PACINI: Saffo / Leyla Gencer, soprano (Saffo); Louis Quilico, baritone (Alcandro); Franca Mattiucci, mezzo (Climene); Tito del Bianco, tenor (Faone); Vittorio Maniachi, mezzo (Dirce); Mario Guggia, tenor (Ippia); Maurizio Piancente, bass (Lisimaco); Teatro San Carlo Orchestra and Chorus; Franco Capuana, conductor / Opera d’Oro 1450 or available for free streaming on YouTube
By his own admission, Giovanni Pacini wrote a dozen or more formulaic operas and one masterpiece that he spent a long time gestating. Saffo is that masterpiece. Yes, it sounds a lot like early Verdi except that it was produced before Verdi wrote his best early operas. This performance, featuring the great soprano Leyla Gencer in the title role, has long been considered the best available despite the somewhat boxy mono sound.
PAGANINI: La campanella / Bronislaw Huberman, violinist; Paul Frenkel, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
PAGANINI: Moto perpetuo / Jascha Heifetz, violinist; André Benoist, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
These, the two most famous showpieces of Paganini, are given stupendous performances here by the legendary Bronislaw Huberman (the first) and 17-year-old Jascha Heifetz (the second). The fact that they are acoustic recordings detracts somewhat from the rating, but you just don’t hear playing like this nowadays in our era of little robot-machines. Note that they both knew how to shade the music, not just spit out notes like a machine gun.
PAGANINI: 24 Caprices, Op. 1 / Edson Scheid, violinist / Naxos 9.70264 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
No one comes close to Edson Scheid, a relatively little-known violinist, in the performances of these sprightly but fiendishly difficult works. Thank you.
PAGANINI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 4 / Alexandre Dubach, violinist; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; Michel Sasson, conductor / Claves 50-9204, also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on concerto numbers above
PAGANINI: Violin Concertos Nos. 2 & 5 / Alexandre Dubach, violinist; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo; Michel Sasson, conductor / Claves 50-9408, also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on concerto numbers above
Just as Edson Scheid plays the Caprices better than anyone else, French violinist Alexandre Dubach owns the violin concerti. Yes, he also recorded Concerti Nos 3 & 6, and they, too, are available on CD and on YouTube, but the music of those works doesn’t grab me very much.
PAPANDOPULO: Concerto for Xylophone & String Orchestra / Ivana Bilic, xylophone; Copenhagen String Ensemble / available for free streaming on YouTube
PAPANDOPULO: Piano Concerto No. 3: I. Moderato; II. Andante tranquillo; III. Molto più mosso / Oliver Triendl, pianist; Rijeka Opera Symphony Orchestra; Ville Matvejeff, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on movement titles above
PAPANDOPULO: Quintet for Clarinet & Strings / Seregio Delmastro, clarinetist; Zagreb Quartet / available for free streaming on YouTube
PAPANDOPULO: Sinfonietta, Op. 79: Perpetuum mobile / Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra; Kazushi Ono, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
The music of the little-known Boris Papandopulo—exciting, pointillistic, and filled with imaginative ideas—is among the best-kept secrets in the music world. These pieces are a perfect introduction to his sound world, and the performances are exemplary.
PÄRT: The Deer’s Cry. Morning Star. Most Holy Mother of God. Peace Upon You, Jerusalem / Ars Nova Copenhagen / My Heart’s in the Highlands / Else Torp, soprano; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organist / Psalom. Solfeggio / NYYD Quartet / Stabat Mater / Else Torp, soprano; William Purefoy, countertenor; Chris Watson, tenor; NYYD Quartet / Veni creator / Theatre of Voices; Ars Nova Copenhagen; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organist / Ein Wallfahrtslied / Chris Watson, tenor; Paul Hiller, baritone; NYYD Quartet / Harmonia Mundi 807553
A little of Pärt’s religious music, deeply felt and interesting in construction, goes a long way. This is my favorite compilation of his music.
PELOSI: Piano Trio / Piotr Tarcholik, violinist; Lukasz Frant, cellist; Monika Wilinska-Tarcholik, pianist / Woodwind Quartet / Joanna Dziewor, flautist; Arkadiusz Krupa, oboist; Aleksander Tesarczyk, clarinetist; Krzysztof Fiedukiewicz, bassoonist / Elegy for Brass Quintet (Revisited) / Stanislaw Dziewor, Benedykt Matusik, trumpeters; Tadeusz Tomaszewski, hornist; Michal Mazurkiewicz, trombonist; Jakub Urbanczyk, tubist / String Quartet No. 3 / Piotr Tarcholik, Kinga Tomaszewska, violinists; Darinsz Korcz, violist; Zdzislaw Lapinski, cellist / KASP 57721, available from CD Baby
PELOSI: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 / Piotr Tarcholik, Kinga Tomaszewska, violinists; Darinsz Korcz, violist; Zdzislaw Lapinski, cellist / Prayer Suite / Piotr Tarcholik, violinist; Monika Wilinska-Tarcholik, pianist / KASP 57701, available from CD Baby
PELOSI: 13 Preludes & Fugues with Epilogue for Piano / Mateusz Borowiak, pianist / KASP 57731, available from CD Baby
Here is proof positive that there are great composers out there you’ve never heard of. Louis Pelosi, who lost his wife Rosemarie Koczÿ in 2007, is a composer of complex, deftly-woven works that are essentially tonal yet veer off constantly into more modern harmonic terrain. And these are real, solid works, on a par with anything I have heard come from the pen of any 20th-century composer. Pelosi’s style, entirely his own, leans on techniques from other composers but does not take any of them outright. These are fresh, innovative pieces that will grab your attention and not let you go.
When I reviewed these CDs for Fanfare in 2013, I noted that Pelosi chose to work completely outside the academic system, earning his living as a piano tuner. His scores vacillate between lyricism and dense counterpoint, always with something important to say. He is also a very concise writer; not a note or phrase in any of these works is superfluous or one moment longer than it needs to be.
None of these works or excerpts from them seem to be available online for free streaming, but I passionately urge you to acquire these discs. They are absolutely remarkable. The only slight drawback, to my ears, is the excessively dry acoustic, but that is a small nit to pick for such a rewarding listening experience.
Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista
PERGOLESI: The Music Master / Frances Greer, soprano (Loretta); Donald Dame, tenor (Lamberto); Mordecai Bauman, baritone (Coligiani); The Allegro Chamber Ensemble; George Schick, conductor / available for free streaming at the Internet Archive
PERGOLESI: La Serva Padrona / Anna Moffo, soprano (Serpina); Paolo Montarsolo, bass (Uberto); Rome Philharmonic Orchestra; Franco Ferrara, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube in six parts, beginning here.
PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater / Katia Ricciarelli, soprano; Lucia Valentini-Terrani, mezzo; Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra Members; Claudio Abbado, conductor / EuroArts DVD 2072378 or available for free streaming on YouTube
PERGOLESI: Tre giorni son che Nina / Tito Schipa, tenor; Alberto Sciaretti, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, ugly and deformed, lived only 26 years but in that short time span wrote two of the most enduring works in the Italian catalogue, the comic “intermezzo” La Serva Padrona and his even more famed Stabat Mater. Ironically, I find La Serva Padrona lacking in sparkle and imagination next to The Music Master, said to have been written by Pergolesi in conjunction with two of his composition pupils (unnamed). This performance of the latter, though sung in English, is without doubt the funniest and most sparkling you’ll ever hear in your life. Only 3 ½ stars, though, due to the unnaturally dry, pinched sound quality. The sound is a bit better (albeit with tape hum) in La Serva Padrona. Although this is my favorite performance of this work, I admit that I’m not very happy with Anna Moffo’s coy, affected acting, but she’s wonderful to listen to, and Montarsolo is perfect for the role of Uberto.
Purists will undoubtedly turn their nose up at my choice for the Stabat Mater, but I don’t care. For me, this is the most beautiful and affecting performance ever recorded. Tre giorni son che Nina is now attributed to another composer, Vincenzo Ciampi, but until they come up with an autograph score that has Ciampi’s signature on it, I’m not buying it. Schipa’s recording is by far the most affecting you will ever hear.
PEROS: When Roses Cease to Bloom, Sir. I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed. So Set its Sun in Thee. My Love is in a Light Attire. Tell Me, Tell Me Smiling Child. I Gazed Upon the Cloudless Moon. Lonely at Her Window Sitting. Was it With the Fields of Green. Morning’s First Light is Gold. Today a Bird Came Down to Me. She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways. Sleep Brings No Joy to Me. The Soft Unclouded Blue of Air. I Know Not How it Falls on Me. ‘Twas One of Those Dark Cloudy Days. O Evening, Why is Thy Light So Sad? Mild the Mist Upon the Hill. She Rested by the Broken Brook. Eight O’Clock. With Rue My Heart is Laden. Her Strong Enchantments Falling. I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest. Still Beside That Dreary Water. The Sun Has Set. Awaking Morning Laughs from Heaven. Fall, Leaves, Fall. There Are Two Trees in a Lonely Field. She Dried Her Tears. Virtue. Eternity. Ah, Sunflower! / Heidi Klann, sop; Alayne Hall, pn / Phoenix 1439, or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual titles above
The exquisitely beautiful and well-written songs of Nick Peros, a Canadian composer and former rock musician, may come as a pleasant surprise to many listeners. These songs have great appeal to all listeners, the more so because of the pure singing and clear diction of soprano Heidi Klann.
PIAZZOLLA: Adios Nonino. Lo que vendrá. Oblivion. Prepárense / Michel Tirabosco, panpipes; Jean-Marie Reboul, pn / part of Gallo 1273 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above
PIAZZOLLA: Libertango / Joanna MacGregor, pn / available for free streaming on YouTube
PIAZZOLLA: Adios Nonino. Balada para un loco. Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas: I, II, III, IV. Escualo. Fracanapa. Introduccion al angel. Jeanne y Paul. Milonga del angel. Revirado. Vardarito / Tomas Cotik, vln; Tao Lin, pn / Naxos 8.573789 or available for free streaming by clicking on individual titles above
The classical tangos of Astor Piazzolla have, if anything, found an even larger audience since his death in 1992. The only problem I have with them is that the tango, a popular dance in Argentina, is extremely limited in both rhythm and harmony for classical composition, but the performances listed above are, in my view, the most interesting and exciting ever recorded.
PICKARD: Binyon Songs; The Borders of Sleep / Roderick Williams, baritone; Simon Leppere, pianist / The Phoenix / Eve Daniell, soprano; Simon Leppere, pianist / Toccata Classics 0413 or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits
PICKARD: Channel Firing. The Flight of Icarus. The Spindle of Necessity / Christian Lindberg, trombone; Norkköping Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins, conductor / Bis 1578 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above.
PICKARD: Eden. Symphony No. 4, “Gaia Symphony”: I. Tsunami; II. Wildfire; III. Aurora; IV. Men of Stone / Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag; Andreas Hanson, conductor / Bis 2061 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above.
British composer John Pickard is noted for his edgy, modern orchestral scores, and the first two CDs listed above will give you a good example of his work. Pickard is different from many such composers nowadays because he manages to “speak” in one than more musical dialect, thus his music has more variety than the average composer. The performances by Martyn Brabbins and Andreas Hanson are excellent.
The first album listed contains all of Pickard’s vocal music to date. This is written in a very different style from his orchestral works: lyrical and mostly tonal, at times channeling Vaughan Williams and at other times Britten. Baritone Roderick Williams had a bit of a flutter, but his voice is warm and lovely and he is a first-class musician and interpreter. Soprano Eve Daniell is another matter; her voice is thin, shrill and nasal, which is why I only give it four stars, though the music on here is all first-rate.
PISTON: Symphony No. 4 / Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
PISTON: Symphony No. 6: I. Fleundo espressivo; II. Leggierissimo vivace; III. Adagio sereno; IV. Allegro energico / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on movement titles above
PISTON: Symphony No. 7 / Louisville Orchestra; Jorge Mester, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Once a frequent name on American concert programs even into the early 1970s, Walter Piston has rather dropped off into oblivion over the past 30 years, yet as the above works will illustrate he was one of our finest and most fastidious composers. Always interesting and never dull, he said what he had to say with an economy of gesture that many modern composers would do well to emulate. The Ormandy recording of the Fourth Symphony is in mono, hence the reduced rating, but otherwise all is well in the above performances.
PLAKIDIS: “Lake,” a Chamber Cantata: I; II; III. A Last Farewell. Lyrical Cycle: I; II; III. The Red Candle. A Small Diptych: In a Hurry; Gray Day. Sorrowful Song. Three Songs by Māris Čaklais: One Autumn Morning; Auseklis; The Witch’s Song Before Sentencing . Three Poems by Ojārs Vācietis: I; II; III. Trident: I; II; III. Waltz / Maija Krīgena, mezzo-soprano; Uldis Urbāns, English hornist; Riga String Quartet; Juris Lācis, Andrejs Krašousks-Krauze, clarinetists; Imants Sneibis, flautist; Vilnis Pelnēns, oboist; Artūrs Grinups, bassist; Pēteris Plakidis, pianist; Brigita Mieze, organist / Albany 1648, or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
The surprising, original and often stunning beautiful songs of Plakidis will undoubtedly come as a surprise to most music lovers, as he is scarcely a household name, but as you will hear by streaming this music he inhabits his own special sound world. Mezzo-soprano Marija Krīgena has a noticeable flutter in her voice but is an otherwise excellent and expressive singer, and the accompanying musicians on this CD are all first-rate.
PONCE: Balada Mexicana.1 Chapultepec [Tres bocetos sinfónicos]. Concierto de sur (Concerto of the South).2 Danse des anciens mexicains. Estampas Nocturnas. Ferial. Gavota. Instantaneas Mexicanas. Piano Concerto.3 Poema Elegíaco. Violin Concerto4 / 1Eva Suk, 3Jorge Federico Osorio, pianists; 2Alfonso Moreno, guitarist; 4Henryk Szeryng, violinist; 2Orquesta Filarmónica de la cuidad de Mexico; 4Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; The State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra; Enrique Batiz, conductor / part of boxed set, “Musica Mexicana,” Brilliant Classics 8771
Mexican composer Manuel Ponce is largely known for just one song, the evergreen Estrellita, but as the above works will show, he was an outstanding composer in a number of genres.
PONCHIELLI: La Gioconda / Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Gioconda); Giulietta Simionato, mezzo (Laura); Mario del Monaco, tenor (Enzo Grimaldo); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Barnaba); Cesare Siepi, bass (Alvise); Franca Schachi, contralto (La Cieca); Giorgio Giorgetti, bass (Zuàne); Athos Cesarini, tenor (Isèpo); Florence May Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor / Urania 121201 or available for free streaming on YouTube
In a catalog chock full of Giocondas, including two by Maria Callas, the reader is probably puzzling over my pick here. In my mind, it was easy, and not just because this is the finest cast (in my view) ever assembled for this work. The reason I love this recording above all others is that, for once, the conductor pulls all the disparate parts of the opera together and makes them sound like a cohesive whole. No other conductor on no other recording does that, not even such famous names as Giuseppe Patané, Lambereto Gardelli or Adám Fischer. Because of this, all those out-of-style arias that normally sound as if they were spliced in from other operas all seem to fit, and the scenes flow seamlessly. Plus you’ll have a hard time beating any of the principals here except, perhaps, early Callas over Cerquetti (but only by a small margin). Otherwise, this is THE Gioconda to hear.
POULENC: Les Animaux modèles. Les Biches (Ballet). Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel. Deux Marches et un intermède / SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden; Marcello Viotti, conductor / Claves 9111 or available for free streaming on YouTube
These fascinating and delightful orchestral works by Poulenc are played to perfection by the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden under Viotti’s suerb guidance.
POULENC: Air champêtre. Air grave / Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Erik Werba, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
POULENC: Le bestiaire / Pierre Bernac, baritone; Francis Poulenc, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Great historical performances by one of the best singers of French nusic who ever lived (Gedda) and Bernac, Poulenc’s muse and lover for many years, the latter with the composer at the piano.
POULENC: Le bestiaire. Le Bal Masque / Thomas Allen, baritone; Nash Ensemble; Lionel Friend, conductor / part of CRD 3437 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
POULENC: A sa guitarre. Chansons gaillardes. Chansons villageoises (6 songs). Cocardes. Dernier poème. Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon. Le Disparu. Épitaphe. Hymne. Nuage. Parisiana. Paul et Virginie. Pierrot. Poème de Ronsard. Le Portrait. Priez pour Paix. Toréador. Trois chansons de F. Garcia-Lorca / Holger Falk, baritone; Alessadro Zupardo, pianist / MDG 1822
POULENC: Banalités. Le bestiaire. Bleuet. Caligrammes. La Colombe. Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire (1938, 1945, 1948). La Grenouillière. La Puce. Rosemonde. Serpent. La Souris. Trois Poèmes de Louise Lalanne [Apollinaire] / Holger Falk, baritone; Alessadro Zupardo, pianist / MDG 1658
POULENC: Métamorphoses / Karina Gauvin, soprano; Marc-André Hamelin, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube
Poulenc was, above all else, a witty and superior writer of songs. Many of them were written for his lifelong friend and lover, baritone Pierre Bernac, thus baritones often have a leg up on singing his material, but late in life he met the excellent actress and lively soprano Denise Duval, for whom he wrote his short monodrama, La Voix Humaine (see below). The above recordings are my favorites of all in these songs.
POULENC: Capriccio après le “Bal Masque.” L’Embarquement pour Cythère. Elégie en accords alternés. Sonata for Two Pianos / Matteo Fossi, Marco Gaggini, pn / Sonata for Piano Four Hands / Federica Ferrati, Matteo Fossi, pn 4 hands / Sonata for Violin & Piano. Bagatelle d’après le “Bal Masque” / Duccio Ceccanti, vln; Matteo Fossi, pn / Sonata for Cello & Piano. Suite française, d’après Claude Gervaise / Vittorio Ceccanti, cel; Matteo Fossi, pn / Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon. Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon & Horn. Sonata for Flute & Piano. Villanelle for Recorder & Piano. Sonata for Oboe & Piano. Sonata for Clarinet & Piano. Elégie for Horn & Piano / Domenico Orlando, oboe; Claudia Bucchini, fl/recorder; Calogero Palmero, cl; Andrea Zucco, bsn; Geremia Iezzi, Fr hn; Matteo Fossi, pn / Sonata for 2 Clarinets / Palmero, Jean-Luc Voltano, cl / Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon / Palmero, cl; Zucco, bsn / Sonata for Horn, Trumpet & Trombone / Iezzi, Fr hn; Claudio Quintavalla, tpt; Fabiano Fiorenzani, tb / Trois movements perpétuels (vers. for chamber ensemble) / Orlando, oboe; Bucchini, fl; Palmero, cl; Zucco, bsn; Iezzi, Fr hn; Stefano Rava, Eng hn; Duccio Ceccanti, vln; Edoardo Rosadini, vla; Lorenzo Cosi, cel; Petru L. Horvath, bs; Matteo Fossi, cond / Brilliant Classics 95351
This surprising and quite wonderful set of Poulenc’s chamber music features a bevy of relatively unknown performers, all quite excellent, under the general leadership of 39-year-old Italian pianist Matteo Fossi. Whatever it was that prompted all this music to be recorded and issued was clearly an inspired idea, for there is not a mediocre or uninteresting track on this set.
POULENC: Concert Champêtre, Concerto for Harpsichord & Orchestra / Zuzana Růžičková, harpsichordist; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Kurt Sanderling, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
An outstanding performance of one of Poulenc’s most individual works, composed for Růžičková in her younger years but recorded in her later ones. I doubt that this recording will ever be surpassed.
POULENC: Gloria / Rosanna Carteri, soprano; French Radio & TV Chorus / Organ Concerto in G min. / Maurice Duruflé, organist; French National Radio & TV Orchestra; Georges Prêtre, conductor / Pristine Classical 324 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
Two of the finest orchestral and choral works written by Poulenc in recordings made under his supervision. Decent stereo sound, too!
POULENC: La Voix Humaine / Denise Duval, soprano; Orchestre de Théâtre National de Opéra-Comique; Georges Prêtre, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Poulenc’s finest opera, composed for and performed here by Duval.
PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky: Cantata / Vera Soukupova, contralto; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus; Karel Ancerl, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
A performance of searing intensity from a vastly underrated contralto (Soukupova) and a conductor largely admired for his interpretations of Czech and Russian music. This one is a must-have.
PROKOFIEV: Andante, Op. 29b. Divertimento, Op. 43. Symphonic Song, Op. 57. The Prodigal Son (Ballet), part 1, part 2, part 3 / Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Chandos 8728 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above
Prokofiev’s greatest ballet score (The Prodigal Son) is given a stupendous reading in the above album, as are all the other pieces here. Indispensable.
PROKOFIEV: Lt. Kije Suite. Wedding Suite / Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / available for streaming in small bits on YouTube
Another great masterpiece recording by Järvi of what is one of Prokofiev’s most famous and popular scores.
PROKOFIEV: Love for Three Oranges / Mikhail Kit, bass (King of Clubs); Evgeny Akimov, tenor (Prince); Larissa Diadkova, mezzo (Clarissa); Alexander Morozov, baritone (Leander); Vassly Gerello, baritone (Pantalon); Vladimir Vaneev, bass (Mag Cheliy); Larissa Shevchenko, sop (Fata Morgana); Kirov Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Valery Gergiev, conductor / Philips 462913 or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits
What was once not only a very popular opera (in the 1920s) but possibly Prokofiev’s most popular score has since degenerated into only the famous march, which lasts only about a minute in the context of the full score. This outstanding live recording was made at a time, in the 1990s, when Valery Gergiev was truly one of the greatest conductors in the world.
PROKOFIEV: Overture on Hebrew Themes / Serge Prokofiev, pianist; Alexandre Volodin, clarinetist; Beethoven Quartet (Dmitri Tsyganov, Vasily Shirinsky, violinists; Vadim Borisovsky, violist; Sergei Shirinsky, cellist) / available for free streaming on YouTube
Among the many recordings of this popular piece, Prokofiev’s own stands out for the fast tempi and lively rhythmic feel. Of course, the tempo may have been altered to make it fit on two sides of a standard 12-inch 78-rom record, which had a playing time of a little over four minutes per side, since most performances run a little over nine minutes; but what a rush to hear this! Only 3 ½ fish, however, for the downright Mediaeval sound quality.
PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf / Eleanor Roosevelt, narrator; Boston Symphony Orchestra; Serge Koussevitzky, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
The great Koussevitzky, master of orchestral sound, made two recordings of this work: the first in 1939 with narrator Richard Hale and this one, in 1949, with Eleanor Roosevelt. I just enjoy Eleanor’s narrartion better. Only 4 fish due to the boxy sound.
PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5 / Vladimir Krainev, pianist; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitri Kitayenko, conductor / Melodiya MELCD1002227 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Krainev and Kitayenko recorded the complete Prokofiev Concerti twice, once with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and once with the Moscow Philharmonic, but this is the version that will blow your mind; it’s that intense. I’d give it seven fish if I could! For historic recordings of No. 3 (his most popular concerto), look online for the recordings by Prokofiev himself with Piero Coppola conducting and William Kapell with Antal Doráti and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (both mono).
PROKOFIEV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-9 / Natalia Trull, pianist / Sorel Classics CD 007/8/9
If you live to be 100, you’ll never hear the Prokofiev sonatas played with this combination of musicality, great phrasing and intensity. Natalia Trull practically devours Prokofiev. You can watch her playing certain movements from the series on YouTube; the filming is very dark, but omigod what powerful hands and quick fingers she has!
PROKOFIEV: Romeo and Juliet (Ballet) / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, conductor / DGG 423268 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
The most beautiful and moving performance of this wonderful and popular score by a large margin.
PROKOFIEV: Sarcasms / Milica Jelača Jovanović, pianist / part of MSR Classics 1319 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
One of Prokofiev’s lesser-known piano scores, played with brilliance and élan by Jovanović.
PROKOFIEV: Scythian Suite / Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
It’s hard to say what has happened to Valerey Gergiev in the last 10 years, but ever since he took up residency with a London orchestra his conducting has become slack, nerveless and boring. Here’s a performance recorded back when he was still “really” Gergiev, and it’s a stunner.
PROKOFIEV: Sonata for Cello & Piano / Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist; Sviatoslav Richter, cellist / available for free streaming on YouTube
This fantastic performance, given “live” in 1950 in the presence of the composer, will quite possibly never be surpassed. Only 4 fish, however, due to the dry, boxy mono sound.
PROKOFIEV: Sonata in D for Solo Violin. Violin Concerto Nos. 1 & 2 / Vadim Gluzman, violinist; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor / Bis 2142, also available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
Outstanding modern performances of these works, played excitingly by Gluzman and redoubled by Neeme Järvi’s outstanding conducting.
PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D, “Classical” / NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
People love to complain that this performance is too fast. I would counter that most are just a tad sluggish. Toscanini’s performance is by far the most “classical” in terms of balance, precision and clarity of all those available.
PROKOFIEV: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7 / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Litton, conductor / available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube
I am not a fan of Prokofiev’s symphonies Nos. 2-5, no matter how “popular” the Fifth is, but the sixth and seventh, particularly as interpreted by Andrew Litton, who balances fervor with precision and an excellent grasp of their construction, are very fine indeed.
PROKOFIEV: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / David Oistrakh, violinist; Sviatoslav Richter, pianist (No. 1); Vladimir Yampolsky, pianist (No. 2) / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on numbers above
More outstanding interpretations by two musicians close to the composer, Oistrakh and Richter. Yampolsky is very fine in the second sonata, if not quite Richter.
PUCCINI: La Bohème / Licia Albanese, soprano (Mimi); Anne McKnight, soprano (Musetta); Jan Peerce, tenor (Rodolfo); Francesco Valentino, baritone (Marcello); George Cehanovsky, baritone (Schaunard); Nicola Moscona, bass (Colline); Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Benoit/Alcindoro); chorus directed by Peter J. Wilhousky; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Opus Kura 7058/59
PUCCINI: La Bohème / Ileana Cotrubas, soprano (Mimi); Luciano Pavarotti, tenor (Rodolfo); Lucia Popp, soprano (Musetta); Lorenzo Saccomani, baritone (Marcello); Giorgio Giorgetti, baritone (Schaunard); Evgeny Nesterenko, bass (Colline); Claudio Giombi, baritone (Benoit); Saverio Porzano, tenor (Parpignol); Alfredo Giacomotti, bass (Alcindoro); Carlo Meliciani, baritone (Sergeant); Giuseppe Morresi, bass (Un Doganiere); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Carlos Kleiber, conductor / available for free streaming at Internet Archive
PUCCINI: La Bohème / Kiri te Kanawa, soprano (Mimi); Nancy Gustafson, soprano (Musetta); Richard Leech, tenor (Rodolfo); Alan Titus, baritone (Marcello); Gino Quilico, baritone (Schaunard); Robert Scandiuzzi, bass (Colline); Carlos Chausson, bass (Benoit); Alan Ewing, bass (Alcindoro); Barry Banks, tenor (Parpignol); Ambrosian Singers; London Symphony Orchestra; Kent Nagano, conductor / Erato 68017
Three recordings out of the dozens made of this opera, all gems in their own way. As long as you are prepared to hear Toscanini humming along loudly with Jan Peerce in “Che gelida manina,” you won’t be disappointed by his Bohème except in terms of sound quality and somewhat prosaic performances of Rodolfo and Musetta. Licia Albanese was one of the greatest Mimis of all time (I was lucky to see her sing it live), and by her own admission this is the better of her two recordings (the other one with Beniamino Gigli, though very lively, plays fast and loose with the score).
For those who say that the Toscanini Bohème is too fast and that no one could possibly perform it at those tempos in a stage performance, the Carlos Kleiber version—which WAS live—is nearly as fast as Toscanini in most places, even faster in others. And what a great cast! Despite his lack of a big name, baritone Lorenzo Saccomani is a superb Marcello and we are fortunate to get the great Evgeny Nesterenko as Colline. Cotrubas is limpid yet characterful as Mimi, Popp is a feisty Musetta, and of course Pavarotti “owned” this role during his long career.
The Kent Nagano recording somehow flew under the radar when it was originally released in the 1990s, possibly because tenor Richard Leech only had name recognition in America and France at the time, but it’s my favorite of all digital recordings. Though taken at a more relaxed pace, it’s not as slow as the Beecham or Karajan recordings, which in my view are overrated, but in its favor is a surprisingly natural, almost “conversational” performance of the opera, which makes it come across much more as a sung play than any other version I’ve ever heard. You may choose to acquire the Kleiber over the Toscanini due to its superior sound (stereo TV broadcast, not perfect but far better than Studio 8-H), but you really need to have the Nagano recording as well.
PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly / Anna Moffo, soprano (Cio-Cio-San); Rosalind Elias, mezzo (Suzuki); Cesare Valletti, tenor (Pinkerton); Renato Cesari, baritone (Sharpless); Mario Carlin, tenor (Goro); Fernando Corena, bass (Bonze); Nestore Catalani, tenor (Yamadori); Miti Truccato Pace, mezzo (Kate Pinkerton); Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Chorus & Orchestra; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor / RCA Gold Seal 41452
PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly / Rosetta Pampanini, soprano (Cio-Cio-San); Conchita Velasquez, mezzo-soprano (Suzuki); Alessandro Granda, tenor (Pinkerton); Gino Vanelli, baritone (Sharpless); Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Bonze); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Cav. Lorenzo Molajoli, conductor / Centaur 2196
Puccini’s weepy heartbreaker of an opera is also seen by some as misogynist and/or an indictment of American servicemen taking on foreign lovers when stationed overseas, but if you peer a bit deeper into the plot you have to place as much blame on Sharpless, Yamadori and Cio-Cio-San’s mother for letting her go into this sham marriage without getting as incensed as old Uncle Bonze. As for the music, it is some of Puccini’s best, some of his most populist, and some of hi most problematic, as can be discerned from the high number of near-misses and failures among the many recorded Butterflys. I’ve been through all three of Victoria de los Angeles’ recordings, the 1954 studio version for EMI which has lively singing from Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi and equally lively conducting from Gianadrea Gavazzeni, the 1957 live performance from Covent Garden with John Lanigan, Geraint Evans and Rudolf Kempe in which de los Angeles is far more dramatic (as is the conducting), and the stereo recording from 1959 with Jussi Björling, Miriam Pirazzini and Mario Sereni, conducted by Gabriele Santini. All are close but none hit the mark. The Gavazzeni is conducted at the kind of brisk pace that I, and Puccini, preferred, but to my ears the bucolic reading of the score is too close to that of a comic operetta to please me, and for whatever reason all of the singers’ and strings’ high notes split and blast too much. Obviously the engineer wasn’t particularly good. The second version has a splendid Suzuki from the little-known Barbara Howells and a fairly good Pinkerton by John Lanigan, but Geraint Evans is in poor voice and the sound quality of this old mono tape is uneven, with the orchestra breaking up into powdery sound here and there—although the death of Butterfly is conducted by Kempe as if it were Greek drama. In the 1959 stereo recording, only de los Angeles really sounds as if she understands what character she’s singing. Björling is too loud and consistently outside the character, and Santini only really gets up a head of steam in the last act. Most of the other “Butterfly” recordings are too slow, though the best of these is the 1966 EMI recording with Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi and Sir John Barbirolli.
Which leaves these two as excellent representatives of imaginative, well-paced performances that have the breath of life about them. The earlier (1929) recordinng features the singers of Toscanini’s La Scala revival of the opera, including tenor Alessandro Granda who was one of his discoveries, led by Lorenzo Molajoli who was his rehearsal conductor at the time. Some of the tempos scream Toscanini, a few don’t, and most assuredly the use of string portamento is not representative of a Toscanini performance, yet there is so much life and energy here that you get swept up in it. Pampanini had a strong lyric-spinto soprano yet was able to sound not too badly as the 15-year-old geisha. The sound is boxy and inadequate, hence the rating of only 4 fish.
Puccini had a harder time with Butterfly than almost any of his other famous operas, pulling it from circulation and rewriting it. His first Butterfly was Rosina Storchio, a sturdy-voiced lyric soprano, and his second was the indomitable soprano Salomea Kruscelnicka, who could (and did) also sing Verdi and Wagner. The dichotomy between the kind of voice needed to ride the orchestra in Butterfly’s suicide scene and the image of a 15-year-old young lady has always been a problem in this role, yet in the 1920s Barbirolli conducted a performance with the very slim-voiced Maggie Teyte as Butterfly and always maintained it was one of the greatest performances of his life.
Here we have a cast of consistently light voices: although mezzo Rosalind Elias went on to sing Verdi roles, that part of her repertoire was badly misjudged and ruined her voice. Moffo, of course, also sang Verdi, but only the soubrette roles like Gilda. Some reviewers have said that she is the most youthful-sounding Cio-Cio-San on records. It’s a nice compliment but not true: that honor goes to Toti dal Monte in the 1939 EMI recording, in which she whined and simpered like a petulant 9-year-old from start almost to finish. For me, the greatest interpretation of the role was given in the 1996 film version by Ying Huang, but the rest of the cast was mediocre to bad and James Conlon’s conducting was both too slow and lacking in forward momentum.
I find that Moffo strikes a nice balance between Huang and de los Angeles, sounding a bit like a giggling teenager in love until the final scene when she lets loose with some very credible acting. I wish that Magda Olivero or Leyla Gencer had recorded this role in good sound, but their surviving artifacts are pretty rough-sounding. In 1979 I had the opportunity to meet Erich Leinsdorf at the Aspen Music Festival, and he told me an interesting story. At the time this recording was being made, Leinsdorf was also recording “Tosca” with Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling and Leonard Warren, and one day Björling, “drunk as a lord” as Leinsdorf put it, “came bursting into the control room to listen to some of the tape playback of the love duet. He kept complaining of Valletti’s voice, saying it was too small, a ‘tenorino,’ and he should not be recording this role, then singing along with the tape to show us how it should be done.” But Valletti is surprisingly good, accurate as to the score as well as charming and seductive in turn. In my view, he is second-best to Bergonzi in the Barbirolli set. Elias, here able to use a microphone to project her voice, turns in a surprisingly vivid, lively Suzuki, one of the best on record, and much to my surprise Leinsdorf conducts not only briskly but with tremendous textural clarity. You can hear every strand of the orchestra including the bassoon in “Ancora in passo” (did you even know there WAS a bassoon in that passage?) and little wind and brass instruments here and there throughout. This, along with his Turandot, is certainly one of the conductor’s best moments on record.
PUCCINI: Tosca / Maria Callas, soprano (Tosca); Renato Cioni, tenor (Cavaradossi); Tito Gobbi, baritone (Scarpia); Victor Godfrey, baritone (Angelotti); Robert Bowman, tenor (Spoletta); Eric Garrett, bass (Sacristan); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus; Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
Yes, I agree with the late musicologist Joseph Kerman that Tosca is generally a “shabby little shocker.” Much of the music is thin and, although lyrical, not terribly well suited to the words, and the lastg act is tawdry to say the least. But this 1964 performance captures Callas for the last time in quite good voice, presents her late interpretation of the role which was more searing and realistic than her early 1950s studio recording (and performances), and the conducting of Cillario is much more taut than usual. I’m also very fond of Cioni’s Cavaradossi: not a beautiful voice but a fine dramatic interpretation without hamming it up. And of course Gobbi was the Scarpia par excellence of his time. The only reason it gets 4 ½ fish is the mono in-house tape sound.
PUCCINI: Turandot / Inge Borkh, soprano (Turandot); Nicola Zaccaria, bass (Timur); Mario del Monaco, tenor (Calaf); Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Liù); Fernando Corena, bass (Ping); Mario Carlin, tenor (Pang); Renato Ercolini, tenor (Pong); Gaetano Fanelli, tenor (Emperor Altoum); Ezio Giordano, baritone (Mandarin); Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orch. & Chorus; Alberto Erede, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube
I was really torn in choosing this recording, since I grew up with the Nilsson-Tebaldi-Björling-Leinsdorf version, which my uncle owned and which really knocked me out. Erede doesn’t conduct as taut a performance as Leinsdorf (that may be his best recording ever, of anything) but to my ears Borkh sounds more human and less like a steam engine than Nilsson and Mario del Monaco had the perfect voice for Calaf. More importantly, Renata Tebaldi is easily twice as fine on this 1955 recording than she was in 1959: there’s less strain in the voice and she doesn’t sound like a 50-year-old woman trying to sing an ingenue role. I say this is the best.
PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas / Janet Baker, mezzo (Dido); Patricia Clark, soprano (Belinda); Raimund Herincx, baritone (Aeneas); Monica Sinclair, mezzo (Sorceress); The St. Anthony Singers; English Chamber Orchestra; Anthony Lewis, conductor / Decca 466387 or available for free streaming on YouTube
The definitive performance of this great opera. So you want countertenors? Go fly a kite.
PURCELL: Airs, Almand in D-sol-re#. An Evening Hymn. A New Ground in E min. Chaconnes in G min., G. Cibell in C. Come Ye Sons of Art: Strike the viol. Dido and Aeneas. Fantasias Nos. 1-13. Fantasia Upon One Note. Grounds in C, C min., D min., G. Hail Bright Cecilia. Hear My Prayer, O Lord, Hornpipe. Various songs, jigs, marches, minuets, overtures, trumpet tunes, voluntarys and keyboard pieces. Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. Sonatas à 3, Sonatas à 4. Suites. The Fairy Queen. The Indian Queen. The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian. Three Parts Upon a Ground / various performers including Carolyn Sampson, Susan Hermington Jones, sop; Charles Daniels, ten; Trevor Pinnock, Jed Wentz, Timothy Roberts, hpd; Musica Amphion; Pieter-Jan Belder, cond / Brilliant Classics 94665
You want Purcell, here you have him, and at a pretty good bargain, too—16 CDs’ worth, and all but the Dido and Aeneas are first-choice picks or very close to it..
PURCELL: Songs: Ah! How Sweet it is to Love. An Evening Hymn on a Ground. Fly Swift, Ye Hours. I Love and I Must. Let Us Dance, Let Us Sing. Love, Thou Cans’t Hear tho’ thou art Blind. Lovely Albina’s Come Ashore. Musicj For a While. Oh, How Happy’s He. Strike the Viol. Sweeter Than Roses. Sylvia, Now Your Scorn Give Over. Whilst I With Grief. Ye Gentle Spirits of the Air, Appear / Russell Oberlin, countertenor; Paul Maynard, hpd; Seymour Barab, viola da gambist / look for a reissue in mono; most available for free streaming on YouTube in artificial stereo by clicking on individual titles above
I normally shy away from countertenors because their falsetto voices are hooty and unattractive, but Russell Oberlin, the greatest of them all, sang—as Purcell himself did—in a very high tenor voice that could reach into the mezzo-soprano range. In addition to the voice itself, these performances are extraordinarily moving. Only 4 1/2 fish because of the dated sound.
PURCELL: Sweeter Than Roses. There’s Not a Swain on the Plain. Not All My Torments. Man is For the Woman Made / Jon Vickers, ten; Richard Woitach, pn / available for free streaming on YouTube
Jon Vickers, with his cannon-sized tenor voice, was scarcely an “authentic” Baroque singer, but his communicative skills were also extraordinary and he sang these songs with great feeling and sensitivity.
PURCELL: If Music Be the Food of Love.. There’s Not a Swain on the Plain. What Can We Poor Females Do? / Kathleen Battle, sop; Myron Lutzke, cello; Anthony Newman, hpd / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above
The most ear-ravishing soprano voice of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s singing three of Purcell’s finest songs. It doesn’t get any better than this.