists, I feel it is Bailey who most completely projects the right feeling in every phrase of every movement of these wonderful sonatas. Similarly, pianist Dinnerstein—who normally plays in New York and often contemporary music—is an exciting, riveting accompanist. I would, however, also recommend Sonatas Nos. 3 and 5 by Jacqueline du Pré and Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich as among the best historical performances.

BEETHOVEN: Christus am Ölberge / Lieselotter Rebmann, soprano; Reinhold Bartel, tenor; August Messthaler, bass; South German Chorus; Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra; Josef Bloser, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive

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BEETHOVEN: Christus am Ölberge. Fidelio: O welche lust* / Erna Spoorenberg, soprano (Seraph); Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (Jesus/*1st prisoner); Hermann Schey, bass-baritone (Peter); *Hans Günter Nöcker,  bs-bar (2nd prisoner); Groot Omroepchor; Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Henk Spruit, conductor; *Herrenchor des Süddeutschen Rundfunks Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Alfons Rischner, conductor / Archipel ARPCD 0609 (Christus am Ölberge live: Hilversum, March 8, 1957)

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Beethoven’s 1803 religious oratorio is certainly not a great masterpiece, but it has many effective pages and can be impressive in live performance with the right conductor and singers. This little-known 1963 recording, originally issued on Vox and then on Turnabout LPs, is my favorite of all commercial stereo recordings due to the right feeling imparted to the score by the little-known Josef Bloser and the fine singing of the principals. Yet it is only the somewhat subpar mono radio sound that discourages me from proclaiming the performance with Spoorenberg, Wunderlich, Schey and conductor Henk Spruit as the best of all. For a change, all of the singers here not only have fine voices but interpret the music exactly the way I want them to. Avoid the over-hyped Kent Nagano recording with the leathery-sounding Placido Domingo as Jesus.

BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations. 12 Variations on a Russian Dance by Wranitzky / Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist / Decca 4758401

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Vladimir Ashkenazy, a favorite Beethoven pianist of many critics, was never really one of my top picks, but this performance of the Diabelli Variations recorded fairly late in his career is a gem from start to finish. The way he plays them, it almost sounds as if he is inventing them at the keyboard himself, and the sonics are simply perfect.

BEETHOVEN: Egmont (Complete incidental music) / Magda Laszlo, soprano; Fred Liewehr, speaker; Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Hermann Scherchen, conductor / available for free streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aX0lBHfxcVo

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Beethoven’s incidental music to Egmont is often overlooked because, to be frank about it, most recordings of the complete score are boring. Usually, only the overture and the two songs Die Trommel gerühret and Freudvoll und leidvoll are memorable, but under Scherchen’s skilled baton the whole score comes roaring to life. This recording is taken from a mono LP on Westminster WL 5281 and will absolutely blow you away. It did me.

BEETHOVEN: Fantasia in C minor, Op. 80 (Choral Fantasy) / Rudolf Serkin, pianist; Westminster Choir; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / Sony Classical 886443422223; also available for free streaming here.

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Although this recording was made in analog stereo, it still merits six fish as the single most artistic and thrilling performance I’ve ever heard of this unjustly-maligned work. Toscanini’s 1939 broadcast is also thrillingly conducted, but it’s defective mono and also has the annoying, nerveless playing of pianist Ania Dorfmann, a Toscanini family friend. There are no qualms about Serkin’s playing, which absolutely dwarfs everyone else I’ve ever heard in this music, and you can’t fault the Westminster Choir. Bernstein followed Serkin’s lead with a taut, thrilling account of the orchetral part.

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio

Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Fidelio/Leonore); Marita Farell, soprano (Marzelline); Karl Laufkötter, tenor (Jacquino); René Maison, tenor (Florestan); Alexander Kipnis, bass (Rocco); Julius Huehn, baritone (Don Pizarro); Herbert Janssen, baritone (Don Fernando); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Bruno Walter, conductor / available on issues from Guild, Arkadia and Pristine Classical

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Leonie Rysanek, soprano (Fidelio/Leonore); Irmgard Seefried, soprano (Marzelline); Friedrich Lenz, tenor (Jacquino); Ernst Häfliger, tenor (Florestan); Gottlob Frick, bass (Rocco); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Don Pizarro); Kieth Engen, bass (Don Fernando); Bavarian State Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Ferenc Fricsay, conductor /Deutsche Grammophon 453106; also available for free streaming, sans dialogue, on YouTube: Act I, Act II, Leonore Overture No. 3

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Eva Marton, soprano (Fidelio/Leonore); Roberta Peters, soprano (Marzelline); James Atherton, tenor (Jacquino); Jon Vickers, tenor (Florestan); Paul Plishka, bass (Rocco); Franz Mazura, baritone (Don Pizarro); Anthony Laciura, tenor (First Prisoner); John Cheek, bass (Don Fernando); Metropolitan Opera Orchesta & Chorus; Klaus Tennstedt, conductor / available for free streaming at https://archive.org/details/Fidelio1

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Fidelio is one of the most difficult operas in the world to pull off well because you not only need a conductor who’s locked into the drama but also a cast who is locked in from top to bottom. Only Jacquino and Marzelline can get by with “just singing” their parts, and they must have firm and attractive voices (though they don’t always). Many times it’s conducted too slowly (Karajan, Klemperer, Harnoncourt and the 1950 Furtwängler performance); other times it’s conducted too fast, and worse yet, with a shallow emotional involvement that just doesn’t click (Toscanini, Abbado). In most of his live performances Karl Böhm conducted so speedily that the music often blurred or fell apart, and in his well-conducted studio recording he was saddled with the abrasive-sounding Gwyneth Jones as Leonore/Fidelio.

So we must turn to the above three performances to get the best Fidelio. The February 1941 Met broadcast is legendary; as conductor Bruno Walter said to his cast, “Here we all are, refugees from our home countries, all of which have been invaded by the Nazis, performing an opera about oppression and the fight for freedom.” Flagstad, Kipnis, Maison and Janssen gave their absolute best for this broadcast, and for whatever reason the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played as if they were possessed. (I’ve long felt that Walter had some “ringers” from the New York Philharmonic and possibly the nearby Philadelphia Orchestra in the pit that day.) Despite the boxy mono broadcast sound, you simply won’t believe the intensity of this performance.

Fricsay’s 1957 version is the only really excellent studio recording. Some of his tempi resemble Toscanini’s, but not all, and therein lies the difference. Marzelline’s aria, the quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar,” and most of the second act have more spacious pacing and, better yet, he has far superior singing actors for the major roles. The CD version, if you can find it (there are some used copies available online), has the dialogue spoken by actors, some of whom don’t even sound like the singers they are dubbing for, but at least it’s in there (Toscanini cut all the spoken dialogue, a major error). All of the musical numbers without dialogue are currently available for free streaming on YouTube.

The Met performance of 43 years later was almost as good as the 1941 one. Soprano Roberta Peters was a bit long in the tooth for Marzelline, but after a few minutes her voice warms up and she’s fine. The rest of the cast is fantastic, particularly Franz Mazura as Pizarro, Eva Marton as Leonore and the great Jon Vickers as Florestan. I’ve heard the story that Vickers had some argument with Tennstedt over something, not sure if it was tempo or rehearsal time, and almost walked out (he didn’t sing the first performance of the production that season) but was eventually persuaded to stay in the performance. His voice, of course, is not as fresh as it was for Klemperer in 1960 but at least he doesn’t have to put up with the funereal tempos on that recording. The stereo radio sound is acceptable. Just listen to the explosion of applause after the Leonore Overture No. 3.

Honorable mention must also go to two performances not listed above. First is the live October 1953 performance with Martha Mödl, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gottlob Frick and Wilhelm Furtwängler, available on several labels, the only drawback of which is the erratic sound from singers moving to and fro under the microphones. Second is the DVD of the November 7, 1963 Berlin Opera performance with Christa Ludwig, James King, Walter Berry and Josef Griendl, conducted by Arthur Rother, a fine production marred only by some sloppy orchestral playing. Both are in mono.

BEETHOVEN: Folk Song Arrangements: British, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and of various nationalities / Dorothee Wohlgemuth, Renate Kramer, Barbara Emilia Schedel, Antonia Bourvé, sopranos; Ingeborg Springer, Rebekka Stöhr, mezzo-soprano; Christine Wehler, Kerstin Wagner, altos; Georg Poplutz, Daniel Schreiber, David Mulvenna Hamilton, Eberhard Büchner, Armin Ude, tenors; Jens Hamann, Siegfried Lorenz, Haakon Schaub, Daniel Raschinsky, baritones; Manfred Bittner, bass-baritone; Martin Haunhorst, Sachiko Kobiyashi, Zsuzsa Zsismann, violinists; Bernhard Schwarz, Chichiro Saito, Cornelius Boensch, cellists; Rainer Maria Klaas, Michael Wagner, Michael Clark, pianists; Berliner Solistenchor; Brahms Trio / Brilliant Classics 94925

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For decades, I believed what I had read and hears, that Beethoven’s arrangements of folk songs—particularly those from the British Isles—were inferior work, written on commission for a quick buck, but listening to them reveals a great deal more than one would expect. These are mostly little gems, not just superbly crafted but often imaginatively set, with unusual harmonic progressions and lively piano accompaniments. This set of his complete folk songs was a revelation to me, and I think it will be so to you, too. The only reason it doesn’t get six fish, despite the fact that these are splendid performances, is that although the music is far better than expected it’s not on a level with An die Ferne Geliebte—though there’s not a song on here that isn’t as good or better than In Questa Tomba Oscura.

BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Zinka Milanov, soprano; Bruna Castagna, alto; Jussi Björling. tenor; Alexander Kipnis, bass; Westminster Choir; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Idis 6731, Pristine Classical PACO159 or Guild GHCD 2248/9

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BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Lois Marshall, soprano; Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano; Eugene Conley, tenor; Jerome Hines, bass; Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Pristine Classical PACO034

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BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis / Heather Harper, soprano; Julia Hamari, mezzo-soprano; Sven Olof Eliasson, tenor; Peter Meven, bass; Cologne Rundfunkchor & Symphony Orchestra; William Steinberg, conductor / ICA Classics 5054

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An embarrassment of riches. Toscanini’s December 1940 broadcast is in surprisingly good sound, enhanced here on both the Idis and Pristine Classical issues. The recording has a couple of flaws: the microphones were too close to the trumpets and timpani, and a trombone cracks at one point during the It should also be noted, for those who think Toscanini always rushed things, that this is one of the slowest performances of the Missa on record.

Toscanini’s 1953 live performance is often overlooked because those who have never heard it generally think it is probably like the studio recording from the same year. It is not. In the studio recording, the vocal soloists are so recessed in sound that they almost disappear inside the orchestral playing and choral singing, whereas in the live performance they are more forward. In addition, the tempos in the live performance are considerably broader, particularly in the opening “Kyrie.” And thirdly, the sound quality is much warmer and richer. I would rank this as one of the greatest of all Missa performances, and since the original tape was taken from an FM radio broadcast it is very warm-sounding.

The last performance listed here is the stereo broadcast from Cologne conducted by William Steinberg, who has all the virtues of Toscanini except for the incredible clarity of the instrumental choirs of the orchestra. His tenor, Sven Olof Eliasson, is not as good as Conley but fits in pretty well; the two female soloists are, of course, exquisite, and the whole performance flows wonderfully from start to finish. Because of the high artistic quality plus the good stereo sound, I gave it six fish.

BEETHOVEN: Overtures: Consecration of the House; Coriolanus; The Creatures of Prometheus; Egmont; Leonore Nos. 1-3 / BBC Symphony Orchestra & NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / various issues

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As in the case of the Symphonies, it is Toscanini who most effectively gets under the skin of these overtures, sometimes expanding and sometimes contracting the phrase-lengths in his drive towards dynamic and unexpected interpretations, but I also like some of the performances that Felix Weingartner recorded back in the 1930s and early ‘40s.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 / Rudolf Serkin, pianist; Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor / Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 available for streaming here. Concerto No. 3 available for free streaming on YouTube: 1st mvmt, 2nd mvmt, 3rd mvmt. Concerto No. 4 available for streaming here. Concerto No. 5 available for streaming here.

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BEETHOVEN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-3 / Glenn Gould, pianist; Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Ernest McMillan, conductor (Nos. 1 & 2); CBC Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Heinz Unger, conductor (No. 3) / CBC 20306 (5-CD set, mono)

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BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5 / Dénes Várjon, pno; Concerto Budapest; András Keller, cond / Hungaroton HCD 32757-59

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I’ve heard so many sets of these Concertos—Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Backhaus (the stereo set with Schmidt-Isserstedt), Christian Zacharias, Leon Fleisher, Murray Perahia, Evgeny Kissin, Stefan Vladar, Julius Katchen, Glenn Gould (the Columbia studio set plus some live performances from the CBC), Wilhelm Kempff (with Ferdinand Leitner), Emil Gilels (live with Masur and studio with Szell) and Alfred Brendel (2 versions)—and in so many cases you hear good, exciting, straightforward conducting with energetic pianism and orchestral playing, or attempts to be “sensitive” which result in bizarre tempos and pianism that has no backbone. Here we have a pianist who some critics said was too “lightweight” for Beethoven (hah!) and a conductor who most critics dismissed as routine and dull. But what I hear is something entirely different from what they heard, a pianist so completely locked into this music that he virtually eats it alive and spits it back out with fire in his breath, and a conductor channeling his inner Toscanini. The only other pianist I’ve heard—in the first concerto, anyway—who plays this well but who didn’t record a full set of the concertos was Arturo Benedetto Michaelangeli, although Gilels comes close in his live set with Masur and Backaus, despite a few tempo quirks, is also extremely good in his complete 1958-59 stereo set with Schmidt-Isserstedt. But holy keyboard, Batman, Serkin pushes them all in the shade, and I tend to think that the fire he lit rubbed off on Eugene Ormandy. Plus, he is sensitive in the slow movements.

Ah, but there’s a twist here that only vintage record collectors will probably notice, and that is that the performances of Concertos Nos. 3 & 5 that I favor are not the Columbia studio versions made with the fussy and italicized conducting of Leonard Bernstein, but live performances from the early 1950s with an even younger and more energetic Ormandy. True, the sound is mono but the playing and conducting are absolutely electrifying, and this way you get a whole set of the concertos with Serkin-Ormandy. Nice, huh? Plus, all but the first two concertos are available for free streaming and recording at YouTube, so dig right in.

The Glenn Gould live performances from CBC radio are also quite excellent, albeit all in mono, and better than his Columbia studio recordings. I highly recommend them as alternates, but of course there are only the first three concertos available here.

All things being equal, however, the recent set of the concerti by pianist Dénes Várjon and conductor Andras Keller may be the finest ever made–certainly, it’s the most exciting. They take some risks that no other pianist ever has, and Keller is right there with him, bringing out tremendous detail in the orchestral accompaniments. It goes right to the top of my list.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (excluding No. 22) / Walter Gieseking, pianist / Andromeda 9123 (Sonatas 1-15), 9124 (Sonatas 16-21, 23-32)

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BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32; Variations in F on an Original Theme; “Eroica” Variations in E-flat; Rondo à Capriccio in G, “Rage Over a Lost Penny;” Bagatelles in B-flat, WoO 60; Allegretto quasi andante in G minor; 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126 / Michael Korstick, pianist / Oehms Classics 125

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BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32. 11 Bagatelles, Op. 119. 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126 / Stephen Kovacevich, pno / Warner Classics 90295859229

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When I listen to a complete set of the Beethoven Sonatas, I’m listening for three things. First, how close is the pianist to Beethoven’s metronome markings? Although I know that Beethoven’s metronome ran a little slow, and therefore his marked tempi are sometimes too fast, I do what it to be pretty close. Secondly, how well do they observe his dynamics markings? These are irrefutable and need to be addressed. Beethoven didn’t write all of those strange-looking but wild contrasts of volume, attacking one note or chord sfotzando and playing the next piano just for laughs. He meant it. And thirdly, how deeply involved is the pianist with the almost raw emotion of Beethoven’s music? Far too many critics, particularly British but also American, want Beethoven pianists to stop and smell the roses as they play. They want “Romance.” They want hearts and flowers. But Beethoven don’t play that. Yes, certainly, when he was in a pensive, longing or melancholy mood, he wrote slow movements that penetrate deeply into the heart, but mawkish sentiment and “lovely sounds” were not his thing.

Walter Gieseking didn’t always quite get into the deepest angst of Beethoven, but his tempi were damn close to what Beethoven wrote and his phenomenal sense of legato bound everything together even in the wildest and most exuberant moments (first movement of the “Pathétique,” “Waldstein” and “Hammerklavier” sonatas, last movement of the “Appassionata,” etc.). Only the dated mono radio sound of these broadcasts, plus the fact that no one ever seemed to record him playing Sonata No. 22, mar his set. Otherwise, it is an object-lesson in how to play Beethoven with a round, pearly tone and still hit all the right notes—not just the keys on his instrument, but all the right emotional notes. Because of his impeccable technique, I prefer his set of the sonatas to that of Artur Schnabel as my favorite historical survey of these works.

I always liked Stephen Kovacevich, formerly Stephen Bishop, way back in the 1960s when he made that marvelous recording of two Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Jacqueline DuPré, but he has continued to grow as an artist to the point where he is almost masochistic in his drive to push himself to the limit in everything he plays. His set of the sonatas is somewhat analogous to that of the great Annie Fischer’s. Fischer started recording her sonata cycle around 1976 but kept going back and tinkering with the already-recorded takes, inserting little bits and pieces over a 15-year period to get each movement “just the way she wanted it.” The upshot was that not a single sonata had been released by the time she died because she was still not satisfied with any of them. Kovacevich recorded his cycle over a 12-year period, from 1991 to 2003, and by the end he had replaced a few of the earlier sonatas he had initial approved for release. The difference is that Fischer’s recordings are the aural equivalent of a Mr. Potato Head, with too many changes stuck in them. Her phrasing is never quite consistent, and her quirky tempo changes sometimes mar the musical flow. Her pure, unadulterated, unedited performances of Beethoven sonatas from earlier years are excellent, however. Kovacevich is a stickler for structure first and foremost, thus his goal was simply to refine his earlier approach a bit more so that the finished product was as good as it could be, and for the most part he succeeded. He is one of the very few pianists to play the early sonatas with the same excitement and rhythmic drive that Schnabel did, the middle sonatas with the combination of excitement and repose as Friedrich Gulda did, and the last sonatas with the same deep feeling of inner spirituality that Schnabel and John O’Conor achieved, and these factors in themselves make his an outstanding set. In only three instances was I a little disappointed. In the first movement of the “Pathétique,” he doesn’t make quite as much of a dynamics contrast in those fp passages as Schnabel, Raymond Lewenthal and Michael Korstick did. The first movement of the “Hammerklavier,” though taken at a good clip, is not as close to Beethoven’s specified tempo as the recordings of Egon Petri and Korstick. And in the first movement of the Sonata No. 16, Kovacevich commits an error by playing too perfectly! The joke in this music is that it sounds as if the pianist’s hands aren’t quite together (Beethoven pulled a similar joke in the last movement of the Cello Sonata No. 4, where the piano plays a passage and the cello enters abruptly with a snippet of the same phrase as if it were trying to catch up.) Kovacevich plays with such a perfect equalization of his two hands that, in the Sonata No. 16, he sounds as if he’s trying to “straighten out” Beethoven’s “mistake” by playing the music a bit too evenly. But these are very rare near-misses in a cycle that bristles with energy and excitement from first note to last.

Michael Korstick, who studied the Beethoven Sonatas for more than a decade before he decided to record any of them, comes, I think, closest to the composer’s ideal, although he doesn’t make quite as much of the strong rhythms and dynamics contrasts in the early sonatas that Schnabel and Kovacevich did. His only concession to personal taste over the score comes in the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier,” which he takes almost twice as slowly as written, but felt this was necessary in order to bring out the full meaning of the music. One movement in an entire series of sonatas is not enough to damage the excellence of this cycle, however, which like the Gieseking is “home ground” for the most part.

You certainly do not need to own all three of thee cycles. I would advise that you sample the Kovacevich and Korstick sets to see which of those two modern sets you prefer. One of them will surely take pride of place on your shelf. I also strongly recommend that you avoid any sonata recordings with the names of Daniel Barenboim, Wilhelm Kempff or Evgeny Kissin on them.

Bottom line: Gieseking is the best overall set in terms of performance and interpretation but not sound, Kovacevich produced the most unique and exciting set, and Korstick is what I would call a reference edition, while the individual performances by Petri, Lewenthal and Cliburn should be investigated.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Trios: WoO 38; 39 (Allegretto); Op. 1 Nos. 1-3; Op. 11, 44, 70 Nos. 1-2; Op. 97, “Archduke” / Trio Élégiaque / Brilliant Classics 94327

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Piano Trio Op. 97, “Archduke” / Jacques Thibaud, violinist; Pablo Casals, cellist; Alfred Cortot, pianist / various reissues, also available for free streaming on YouTube.

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As I mentioned in my initial review of this set, Trio Élégiaque’s approach to the Beethoven trios are just that, elegiac and elegant, thus there are some moments—though not many—where one may wish for a more dynamic or forceful expression, but I found that when push came to shove, they could attack the music with as much energy as most other trios in any other recordings of any of these works. Plus, it’s great to have the full set of piano trios in one place. As an adjunct to this, however, one should also include the legendary 1928 recording by the Thibaud-Casals-Cortot trio, which still stands up splendidly despite its very dry, boxy mono sound. (A photo of one of their recording sessions reveals that the trio was positioned under an alcove when recording their trios, which I’m sure further limited any room resonance.) This latter recording only gets four fish because of this sonic limitation. I’ve cautiously given Trio élégiaque five fish because there is always the chance that another such group, like Trio Solisti, may decide to record the complete Beethoven trios, and I prefer their take-no-prisoners approach to music.

BEETHOVEN: Septet in E-flat / Nash Ensemble: Michael Collins, clarinetist; Frank Lloyd, hornist; Brian Wightman, bassoonist; Marcia Crayford, violinist; Roger Chase, violist; Christopher van Kampen, cellist; Rodney Slater, bassist / Clarinet Trio, Op. 11 / Michael Collins, clarinetist; Christopher van Kampen, cellist; Ian Brown, pianist / Erato 22126

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Arturo Toscanini wrote his own orchestral arrangement of this Septet because he had never heard a performance with enough clarity and verve to satisfy him, but he didn’t live to hear this splendid recording by the Nash Ensemble. Nobody beats this performance, originally issued on Virgin Classics but here reissued by Erato.

BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 17 / Dennis Brain, hornist; Denis Mathews, pianist / available for streaming or download here.

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This is perhaps the most famous recording of this sonata ever made, and it well deserves its reputation. No one has ever surpassed Dennis Brain in his combination of elegance, fervor and beautiful tone, here still playing a single F horn.

BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets. Grosse Fuge / Colorado String Quartet: Julie Rosenfeld, Deborah Lydia Redding, violinists; Marka Gustavson, violist; Diane Chaplin, cellist / available for download at Amazon.com HERE for just 99¢

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So often recorded, so seldom done justice, the Beethoven String Quartets represent, for me, even more of the essence of the man and his spiritual journey than the piano sonatas, much as I love those. I can’t tell you how many recordings of these works I’ve heard because I’ve lost count. The Vermeer Quartet (Teldec) are passionate but a bit too slow and cautious for my taste. The Tokyo Quartet’s award-winning set on RCA Victor Red Seal was my gold standard for a long time, especially the middle and late quartets; for the early quartets, I preferred Emerson’s readings. The problem is that you can’t acquire Emerson’s performances of the early works without buying the whole series. In earlier times, I was very much enthused by the old Yale Quartet’s performances of the late string quartets (Vanguard). At one point or another I also owned copies of the Hungarian Quartet (on Seraphim, who I actually heard in person playing Beethoven), Budapest String Quartet (Columbia-Sony) and Guarneri Quartet (RCA Victor) playing these works, and have heard large chunks of more modern sets like the Belcea Quartet (Zig Zag Territoires). For a brief period, in fact, Belcea’s were my preferred modern-day all-digital versions, but these and others have been wiped away by the above-listed set.

The now-disbanded Colorado Quartet play each and every quartet to perfection; in fact, even if you think you know these works, their performances will reveal new things you’ve never heard before. To get them all for 99¢ is just too ridiculous to contemplate; just download them, sit back, play them and revel in their genius.

BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 / Anja Kampe, sop; Daniela Sindram, mezzo; Burkhard Fritz, ten; René Pape, bs; Singverein Wien (in 9th Symphony); Vienna Symphony Orch.; Philippe Jordan, cond / Wiener Symphoniker/Sony Music WS018

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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (Complete) / Eileen Farrell, soprano; Nan Merriman, mezzo; Jan Peerce, tenor; Norman Scott, bass; Robert Shaw Chorale (in Ninth); NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / RCA Red Seal 888880782755

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In addition to the above-named, I have heard complete sets of these symphonies by Felix Weingartner, Toscanini 1939, Karajan 1955, 1962, 1974 and 1983, William Steinberg, René Leibowitz, Rudolf Kempe, Hiroyuki Iwaki, Roger Norrington, David Zinman, Riccardo Chailly, Michael Gielen, Yondani Butt and Jan Willem de Vriend. Of all these, the best in terms of consistent high quality and energy is Gielen, but to my ears he just misses the explosiveness of Jordan and Toscanini—in several fast passages, his orchestra is just a bit too rhythmically even and glib, not quite capturing what Jordan refers to as the dangerous edginess of these works. In addition, the Jordan set comes even closer than Toscanini to Beethoven’s written tempi, which is saying something because they are VERY fast. Nevertheless, I would not hesitate to give it four fish, and I want to add that I really do enjoy individual performances from some of the other sets, i.e. Weingartner’s “Eroica,” Karajan’s 1955 Fifth and 1974 Second and Ninth, Norrington’s Second, plus Toscanini’s 1939 performances of the Second, Fourth and Sixth (all a bit better than his high fidelity recordings, but not in as good sound). I’m also crazy about Charles Munch’s “Eroica” and Toscanini’s BBC Symphony performance of the Fifth from 1939, in my opinion the most exciting and explosive performance of this symphony in existence, but to a certain extent it is SO powerful that it overbalances the other symphonies. I should also add that my all-time favorite of his Ninth Symphony performances is the NBC one from 1938 with the exceptional vocal quartet of Rina Bovy, Kerstin Thorborg, Jan Peerce and Ezio Pinza.

But when push comes to shove and you have to make hard choices, there is no question in my mind that the Jordan cycle is quite possibly the best that has ever been recorded and the 1949-1952 Toscanini cycle one of the most interesting ever made. The reason is the almost unbearable intensity that each conductor brings to the table while trying to perform these works close to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Ironically, Jordan comes closer to this ideal than Toscanini, whose later Sixth is actually more relaxed in both tempi and drive than his 1939 performances with NBC and the BBC Symphony Orchestras, both of which I actually like better, but as I say, sonics play a large part in my decision here.

Readers should note that this is Jordan’s second Beethoven cycle, the first being made with a French orchestra and released as a DVD set by Arthaus Musik. Those performances are not nearly as detailed or exciting as the ones with the Vienna Symphony. I could, of course, go into exacting detail analyzing these performances, but this would be a space-waster. Rather, just get the sets recommended above and hear for yourself.

BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto in C, Op. 56 / Jorja Fleezanis, violinist; Jack Kirstein, cellist; Jeanne Kirstein, pianist; Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra; Paul Nadler, conductor / available for streaming or download here.

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BEETHOVEN: Triple Concerto in C, Op. 56 / Isaac Stern, violinist; Leonard Rose, cellist; Eugene Istomin, pianist; Cleveland Orchestra; George Szell, conductor / part of Doremi DHR-8047 (also see Brahms: Double Concerto)

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The first-listed is the most intense and exciting performance of this much-maligned concerto you will ever hear. It was given in October 1979 in Cincinnati. At the time, pianist Jeanne Kirstein, the wife of famed cellist Jack Kirstein of the Lasalle Quartet, was dying of cancer but was determined to perform one last time in public with her beloved husband. She was so weak from chemotherapy that she had to be helped to the piano, but once there she played her guts out—and so did everyone else. Wait ‘til you hear it; you won’t believe it.

The second performance with Stern, Rose and Istomin is also quite good, particularly due to the excellent conducting of Szell who lights a fire under normally-dull violinist Stern, but only as a second choice to the Paul Nadler performance.

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D. BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D / Nathan Milstein, violin; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; William Steinberg, conductor / EMI Classics 67584 (mono)

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BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D / Bronislaw Huberman, violin; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; George Szell, conductor / available for free streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClKdGyUUFJE (mono)

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BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto in D; Romances Nos. 1 & 2 / Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Constantin Silvestri, conductor (Concerto); Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Pritchard, conductor (Romances) / EMI Classics CDE 5 74973 2

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Two “historic” mono performances with very different virtues are my top favorites. Both are taken at a good clip, not the usual sluggish tempo that most conductors seem to favor, and the orchestral sound, although not “authentic,” is relatively lean in both. Moreover, both conductors have a good grip on the music, pushing it forward without driving it too hard (as Toscanini did, just a trifle, in his famous recording with Heifetz), and the two violinists, though worlds apart in stylistic approach, really have something interesting to say in a piece that otherwise floats by the subconscious like a cloud. Huberman was famous for playing sweetly one moment and somewhat acidly the next; he was a master of alternating vibrato with straight tone, a style that was much in favor in Eastern Europe during his time but not much appreciated in the West where vibrato-rich violinists ruled the roost. Milstein, usually not a favorite of mine, gives the performance of his life in the Beethoven Concerto. He is not quite as stunning in the Brahms, but it’s still good. The sound on the Milstein-Steinberg recording is so good that one might almost mistake it for early stereo, which is why I gave it one more star than the Huberman.

The third outstanding recording of this concerto, in my view, is the Menuhin-Silvestri recording, and it is the only issue that is all-Beethoven (containing the two Romances conducted by John Pritchard). This was the third of Menuhin’s four recordings of the concerto, the first two being with Wilhelm Furtwängler (1947 and 1953), and though there is something magical about the second of these I actually like this version with Silvestri better because it is tauter and has more structure without losing the poetry of Menuhin’s gorgeous phrasing. It is also, in my view, the absolute best of the stereo versions; but I give it only four fish because it just isn’t up to the level of the two mono versions which are my preference.

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-10 / Barbara Govatos, violinist; Marcantonio Barone, pianist / Bridge 9389 A/D

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What, no Kreisler-Rupp? Oistrakh-Oborin? Szigeti-Arrau? Perlman-Ashkenazy? Mutter-Orkis? Nope, nope, nope and nope, though at one time or another I owned all of them. Before hearing this set, my favorite version was the one by Pamela and Claude Frank on MusicMasters, which I still rate at 4 1/2 fish, but this one just blows everyone else out of the water, on each and every sonata. So who are these musicians? Govatos is a violinist who spent some time in the Philadelphia Orchestra, while Barone is a pianist who also happens to be her friend, but somehow or other some real electricity crept into the recording studio when this set was made because it is electrifying from start to finish. So often you listen to complete sets of these sonatas and think to yourself, Well, I like so-and-so’s performace of the Fifth better, and such-and-such does a more intense “Kreisler” Sonata, but by and large this is the best set. Not so here. I haven;t heard ANYONE perform ANY of the sonatas better than Govatos and Barone do here, not even Kreisler-Rupp on Sonata No. 5, Salerno-Sonnenberg and McDermott on No. 7, Kreisler-Rachmaninov on No. 8, Huberman-Friedman on No. 9 or Menuhin-Gould on No. 10, and those are all great performances, trust me on that! This set just beats them all.

Bellini, Vincenzo

Bellini was a very gifted composer who tended towards sugary melodies and puff piece operas, but in two cases—Norma and I Puritani—he buckled down and produced two excellent operas. His talent for spinning out long, unbroken lines of music greatly influenced Richard Wagner, who once wrote an alternative aria for Oroveso in Norma.

BELLINI: Norma / Cristina Deutekom, soprano (Norma); Tatiana Troyanos, mezzo (Adalgisa); Robleto Merolla, tenor (Pollione); Clifford Grant, bass (Oroveso); Rina Pallini, mezzo-soprano (Clotilde); Gary Burgess, tenor (Flavio); San Francisco Opera Orch. & Chorus; Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor / Gala 100.548

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BELLINI: Norma / Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo (Norma); Sumi Jo, soprano (Adalgisa); John Osborn, tenor (Pollione); Michele Pertusi, bass (Oroveso); Liliana Nikiteanu, mezzo (Clotilde); Reinaldo Macias, tenor (Flavio); International Chamber Vocalists; Orchestra La Scintilla; Giovanni Antonini, conductor / Decca 4783517

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Surprise, surprise! No Maria Callas! No Gina Cigna, Joan Sutherland or Montserrat Caballé! No. my #1 pick for a standard, conventional Norma performance is Cristina Deutekom, who is absolutely thrilling in this live performance, along with Tatiana Troyanos, the greatest Adalgisa on records. Robleto Merolla was a somewhat beefy-sounding Pollione but fills the bill nicely, and the little-known Carlo Felice Cillario conducts with energy and style.

The Cecilia Bartoli recording received mixed reviews when it was originally released, but most of them were positive. I approached it with some trepidation because I feared a performance that was too small-scaled and centered too much in the orchestra playing around straight tone. As it turned out, this was a tremendous artistic success for Bartoli but also, much to my surprise, for Sumi Jo who sings here her finest and most sensitive portrayal on records. American tenor John Osborne gives us a very stylish Pollione, and the conducting of Antonini has tremendous style and forward momentum. This is, indeed, the kind of Norma performance one might have heard given by Giuditta Pasta back in the 1830.

BELLINI: I Puritani / Sarah Coburn, soprano (Elvira); Lawrence Brownlee, tenor (Arturo); Azamat Zheltyrguzov, baritone (Riccardo); Tadas Girininkas, bass (Giorgio); Liudas Norvaišas, bass (Gualtiero); Tomas Pavilionis, tenor (Bruno); Jovita Vaškevičūtė, mezzo (Enrichetta); Kaunas State Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor / Delos DE 3537

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Another shocker for average opera fans: not only no Sutherland or Sills, but also no Lina Pagliughi, Callas or even Deutekom, but rather Sarah Coburn, who sings rings around all of the above in terms of gorgeous tone, solid technique and dramatic fire. And tenor Lawrence Brownlee outsings everyone else I’ve ever heard in this role, with a more beautiful tone and more secure high notes than even Pavarotti in his prime. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, and Constantine Orbelian leads a taut performance of the entire score, which is rarely heard on records.

BELLINI: La Sonnambula / Luba Orgonosova, soprano (Amina); Raul Gimenez, tenor (Elvino); Alexandra Papadijiakou, mezzo-soprano (Teresa); Dilber, soprano (Lisa); Francesco d’Artegna, bass (Count Rodolfo); Nanco de Vries, bass (Alessio); Netherlands Radio Choir & Chamber Orchestra; Alberto Zedda, conductor / Nacos 8.660042/43

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La Sonnambula may be the best opera ever written that has not only a static plot but a completely ridiculous one. Amina, an orphan raised by mill-owner Teresa, is betrothed to wealthy landowner Elvino. This, however, makes inn hostess Lisa jealous because SHE loves Elvino. When Amina sleepwalks into Count Rodolfo’s bedroom in the middle of the night it becomes a town-wide scandal. The Count explains that somnambulism is a natural disorder and she meant no harm but Elvino isn’t buying it until he sees her sleepwalking on a dangerous precipice one night by the mill. End of story and general rejoicing.

What makes the opera so great is the music. Sonnambula is virtually a wall-to-wall series of exquisite duets and arias for the tenor and soprano, all of them superb, as is Lisa’s act 2 aria with its high Fs. This music made a deep impression on Berlioz and Verdi and also greatly influenced Donizetti and Wagner. The cast here is virtually flawless, the lone quibble being the fluttery mid-range of the soprano known as Dilber, yet her high range is both firm and dazzling. Everyone else is stupendous, and conductor Alberto Zedda pulls the music together better than anyone else I have ever heard.

Bellman, Carl Michael

BELLMAN: Fjäriln vingad syns på. Gubber är gammal. Hör klockorna med ängsligt dån. Joachim uti Babylon. Käraste bröder. Så lunka vi så småningom. Ulla, min Ulla. Vila vid denna källa / Aksel Schiøtz, tenor; Ulrik Neumann, guitarist; Banjo-Lasse, lutenist / part of Danacord 455

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Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) is to Swedish lute music what John Dowland was to the British tradition. A poet as well as a composer, Bellman compiled two collections of his music, Fredman’s Songs and Fredman’s Epistles. Here are eight choice examples of his music as sung by the wonderful Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz. The sound quality is mono, and dated mono at that, yet still remarkably clear and beautifully performed.

Bengtson, Peter

BENGTSON: The Maids / Anna Eklund-Tarantino, soprano (Claire); Eva Pilat, mezzo-soprano (Solange); Gunilla Söderström, contralto (Madame); Ensemble of Royal Swedish Opera Orch.; Niklas Willén, conductor / Phono Suecia PSCD-96 or available for free streaming on Spotify

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Peter Bengtson’s remarkable and shocking 1994 psycho-drama about a pair of incestuous sisters working as maids who plot to kill their mistress remains one of those operas, like Strauss’ Elektra and Berg’s Lulu, that can repel the average operagoer with its strident atonal music and high-range shrieking from the principals, but I found it tremendously interesting.

Berg, Alban

BERG: Lulu / Patricia Wise, soprano (Lulu); Wolfgang Schöne, baritone (Dr. Schön/Jack); Peter Straka, tenor (Alwa); Graham Clark. tenor (Painter/Negro); Hans Hotter, bass (Schigolch); Ernst Gutstein, bass (Medicine Prof/Banker); Bodo Schwanabeck, bass (Animal Trainer/Rodrigo); Stuart Kale, tenor (Prince, Manservant); Boris Bakow, tenor (Theatre Manager); Cynthia Clarey, soprano (Dresser/High School Boy); Catherine Estourelle, soprano (Girl); Laura Zennini, mezzo (Mother); Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo (Countess Geschwitz); Marie Kobayashi, mezzo (Lady Artist); Francis Dudziak, tenor (Journalist); Hervé Hannequin, baritone (Manservant); Jeffrey Tate, conductor; Orchestre National de France / EMI Classics 09400

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Alban Berg’s Lulu, like Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, is a metaphor for the moral decadence of the Weimar Republic, the sad result of which was the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933. It is not a pretty or an uplifting opera to say the least; a beautiful but completely amoral young woman who attracts oversexed men to her like a flame does to moths. The plot, then, is a giant snowball in which a stream of men, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, and even high school teenagers al flock to Lulu’s door in hopes of getting a piece of this amoral nymphomaniac. It’s like watching a train wreck, but Berg’s view is hinted at in the Prologue in which an “animal trainer” introduces Lulu as more animal than human. In the last act, now working as a prostitute. Lulu is stabbed to death by Jack the Ripper.

The music to which this seedy story is set is even more complex and edgy than the composer’s more famous (and popular) Wozzeck. It is far from easy listening. Lovers of conventional opera don’t even consider it musical. But musical it most certainly is; in fact, if you listen to it a number of times and follow the thread of a different “voice” or instrumental family each time, you will quickly discover just how tightly the musical web is woven and what a great work of genius it is.

Yet the plot remains controversial, as does the question of interpretation. In this remarkable 1991 live performance, Patricia Wise invests Lulu’s music with an extraordinary range of vocal color, legato phrasing and extraordinary delicacy. In doing so she presents the character as someone who doesn’t quite understand the power of her attraction, which is the way actress Louise Brooks played the character in G.B. Pabst’s classic silent film (Pandora’s Box) based on the same Frank Wiedekind story. With this interpretation of the main character, the others around her—particularly Dr. Schön and his son Alwa—are likewise presented in a slightly more sympathetic light. This humanizes the opera and takes some of the ugly edge off it. Some reviewers of this recording don’t like this; they want the purely animalistic Lulu and her depraved, oversexed cartoon lovers back. But to me it makes a lot more sense.

So too does Jeffrey Tate’s astonishing conducting. He seems to take the view that because Berg was Viennese that the music should be conducted in a Viennese style, i.e. with more legato than usual and a touch of schmaltz. And oddly, it works superbly. For the first time since the Karl Böhm recording of the incomplete, two-act version form 1968, the music has an ebb and flow that draws the listener in rather than repelling him or her. I was absolutely riveted by the collective performance of this cast and conductor and could not stop listening until the opera was over. Everything flows and falls into place, even though Bobo Schwanbeck as the animal trainer and 83-year-old Hans Hotter as Schigolch have somewhat unsteady voices. The sheer brilliance of the overall vocal acting (despite the fact that Brigitte Fassbaender’s Countess is a bit over-the-top) and conducting just mesmerize you from start to finish and make you realize what is missing in the cold, unfeeling Pierre Boulez recording. I’ve had the Boulez recording in my collection since the late 1970s. I listened to it perhaps twice in all those years. I’ve already listened to this one three times and I just recently acquired it. It is a gem, so good that it has earned my rare 6 fish rating!

BERG: Wozzeck / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar. (Wozzeck); Helmut Melchert, tenor (Drum Major); Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (Andres); Gerhard Stolze, tenor (Hauptmann); Karl Christian Kohn, baritone (Doctor); Evelyn Lear, soprano (Marie); Berlin Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Karl Böhm, conductor / also includes two-act version of BERG: Lulu / DGG 435705

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BERG: Wozzeck / Carl Johan Falkman, baritone (Wozzeck); Katarina Dalayman, soprano (Marie); Ulrik Qvale, tenor (Hauptman); Sten Wahlund, baritone (Doctor); Lennart Stregaard, tenor (Drum Major); Klas Hedlund, tenor (Andres); Henry Törnblom, boy treble (Marie’s Child); Stockholm Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Leif Segerstam, conductor / Naxos 8.660076/7

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Two superb recordings of Wozzeck, made nearly 40 years apart. The Böhm recording is rather difficult to find, but the original issue, at least, came with a full libretto (and included, as a bonus, the two-act version of Lulu, also with Evelyn Lear). The Segerstam recording is sans libretto but provides surprisingly strong competition to the DGG issue. Although both get five fish, I give the edge to the Böhm recording, not necessarily because of Fischer-Dieskau—Falkman is a terrific, almost frightening Wozzeck—but because of the much more intense and surrealistic performances of the Captain by Gerhard Stolze and the Doctor by Karl Christian Kohn, as well as the slightly more flexible conducting of Böhm (although my regular readers know that I greatly admire Segerstam as well, particularly in modern music). Of course the digital sound of the Naxos recording is superior to DGG’s analog studio sound, but that’s for the high-resolution freaks to woorry about. You might want both.

Incidentally, the finest video performance I’ve yet seen of this opera is the Arthaus Musik issue of a Hanburg Opera production from the late 1960s with Toni Blankenheim as Wozzeck and the great Sena Jurinac as Marie…although Jurinac sings an unwritten high D-flat in her aria!

Berlioz, Hector

BERLIOZ: Béatrice et Bénédict / Ileana Cotrubas, soprano (Héro); Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano (Béatrice); Placido Domingo, tenor (Bénédict); Nadine Denize, mezzo-soprano (Ursule); John Macurdy, bass (Don Pedro); Roger Soyer, bass (Claudio); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone (Somarone); Geneviève Page, narrator; Paris Orchestra & Chorus; Daniel Barenboim, conductor (1979) Brilliant Classics 93923

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BERLIOZ: Béatrice et Bénédict / Combined performance: Anne-Catherine Gillet, soprano (Hero); Joyce Di Donato, mezzo-soprano (Beatrice); Charles Workman, tenor (Benedict); Nicolas Cavallier, bass (Don Pedro); Jean-François Lapointe, baritone (Claudio); Christophe Fel, speaker (Leonato); Eve-Maud Hubeaux, contralto (Ursule); Lionel Lhote, baritone (Somarone); Chœur de Radio France; Chœur et Orch. Symphonique de Monnaie; Jeremie Rhorer, conductor; Orchestre National de France; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / combine these two performances by clicking on names: Rhorer, Davis

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The best integral recording of Berlioz’ last opera is the Barenboim set, once available on Deutsche Grammophon and then, briefly, on Brilliant Classics. Not only is the conducting outstanding, but so are the singers, even Placido Domingo whose voice I normally dislike, but as of right now the Brilliant Classics release seems to be defunct. The only way you can get it now is on the 10-CD set of Barenboim’s complete Berlioz recordings and, to be honest, not all of them are so great that the boxed set is worth it, Thus I created this combined performance as an alternative.

I originally recommended the John Nelson studio recording, but after several times of listening to it I decided I just couldn’t take Jean-Luc Viala’s pinched, thin, shrill-sounding tenor voice as Bénédict, Sylvia McNair’s dull performance of Hero, Susan Graham’s way-too-cool-sounding Béatrice and the “canned” sound that robbed the work of its theatrical liveliness. But what to do? The Rhorer performance, the best-conducted I’ve ever heard, had absolutely awful singers as Béatrice (Stephanie d’Oustrac), Bénédict (Sebastien Droy) and Don Pedro (Frederic Caton) while the Davis performance had three outstanding singers—Joyce Di Donato, Charles Workman and Jean-François Lapointe—but absolutely terrible ones in the other major roles (Hero, Ursule and Somarone). Happily, I was able to just splice the scenes with the two lovers and Claudio into the Rhorer performance, and presto! I had a great, lively, really funny and very well-sung performance. I strongly recommend that you do the same. You’re welcome.

BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini / Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano (Teresa); Marcello Giordani, tenor (Cellini); John Del Carlo, bass-bar. (Balducci); Patrick Carfizzi, bass-baritone (Bernardino); Bernard Fitch, tenor (Cabaretier); Kristine Jepson, mezzo (Ascanio); Robert Lloyd, bass (Pope Clement VII); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; James Levine, conductor / Metropolitan Opera 10044552, available for order here (live: December 27, 2003)

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BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini / Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini); Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa); Darren Jeffery, bass (Balducci); Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca); Andrew Kennedy, tenor (Francesco); Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio); Jacques Imbrailo, baritone (Pompeo); John Relyea, bass (Pope Clement VII); Andrew Foster-Williams, bass (Bernadino); Alasdair Elliott, tenor (Cabaretier); London Symphony Chorus & Orch.; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / LSO 0123D (live: London, June 26 & 29, 2007)

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Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’ first completed opera, was a flop in its day but the one closest to his heart due to its boundless energy and wild musical ideas. Believe me when I tell you, this is the greatest performance of it you will ever hear. All of the singers are flying on this one and so is conductor Levine, from back in the day before illness and back problems sapped some of his conducting strength. Happily, this is one of the few classic Met broadcasts that the opera company has made available on CD, so grab it before it disappears.

Right up there in quality, however, is Colin Davis’ second, and greater, recording of the opera, made in two concert performances in 2007. If anything, soprano Laura Claycombe, tenor Gregory Kunde. and basses John Relyea and Andrew Foster-Williams are even better than their Met counterparts. Davis’ conducting is even sprighlier than Levine’s (his performance fits on two CDs instead of three), and uses the Weimar edition of the score which reinstates the original spoken dialogue (don’t worry, there’s not that much of it) in place of the sung recitatives that Berlioz had to write for the Paris Opera production. Plus, it’s easier to find/

BERLIOZ: La Damnation de Faust / Stuart Burrows, tenor (Faust); Donald McIntyre, bass (Mephitopheles); Edith Mathis, mezzo (Marguerite); Thomas Paul, bass (Brander); Boston Symphony Orchestra; Tanglewood Festival Chorus; Seiki Ozawa, conductor / Pentatone Classics 5186 212

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When this recording was first issued, and for several years thereafter, Donald McIntyre was criticized for his somewhat blustery Mephistopheles, lacking in Gallic subtlety, but I don’t find it nearly as bad as others do. More importantly, Stuart Burrows (one of my all-time favorite tenors) and Edith Mathis sound much more involved than do Nicolai Gedda and Janet Baker on the old Georges Prêtre recording (EMI) or David Poleri and Suzanne Danco on the even older Charles Munch recording (RCA-Sony). Even better is the absolutely blistering conducting of young Seiji Ozawa, who takes this somewhat rambling score and pulls it together so that its structure is as tight as a drum. And wait ‘til you hear the “Ride to the Abyss”! The sonics are so spectacular on this recording, originally made in Quadraphonic sound but not issued that way on LP, tha you will feel as if you are going over the cliff yourself. Unbelievably exciting!

BERLIOZ: L’Enfance du Christ / Florence Kopleff, mezzo-soprano (Marie); Gérard Souzay, baritone (Joseph); Cesare Valletti, tenor (Recitant); Giorgio Tozzi, bass (Herod/Father); Boston Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Charles Munch, conductor / RCA-BMG 61234 (also includes Les Nuits d’Été by Leontyne Price and Fritz Reiner)

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No two ways about it, Charles Munch’s L’Enfance du Christ is still the best. This is the one Berlioz work that relies more on quiet lyricism than stunning effects to make its point, which made it his most popular piece during his lifetime (“Why can’t he always compose like this?” audience members were heard to say). The young Johannes Brahms was also a huge fan of this work. The highly underrated and now-forgotten mezzo Florence Kopleff sings superbly here, and we have real luxury casting with Cesare Valletti, Gérard Souzay and Giorgio Tozzi. The “Living Stereo” sound still holds up amazingly well, too. As for the Price-Reiner Les Nuits d’Été, eh, it’s OK, not even close to my favorite version, but it makes a nice filler.

BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy / Carlton Cooley, viola; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy: I. Harold aux montagnes (Scènes de mélancolie); II. Marche des pèlerins chantant la prière du soir; III. Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abruzzes à sa maîtresse; IV. Orgie de brigands (Souvenirs des scènes précédentes) / Gérard Caussé, violist; Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse; Michel Plasson, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking movement titles above

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I admit my prejudice towards the Toscanini recording of Harold in Italy, as it was not only the first of his recordings I ever heard (age 11) but the first real classical piece I ever heard (my father had plebian tastes; to him, classical music was Mantovani and 101 Strings). Yet I still feel that, despite his slight rewrite of the end of the first movement, it is the single most thrilling and perfectly-balanced version I’ve ever heard…and for once, the Carnegie Hall sonics are warm and inviting, not harsh and forbidding. Just listen to the subtle way he constantly builds up and releases tension in the second movement “March of the Pilgrims”…no one else in all the years since has duplicated this feat.

The Michel Plasson recording, however, is a close second for me, with solo and orchestral playing that will knock your socks off. This is the best stereo and/or digital recording I’ve ever heard, but it’s no longer available as a hard disc. Why? Because Warner Classics, which now owns all EMI recordings, is suppressing it in favor of the newer, larer recording that violist Gérard Caussé made with John Eliot Gardiner, a far inferior performance. Yet another reason to hate record companies!

BERLIOZ: Lélio, ou le Retour à la Vie / Jean-Louis Barrault, narrator; John Mitchinson, tenor; John Shirley-Quirk, baritone; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, conductor / Sony Classical 884977278170 (with Symphonie Fantastique, Les Nuits d’Été and La Mort de Cléopatre)

5-fish

Since I was never much of a Pierre Boulez fan—I generally found his performances to be cold and, surprisingly enough for someone who marketed himself as a stickler for following the score, often inaccurate in tempo or in the actual notes played—when I heartily recommend one of his recordings, as I do here, you’d better believe it’s great. Unlike the Symphonie Fantastique on this set, which is one of the soggiest wet blankets I’ve ever heard, this 1967 recording of Lélio is the best going, not that the field is all that crowded to begin with. In fact, the only other versions I’ve ever found and heard were those by Colin Davis (very exciting but lacking the narration), Jean Martinon (with narration but unevenly sung), and Riccardo Muti (same as Martinon). Yes, it’s an uneven work, but there are so many beautiful and/or stunning moments in the score that it’s worth getting. All things considered, the singing of Brits John Mitchinson and John Shirley-Quirk sounds surprisingly French in style and accent, and the whole thing is wonderfully alive and propulsive.

BERLIOZ: La Mort de Cléopatre / Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / Sony Classical 60696 (with Harold in Italy) or available for free streaming on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

5-fish

BERLIOZ: La Mort de Cleopatre / Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano; London Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Gibson, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

5-fish

Two superb versions of Berlioz’ non-prize-winning masterpiece, and one could say three if you add in the mono version that Tourel and Bernstein made in the early 1950s…but I prefer hearing it in stereo, and there is no loss of performance quality in this later version. Tourel had a much lighter, smaller voice than Baker, but was a master of expression and phrasing, and Bernstein’s conducting is absolutely terrific here. Baker has greater vocal resources and acts out the music more, but Alexander Gibson is just very good where Bernstein pulls out all the stops. I say get both, what the heck!

BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d’Été / Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Royal Opera Covent Garden Orchestra; John Nelson, conductor / Sony Classical 62730 or available for free streaming on YouTube

5-fish

BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d’Été / Shannon Mercer, soprano; Group of Twenty-Seven; Eric Paetkau, conductor / Centaur 3239 or available for free streaming on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

5-fish

Again, two recordings, and this time hard to choose. Susan Graham was born to sing this song cycle, and she delivers the most interesting and seductive performance since Eleanor Steber’s old mono recording for Columbia. John Nelson, as usual conducts superbly, but I can’t give it six fish because the sound engineer chose to record the orchestra too opaquely, so that certain details are lost. (I’m familiar enough with Nelson’s conducting methods and style over a period of decades to know that he had nothing to do with this…none of his other recordings sound this way.) The latter recording is perhaps not quite as deeply sung, but Shannon Mercer is shockingly good for someone not normally known for being a Berlioz specialist, and here the “Group of Twenty Seven” produce a crystal-clear performance of the orchestral score. I give both of them five fish.

BERLIOZ: Overtures: Benvenuto Cellini, Les Francs-Juges, Roman Carnival, Waverly / London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / part of Berlioz Box on Philips

5-fish

In addition to the above, I also like very much the performances of Les Francs-Juges and Roman Carnival Overture by Arturo Toscanini, of Benvenuto Cellini by Pierre Monteux with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris (see Symphonie Fantastique), and of all but the Waverly by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

BERLIOZ: Requiem (Grande Messe de Morts) / Stuart Burrows, tenor; Chœurs de Radio France; Orchestra National de France; Leonard Bernstein, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

6-fish

BERLIOZ: Requiem (Grande Messe de Morts) / Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Cologne Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Dmitri Mitropoulos, conductor / ICA Classics 5075 (also available for streaming on YouTube in segments)

5-fish

In addition to all the things necessary to pull off a great performance and/or recording of this fiendishly difficult work, chief among them is atmosphere, particularly in the Dies irae where Berlioz has three separate brass choirs playing from different locations in the balcony section. When heard in person, this creates a stupendous surround-sound effect that, when the full orchestra comes crashing in with them, really does sound like the Day of Judgment, but capturing this on records is a real challenge. I’ve only heard three recordings that really pull it off, the two above and the Sir Roger Norrington recording with a so-so tenor—and the tenor really does need to be superb, particularly in those high, soft, arching phrases that are the bane of so many tenors. I give the Bernstein six fish because it is probably THE greatest recorded performance of Leonard Bernstein’s life, given in the same church where the original premiere took place. The Mitropoulos suffers a bit from mono sound, but it’s surprisingly atmospheric and Nicolai Gedda edges out Stuart Burrows just a bit in terms of idiomatic French pronunciation.What the heck, get them both!

BERLIOZ: Rêverie et Caprice for Violin & Orchestra, Op. 8 / Itzhak Perlman, violinist; Orchestre de Paris; Daniel Barenboim, conductor / available on YouTube

5-fish

A rare early piece for violin and orchestra, played to perfection by Perlman and Barenboim. Plus, it’s available for free, so what are you waiting for?

BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette / unknown singers; Prague Festival Chorus & Orchestra; Carlos Païta, conductor / Lodia 801

6-fish

BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette / Gladys Swarthout, mezzo-soprano; John Garris, tenor; Nicola Moscona, bass; Westminster Choir; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available as purchased downloads on Amazon

4-and-a-half-fish

Two live performances that really get under the skin of the music, producing rip-roaring versions that simply can’t be topped. Quite obviously, the Païta is the preferred version because it’s in stereo (analog, late 1970s), but if you find a good pressing of the Toscanini you’ll be amazed at the sheer audacity and interesting moments of rubato produced in this performance. Both the “Queen Mab scherzo” and “Love Scene” in this 1947 live performance of the complete work are superior to any of Toscanini’s studio recordings of this same music.

Ironically, the names of the superb singers on the Païta recording are lost to history. When I reviewed this as a reissue, I wrote an e-mail to Païta’s management asking them who the singers were, since they’re not identified anywhere on the box or booklet and I couldn’t find any link to the Prague Festival with information on this concert. He wrote back that Maestro Païta didn’t recall who they were, and apparently no one bothered to write the information down and include it in the box with the master tape! Still, I give it six fish because it really is the best version ever. Toscanini only gets four-and-a-half, but mostly because of the dry, limited sonics, not for any performance deficiency. You’ll have to pay for these downloads, but there are only three of them, so the full work will only cost you $2.97 (maybe plus tax).

BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / London Symphony Orchestra; Felix Weingartner, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

4-fish

BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Orchestra Symphonique de Paris; Pierre Monteux, conductor / Music & Arts 4762 or available for free streaming on YouTube

4-fish

BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / RCA-BMG, also available for free download here.

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BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique. Harold en Italie. Romeo et Juliette: excerpts. Mort de Cleopatre* / *Jennie Tourel, mezzo; New York Philharmonic Orch.; Leonard Bernstein, cond / Urania WS 121.195 (Symphonie also available for free streaming on YouTube)

6-fish

What? Four recommended recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique? As Sarah Palin would say, You betcha! The Weingertner recording, from 1925, has by far the most limited sonics—it’s an electrical recording, but made at the very dawn of this process—yet somehow he manages to bring out more detail than almost any stereo or digital recording I’ve ever heard of it. He also tears through the Symphonie with more drive and restless energy than I’ve ever heard in my life, even more than Charles Munch’s mono (1954) recording, and the LSO provides more accurate playing. This early Monteux recording, from five years later, is only marginally better in sound quality but nearly its equal in gut-busting energy. Both only get four fish, however, due to the limited sound.

Charles Munch also left us an exciting but messy 1954 mono performance and a live stereo version with the Orchestre de Paris from 1967, but it’s this 1962 studio recording that’s the real masterpiece, and my all-round favorite version of this difficult symphony. He just hits all the right tempi and pours plenty of energy into this great performance.

With that being said, I also recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1963 recording with the New York Philharmonic. Only Bernstein, among classical conductors, knew what it really felt like to get high because he did so quite often, and this performance is an emotional roller-coaster you won’t soon forget. He re-recorded it in 1968 with the New York Philharmonic and again in 1976 with the Orchestre National de France, but the problem with the two later recordings is not that they aren’t good—they are—but that they’re not particularly individual sounding. On the contrary, they sound like clones of Charles Munch’s approach whereas the 1963 recording is sui generis. As for the fillers, only the Mort de Cleopatre with the great Jennie Tourel is really outstanding, but you may want to own it on CD rather than just streaming it online.

BERLIOZ: Symphonie Funèbre et Trionphale / John Alldis Choir; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / part of Berlioz Box on Philips 456143, also available for free streaming on YouTube

6-fish

In my view the most underrated of all of Berlioz’ compositions, this is one of only two recordings of it I’ve ever heard (the other was under a French conductor, on Nonesuch, without the chorus, although I see that Simon Rattle has made a recording of it), but this performance is absolutely sizzling and I love it and that’s that!

BERLIOZ: Te Deum: I. Te Deum; II. Tibi omnes; III. Dignare; IV. Christe, rex gloriae; V. Te ergo quaesumus; VI. Judex crederis / Jean Dupouy, tenor; Jean Guillou, organist; Le Choeur d’enfente de Paris; Le Choeur et l’Orchestre de Paris; Daniel Barenboim, conductor / Sony Classical G010003771025G, or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking movement titles above

6-fish

Another underrated Berlioz composition, perhaps not as much so as the Symphonie Funèbre, the Te Deum is not as brilliant a composition but has some extraordinary moments. This recording combines three exceptional talents and is a wonderful performance that has fallen through the cracks because it was recorded in 1977, near the end of the analog era. Fortunately, it is avilable for free streaming on YouTube. Accept no substitutes!

BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (slightly abridged) / Marilyn Horne, mezzo (Cassandre); Risona Cavicchioli, soprano (Ascagne); Giovanna Fiorini, soprano (Hécube/Anna); Mina Miladri, mezzo-soprano (Polyxène); Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Enée); Robert Massard, baritone (Chorèbe/Ghost); Federico Davià, bass (Ghost of Hector); Plinio Clabassi, bass (Priam/Ghost of Priam); Veriano Luchetti, tenor (Hélénus/Iopas); Shirley Verrett, mezzo-soprano (Dido); Carlo Gaifa, tenor (Hylas); Boris Carmeli, bass (Narbal); RAI Rome Orchestra & Chorus; Georges Prêtre, conductor / Opera d’Oro 1376 (3 CDs, live May 30, 1969)

5-fish

The live Prêtre set remains, for me, the touchstone in this opera in so many respects, despite the fact that it is slightly abridged and the complaint of critics who don’t like their Berlioz conducted at a fast clip as Berlioz himself preferred. They complain that it sounds like a race to the finish, but to my ears this is only somewhat problematic in the Dido-Enée love duet, “Nuit d’ivresse.” Otherwise, this is a performance for the ages. Marilyn Horne is at her very best here, singing with dramatic bite and energy that she rarely displayed in the recording studio; Gedda’s voice, though lighter in weight than you might ideally want for Enée, sounds more comfortable and more clearly in “command” of the situation than any other tenor; Massard is an ideal Chorèbe, Verrett is, for me, one of the greatest of all Didos, and we have a bonus with the superb tenor Luchetti cast as Iopas. Although in stereo the sound is a little boxy—this was, after all, a radio broadcast—but it hasn’t dated that badly. 4 1/2 fish only because of the cuts.

BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (in English) / Josephine Veasey, mezzo-soprano (Cassandre); Robert Kerns, baritone (Chorèbe/His Ghost); Richard van Allen, bass (Panthée); Stafford Dean, bass (Narbal); Dennis Wicks, bass (Hector’s Ghost/2nd sentry/Greek captain); Paul Hudson, bass (2nd Sentinel); Anne Pashley, soprano (Ascagne); Jon Vickers, tenor (Énée); Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano (Didon); Heather Begg, contralto (Anna); Derek Blackwell, tenor (Hylas); Bill Clothier, bass (Priam/Mercure/Trojan Soldier); Francis Egerton, tenor (Iopas); David Lennox, tenor (Helenus); Margaret Williams, sop (Hécube/Cassandra’s Ghost); Michael Rippon, baritone (1st sentinel); Wadsworth School Boys’ Choir; Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Royal Opera, Covent Garden Chorus & Orchestra / Opera Depot OD 11239-3, available HERE (live: London, October 7, 1972)

6-fish

My regular readers know that I generally cannot tolerate opera recordings in the wrong language, but I’m making a major exception for this one because it is one of only two surviving performances in which the great Janet Baker sings Didon, albeit in English, paired by the greatest Énée of the 20th century, tenor Jon Vickers. For years I owned Vickers’ studio recording in French, which was pretty good, but pretty good is not great. Several of the tempi in that studio recording are just a bit too slow and both the chorus and orchestra sound as if they phoned their parts in. Also, although Josephine Veasey was a pretty good Didon, pretty good is not great. Other improvements in this performance are Richard van Allen as Panthée and Dennis Wicks as Hector’s Ghost. but you have to get this recording to hear the Vickers-Baker collaboration in pretty good stereo sound (there is also a 1969 performance, but the sound on that is not  very good). The performance is slightly abridged, mostly the ephemeral ballet music, but the “Royal Hunt and Storm” is complete.

BERLIOZ: Les Troyens / Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano (Cassandre); Peter Mattei, baritone (Chorèbe/His Ghost); Tigran Martirossian, bass (Panthée); Stephen Milling, bass (Narbal); Orlin Anastassov, bass (Hector’s Ghost/Greek captain); Roderick Earle, bass (2nd Sentinel); Isabelle Cais, soprano (Ascagne); Ben Heppner, tenor (Énée); Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano (Didon) Sara Mingardo, contralto (Anna); Toby Spence, tenor (Hylas); Alan Ewing, bass (Priam/Ghost of Priam); Guang Yang, soprano (Hécube/Cassandra’s Ghost); Kenneth Tarver, tenor (Iopas); Bulent Bezduz, tenor (Helenus); Lee Melrose, baritone (1st sentinel); Mark Stone, bass (Greek captain/Sailor); London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Sir Colin Davis, conductor / LSO Live 0010

6-fish

Despite the fact that Ben Heppner merely sounds dramatic and not monumental, as Jon Vickers did (and Gary Lakes tried to) and that although Michelle DeYoung acts pretty well with her voice as Didon she is not Janet Baker or even Josephine Veasey, I’ve come around on this recording because Colin Davis’ conducting is much more exciting than it was in 1969 and the orchestra has that lean sound with “bite” in the strings and winds that is essential to a good Berlioz performance.

One thought on “Composers – Be

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