girl-penguin

Van de Vate, Nancy

VAN DE VATE: Adagio & Rondo for Violin & String Orchestra. Adagio for Orchestra / Joanne Kawalla, violinist; Koszalin State Philharmonic Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

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VAN DE VATE: All Quiet on the Western Front / Michael Polscer, tenor (Paul Bäumer); Josef Krenmair, baritone (Kropp/Doctor); Steven Scheschareg, baritone (Muller); Marek Olbrzymek, bass (Kantorek); Linda Healy-Steck, soprano (Erna); Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Toshiyuki Shimada, conductor / Vienna Modern Masters VMM 4004, also available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: An American Essay for SATB Chorus, Soprano & Orchestra / Christine Marstrand, soprano; Chorus Soranus; Koszalin State Philharmonic Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Balinese Diptych / Amanda Sukarlan, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Brass Quintet No. 2: Variations on “Streets of Laredo” / The Mississippi Brass / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Chernobyl / The Yale Symphony Orchestra; Toshiyuki Shimada, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Concerto for Harp / Adriana Antalova, harpist; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Toshiyuki Shimada, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Dark Nebulae. Distant Worlds. Gema Jawa.# Journeys* / *Janusz Mrynsky, violinist; #Slovak Radio Orchestra, Bratislava; Polish Radio & TV Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / Vienna Modern Masters VMM 3008 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

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VAN DE VATE: The Death of the Hired Man (A Folk Opera) / Michelle Vought, soprano (Mary); John Koch, baritone (Warren); Kim Risinger, flautist; Greg Hamilton, cellist; Nancy Van de Vate, pianist / part of Vienna Modern Masters VMM 4003 or available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Diversion for Brass / The Niagara Brass Ensemble / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Fantasy for Harpsichord / Ewa Gabrys, harpsichordist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: 4 Fantasy Pieces for Flute & Piano / Ann Marie Yasinitsky, flautist; Nancy Van de Vate, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: 4 Somber Songs / Sulie Girardi, mezzo-soprano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orch. Of Bratislava; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: How Fares the Night? / Joanna Kawalla, violinist; Silesian University Choir, Cieszyn; Koszalin State Philharmonic Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: In the Shadow of the Glen / Dominic Natoli, tenor (Dan Burke); Michelle Vought, soprano (Nora Burke); John Koch, baritone (Michael); Jack Delmore, tenor (A Tramp); Slovak Radio Symphony Orch. of Bratislava; Jiri Mikula, conductor / Vienna Modern Masters VMM 4003 or available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Krakow Concerto for Percussion & Orchestra / Krakow Percussion Ensemble; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / part of Vienna Modern Masters VMM 3015, or available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Letter to a Friend’s Loneliness / Sulie Girardi, mezzo-soprano; Martinů Philharmonic String Quartet / Piano Sonata No. 2 / Makiko Hirashima, pianist / Variations for Chamber Orchestra / Koszalin State Philharmonic Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / Violin Suite / Michael Davis, violinist / Trio for Strings / Martinů String Trio / Vienna Modern Masters VMM 2006 or available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

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VAN DE VATE: A Night in the Royal Ontario Museum / Michelle Vought, soprano / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Night Journey / Antoinette van Zabner, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: A Peacock Southeast Flew (Concerto for Pipa & Orch.) / Gao Hong, pipa; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Jiri Mikula, conductor / part of Vienna Modern Masters VMM 3043 or available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Piano Concerto / Makiko Hirashima, pianist; Koszalin State Philharmonic Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: The Pond for SATB Chorus a cappella / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Prelude for Organ / Carlyn Morenus, organist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Pura Besakih / Slovak Radio Orchestra, Bratislava; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Seven Fantasy Pieces for Violin & Piano / Michael Davis, violinist; Nelson Harper, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Six Early Songs / Evelyn Petros, soprano; Nancy van de Vate, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Six Etudes for Solo Violin / Michael Davis, violinist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Songs for the Four Parts of the Night / Evelyn Petros, soprano; Nancy van de Vate, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Trio for Horn, Violin & Piano / Ferenc Leitner, hornist; Ute Lehmann, violinist; Maki Saeki, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: 12 Pieces for Piano on One to Twelve Notes, Vol. 3 / Carlyn Morenus, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Venal Vera: Ode to a Gezira Lovely / Michelle Vought, soprano; Ronald Sebesta, bass clarinetist; Anton Zajacek, percussionist / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Viola Concerto / Grigorij Zhislin, violist; Polish Radio & TV Symphony of Krakow; José Maria Floréncio, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Violin Concerto No. 2 / Nina Stoyonova, violinist; Ruse Philharmonic Orchestra; Tsanko Delibosov, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Voices of Women / Sulie Girardi, mezzo-soprano; Silesian University Choir, Cieszyn; Koszalin State Philharmonic Orchestra; Szymon Kawalla, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Western Front (Orchestral Suite) / Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Toshiyuki Shimada, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAN DE VATE: Where the Cross is Made / Christopher Hollingsworth, tenor (Nat); Clinton Desmond, baritone (Dr. Higgins); Michelle Vought, soprano (Sue Bartlett); Timothy Schmidt, bass (Capt. Isaiah); Illinois State University Chamber Orchestra; Karyl Carlson, conductor / Vienna Modern Masters VMM 2004, or available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

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Nancy Van de Vate is, in my opinion, one of the greatest composers of the late 20th-early 21st centuries, a true genius who works in many genres (except, I believe, the symphony) and several different styles, ranging from Stravinskian to neo-Romantic and occasionally even minimalist (to a point), yet her music is seldom played or sung in the concert halls. Why?

There are several factors at play here. For one thing, she has been an expatriate living in Europe since the early 1970s and specifically in Vienna, Austria. Her largest number of supporters, then, are generally European and, as one can tell from the venues where her music has been recorded, Eastern Europe. The few Americans who have been fortunate enough, like myself, to discover her music and help to promote it are, alas, not major figures in the classical music world. And then, she has her various styles against her. Van de Vate rarely writes anything the fits the generic profile of “women’s music,” meaning scores that are conventionally pretty and/or geared for a mass market. She writes as her muse directs her, and this does not often include conventional melodic lines (though, as you will hear, some of her music is quite melodic in its own way, particularly her vocal music). Shunned by American record labels, she started her own, Vienna Modern Masters, and unfortunately these are the only commercial issues of her music. I have also seen very few reviews of any of her CDs, even the ones devoted to other composers (and there are several in the VMM catalog), in any major classical music magazine.

Yet, as you will discover, she is an eloquent and dramatic composer who has wide-ranging tastes (including Oriental and Balinese music) and a very personal means of communication. I consider her operas Where the Cross is Made and All Quiet on the Western Front to be among the greatest such works written in modern times—in fact, far better constructed and more communicative than the music of Kaaja Saariaho, who has somehow become “the” modern female composer of today. Work after work will impress you with not only its invention and originality but also with its communicative power. I would have rated some of the recordings above higher were it not for the presence of soprano Michelle Vought, a staunch friend and supporter of Van de Vate, who may have a heart of gold but has a basemetal voice with poor diction and an unsteady timbre.

Although these works are all available for streaming on YouTube, I urge you to buy the physical CDs if you can, particularly of the operas, in order to get the full libretti and, in most cases, fascinating liner notes that cannot be duplicated for their wealth of information.

Vasks, Petēris

VASKS: Aria e Danza for Flute & Piano. Flute Concerto. Landscape With Birds for Flute Solo. Sonata for Solo Flute & Alto Flute / Michael Faust, flautist; Sheila Arnold, pianist; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä; Patrick Gallois, conductor / Naxos 8.572634 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

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VASKS: Birth. Our Mother’s Names. Plainscapes.* The Sad Mother. Silent Songs. Small, Warm Holiday. Summer. The Tomtit’s Message / Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Kļava, conductor; *Sandis Šteinbergs, violinist; *Guna Ȃboltina, cellist / Ondine 1194 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above

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VASKS: Cantabile for String Orchestra / Riga Philharmonic Orchestra; Krišs Rumanis, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VASKS: Messages for String Orchestra, Percussion & 2 Pianos / Latvian National Symphony Orchestra; Pauls Vegi, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VASKS: Musica Dolorosa for String Orchestra / Latvian Philharmonic Orchestra; Tavijs Lifšics, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VASKS: Symphony No. 1 (Voices) for Strings / Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VASKS: Symphony No. 2 for Large Orchestra / Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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Petēris Vasks is the only mood or ambient composer I enjoy because his music actually develops and goes somewhere, as opposed to just staying static for most of its duration. Plainscapes was the piece that convinced me that he was a good composer, but the other works here are also quite fine.

Vaughan Williams, Ralph

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A Clear Midnight. Joy, Shipmate, Joy! / Thomas Hampson, baritone; Craig Rutenberg, pianist / part of EMI 55028

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Concerto for 2 Pianos & Orchestra / Hélène Mercier, Lois Lortie, pianists; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Davis, conductor / Chandos 5186

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis / Boyd Neel String Orchestra; Boyd Neel, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis / NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Four Last Songs: I. Procris; II. Tired; III. Hands, Eyes and Heart; IV. Menelaus / Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on individual titles above

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: On Wenlock Edge / Peter Pears, tenor; Benjamin Britten, pianist; Zorian String Quartet / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Riders to the Sea / Gary Griffiths, baritone (Bartley); Nicole Percifield, soprano (Cathleen); Kathleen Reveille, mezzo (Maurya); Evanna Chiew, mezzo (Nora); Anna Fijałkowska, mezzo (The woman); Philharmonic Women’s Chamber Choir; Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta; Łukasz Borowicz, conductor / Dux 1307-08

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Songs of Travel: The Vagabond / Peter Dawson, baritone; unidentified pianist / Bright is the Ring of Words. Hugh the Drover: Horses, horses thunder in the valleys / Jon Vickers, tenor; Richard Woitach, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 5 / Hallé Orchestra; Sir John Barbirolli, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 6 / London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Adrian Boult, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Sinfonia Antarctica (Symphony No. 7) / Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 8 / Boston Symphony Orchestra; Charles Munch, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

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Ralph Vaughan Williams was an interesting if uneven composer who went through a French phase (represented here by On Wenlock Edge) before creating a more nationalistic British style, then evolved into a more modern phase represented by the sixth, seventh and eighth symphonies and the Four Last Songs. The performances listed above are my favorites, and I think represent his work at its best.

Verdi, Giuseppe

VERDI: Aïda / Dusolina Giannini, soprano (Aïda); Aureliano Pertile, tenor (Radames); Irene Minghini-Catteneo, mezzo-soprano (Amneris); Luigi Manfrini, bass (Ramfis); Guglielmo Masini, bass (King); Giovanni Inghilleri, baritone (Amonasro); Giuseppe Nessi, tenor (Messenger); Valentina Bartolomasi, soprano (Priestess); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Carlo Sabajno, conductor / Opera Magna OP2747

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This is the first complete recording of the opera, and still holds up as the most exciting and dynamic performance. Drawbacks: the dull, boxy 1928 sound and Sabajno’s use of more string portamento than we are used to nowadays. Strengths: a performance that almost sounds “live,” one of the most sympathetic and lovely Aidas (Giannini), a Radames who sings with nuance as well as power (Pertile), and the damn most exciting Amneris on the face of the earth (Minghini-Catteneo). This performance isn’t just dynamic, it practically drags you into the heart of the drama and keeps you there until the very end. I’ve yet to hear any other performance, as such, come close in terms of visceral yet musically exact singing…except that neither Pertile nor Giannini take their high notes softly as written.

VERDI: Aïda / Herva Nelli, soprano (Aïda); Richard Tucker, tenor (Radames); Eva Gustafson, mezzo-soprano (Amneris); Norman Scott, bass (Ramfis); Dennis Harbour, bass (King); Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone (Amonasro); Virgilio Assandri, tenor (Messenger); Teresa Stich-Randall, soprano (Priestess); Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Urania WS 121.183

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The Toscanini Aïda is looked down upon by opera buffs because they can’t stand soprano Herva Nelli, who had a beautiful voice and sang expressively…only because she wasn’t Zinka Milanov, who “owned” this role during her tenure at the Met. Tucker’s voice is caught better here than on most of his complete opera recordings and, although he misses the nuance of Pertile, he makes a commanding Radames. Eva Gustafson’s biggest drawback as a singer was her nasal tone, which takes some getting used to, but compared to most of what we get nowadays as Amneris she’s pretty good. Toscanini actually conducts with more rubato than Sabajno, particularly in the conclusion of the Judgment Scene where he slows down the tempo to emphasize the severity of Radames’ fate. A bonus is the outstanding singing of 19-year-old Teresa Stich-Randall as the Priestess. Urania has restored this recording to state-of-the-art sound.

VERDI: Aïda / Zinka Milanov, soprano (Aïda); Jussi Björling, tenor (Radames); Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano (Amneris); Boris Christoff, bass (Ramfis); Plinio Clabassi, bass (King); Leonard Warren, baritone (Amonasro); Mario Carlin, tenor (Messenger): Bruna Rizzoli, soprano (Priestess); Rome Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Jonel Perlea, conductor / Urania URN 22.274

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Well, here’s Zinka Milanov as Aïda, and for once she does not disappoint—at least, not vocally. Her creamy yet large soprano voice was under perfect control, and conductor Perlea keeps a tight leash on her, curbing her excesses in phrasing and hanging onto high notes longer than written. Perlea also coaxed a surprisingly expressive performance of Radames out of Jussi Björling, who had a spectacular voice but often sang as if he didn’t care much about the words or the character. Barbieri is the richest-voiced Amneris on records, and baritone Leonard Warren is, bar none, the finest Amonasro. Boris Christoff sings in his usual snarly manner, but snarly suits the uptight Ramfis pretty well. Perlea relaxes the tempo here and there for a more spacious reading than Sabajno or Toscanini, but he’s not nearly as off-the-mark as Georg Solti in his mostly overrated 1962 recording. Urania’s remastering is the best I’ve ever heard, bringing a welcome spaciousness to this otherwise dry-sounding recording. Indeed, the sound is so good that it almost (but not quite) sounds like early stereo, which being made in 1955, it should have been. If you own all three of these recordings, you won’t need any other of the Aïdas on record.

VERDI: Attila / Samuel Ramey, bass (Attila); Cheryl Studer, soprano (Odabella); Kaludi Kaludov, tenor (Foresto); Giorgio Zancanaro, baritone (Ezio); Ernesto Gavazzi, tenor (Uldino); Mario Luperi, bass (Pope Leo); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Chorus & Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor / Opus Arte 3010, DVD or available for free streaming on YouTube

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One of the rare outstanding stage productions of a Verdi opera in the modern era. Muti also made a commercial CD version for EMI with much of the same cast, but I greatly prefer Kaludi Kaludov’s singing to that of Neil Shicoff.

VERDI: Un Ballo in Maschera / Maria Caniglia, soprano (Amelia); Elda Ribetti, soprano (Oscar); Beniamino Gigli, tenor (Riccardo); Tancredi Pasero, bass (Samuel); Ugo Novelli, bass (Tom); Gino Bechi, baritone (Renato); Fedora Barbieri, contralto (Ulrica); Nicola Niccolini, baritone (Silvano); Rome Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Tullio Serafin, conductor / Naxos 8.110178-79

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VERDI: Un Ballo in Maschera / Herva Nelli, soprano (Amelia); Virginia Haskins, soprano (Oscar); Jan Peerce, tenor (Riccardo); Robert Merrill, baritone (Renato); Nicola Moscona, bass (Samuel); Norman Scott, bass (Tom); Claramae Turner, contralto (Ulrica); George Cehanovsky, baritone (Silvano); Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Opus Kura 7064 or available for free streaming on YouTube

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In my view, these are the only two recordings that capture the passion and excitement of this opera at its best, though each has a weakness. In the Serafin recording it’s tenor Beniamino Gigli, who chuckle-sobs his way through the role as he did in nearly everything he sang, yet his voice is extraordinary beautiful and, in this instance, it kind of suits the character (though it breaks up the line of music). In the live Toscanini performance, Herva Nelli sings beautifully and with some degree of passion but does not quite come up to the high level of Maria Caniglia, but tenor Jan Peerce gives here his most passionate and exciting performance of all time, and then there is Toscanini in what was clearly a labor of love for the aging Maestro. Only the sound quality prevents me from rating them higher, although the Toscanini performance is in extremely good high fidelity sound.

VERDI: Don Carlo / Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Elisabetta); Jeanette Sinclair, mezzo-soprano (Tebaldo); Carlo Bergonzi, tenor (Don Carlo); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar (Rodrigo); Tugomir Frac, bass (A Monk); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (King Philip II); Grace Bumbry, mezzo (Princess Eboli); Martti Talvela, bass (Grand Inquisitor); Kenneth MacDonald, tenor (Count di Lerma); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orch. & Chorus; Sir Georg Solti, conductor / Decca 421114

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VERDI: Don Carlo / Mirella Freni, soprano (Elisabetta); José Carreras, tenor (Don Carlo); Stefania Malagú, soprano (Tebaldo); Luigi Roni, bass (A Monk); Piero Cappuccilli, baritone (Rodrigo); Elena Obraztsouva, mezzo (Princess Eboli); Gianfranco Manganotti, tenor (Count di Lerma); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (King Philip II); Yevgeny Nesterenko, bass (Inquisitor); Antonio Savastrano, tenor (Royal Herald); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Claudio Abbado, conductor / Myto 981175

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The 1965 Decca recording of Don Carlo was considered a landmark in its time, and is still outstanding in several ways despite its not being entirely complete, although nowadays the Gramophone hates it. Abbado made a studio recording with much the same cast as above, but this 1975 live performance is surely the most exciting of all—and note-for-note complete. Yes, I’d prefer to hear it sung in French, but none of the French-language performances come close to these, not even the very fine video version with Karita Mattila, Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson and José van Dam.

VERDI: Ernani / Gino Penno, tenor (Ernani); Caterina Mancini, soprano (Donna Elvira); Giuseppe Taddei, baritone (Don Carlos); Giacomo Vaghi, bass (Ruy Gómez de Silva); Licia Rossini, soprano (Giovanna); Vittorio Pandano, tenor (Riccardo); Ezio Achilli, bass (Jago); RAI Roma Orchestra & Chorus; Fernando Previtali, conductor / Warner Fonit-Cetra 256466143-6

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VERDI: Ernani / Luciano Pavarotti, tenor (Ernani); Leona Mitchell, soprano (Donna Elvira); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Don Carlos); Ruggero Raimondi, bass (Ruy Gómez da Silva); Jean Kraft, mezzo-soprano (Giovanna); Charles Anthony, tenor (Riccardo); Richard Vernonz, bass (Jago); Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra; James Levine, conductor / available for free online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtNpbb8lbyM (Live: New York, 1983)

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Of Giuseppe Verdi’s first 17 operas, the only ones to hold the stage in anything like a consistent way are Nabucco (No. 3), Ernani (No. 5), Attila (No. 9), Macbeth (No. 10) and Luisa Miller (no. 15), and of these Ernani is much the problem child. Why? Partly because the lead tenor role is a killer and sounds bad when sung by almost any tenor whose name was not Giovanni Martinelli. It lies very high in tessitura, or average range, and in fact the tenor’s very first line—“Mercé, diletti amichi”—lies right around the natural “break” in the voice. As a warm-up piece, it’s horrible and nearly every tenor who sings the role live sounds horrible on that first line. In fact, I’ve yet to hear any tenor (except Martinelli, in a 1915 recording, or Carlo Bergonzi) sound comfortable singing that aria, and the whole role is a strain on the voice. Verdi eventually learned to write more gratefully for the tenor, but I don’t understand why he didn’t go back and rewrite Ernani’s part.

But that’s not all. The soprano role calls for a rare combination of tonal beauty, dramatic excitement and difficult coloratura technique, again in her opening aria (“Ernani, involami…Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani”), and again, most sopranos just don’t have it all. Leontyne Price could sing it neatly and correctly in the recording studio, but onstage she gave more passion than neatness and the technical passages suffered. But the trickiest role is that of Don Carlo. This calls for a baritone who can float phrases, sing elegantly, and yet still open up and give out dramatic passion. The legendary Mattia Battistini left us a superb series of Ernani recordings to show how it should be done, but of all the recordings I’ve heard only the little-known Paolo Coni sings it in a similar fashion, and this on a recording using a tiny orchestra, choris, and other solo voices that just don’t carry the drama properly.

Thus I keep coming back to the two recordings listed above. Neither is perfect but both are closer to the ideal than any other. Both Gino Penno and Luciano Pavarotti give clean, emotional performances. Caterina Mancini, a firebrand who had a good dozen years or so before her voice collapsed, is actually an excellent Elvira though her trill is just a flutter and she slows down passages in her big aria. On the other hand Leona Mitchell, although having a trill just a little bit better than Mancini’s flutter, has an absolutely outstanding Elvira voice: rich and full with an attractively dark sound yet enough metal to make her high notes ring, and superb subtlety of interpretation. In short, she is everything in the role that Mirella Freni was not. Sherrill Milnes, our Don Carlo, is more of a straightforward singer than I like in the role, but who besides Battistini isn’t? Basso Raimondi is steady as a rock, and interestingly he shies away from the typical nyah-hah-hah villainy that most other singers (such as Giacomo Vaghi on the Cetra set) give to the character, bringing a more subtle characterization into play.

The real drawback of the Cetra set is the sound. Recorded in the RAI Rome studios, there is a certain amount of “juice” around the voices but the orchestra sounds dull and drab, with almost airless sound. At times, the soft string playing doesn’t even sound like strings, it just sounds like some kind of covered blobby sound in the background. The 2000 Madrid performance, recorded in fairly good (if dry) digital sound, reveals every detail of the orchestration, choral writing and solo singing. You can even hear Silva’s lines in “O sommo Carlo,” a feat that not even Riccardo Muti achieved in his live performance. Granted, in the end I’m still not entirely happy with Maisuradze’s voice—it’s a shade too wiry in timbre for my taste—but as I say, he sings with both sensitivity and passion which puts him far above the super-bland Carlo Bergonzi on both of Leontyne Price’s recordings (live and studio). I guess they used Bergonzi because he was one of the very few tenors who, like Martinelli, didn’t sound strained in that music.

So that is why these recordings only get 3 ½ and 4 ½ fish respectively. On the other hand, no other Ernani performances or recordings satisfy me anywhere near as much as these two. Oh yes, Tolomelli’s conducting is spot on in terms of both tempi and emotional excitement.

VERDI: Falstaff / Mariano Stabile, baritone (Falstaff); Alfredo Tedeschi, tenor (Dr. Cajus); Giuseppe Nessi, tenor (Bardolph); Virgilio Lazzari, bass (Pistol); Franca Somigli, soprano (Alice Ford); Mita Vasari, mezzo-soprano (Meg Page); Angelica Cravčenko, contralto (Mrs. Quickly); Augusta Oltrabella, soprano (Nannetta); Dino Borgioli, tenor (Fenton); Piero Biasini, baritone (Ford); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra & Opera Chorus; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive

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VERDI: Falstaff / Giuseppe Taddei, baritone (Sir John Falstaff); Rolando Panerai, baritone (Ford); Francisco Araiza, tenor (Fenton); Piero de Palma, tenor (Dr. Cajus); Heinz Zednik, tenor (Bardolfo); Federico Devià, bass (Pistola); Rain Kabaivanska, soprano (Alice Ford); Janet Perry, soprano (Nannetta); Christa Ludwig, mezzo (Mrs. Quickly); Trudeliese Schmidt, soprano (Meg Page); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra & State Opera Chorus; Herbert von Karajan, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube: part 1, part 2

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The biggest problem with most recordings of Falstaff is that, quite frankly, they don’t sound funny. Sometimes you get a few cast members who try their best, but the rest of the cast and conductor just aren’t there, and this is the problem with both Toscanini’s and Karajan’s officially issued recordings of the opera. But these two live performances—interestingly, both given in Vienna 43 years apart—are absolutely fantastic, though of course the 1937 Toscanini performance suffers the most in its boxy mono sound. This transfer, however, is superb compared to all the others I’ve heard, and of course the Karajan is a professional video in full color and digital sound.

VERDI: La Forza del Destino / Manfred Jungwirth, bass (Marchese); Gilda Cruz-Romo, soprano (Leonora); Kostas Paskalis, baritone (Don Carlo); Franco Bonisolli, tenor (Don Alvaro); Joy Davidson, mezzo (Preziosilla); Cesare Siepi, bass (Padre Guardiano); Sesto Bruscantini, baritone (Fra Melitone); Axelle Gall, soprano (Curra); Kurt Equiluz, tenor (Trabucco); Georg Tichy, baritone (Surgeon); Harald Proglhoff, baritone (Alcaide); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra & State Opera Chorus; Riccardo Muti, conductor / Opera Depot OD 10992-3 (order HERE)

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Forza is a very difficult opera to pull off, and very few recordings have even come close; for that matter, most live performances fail in one way or another, either. Part of the problem is that both the principal soprano and tenor must have voices that can sing softly when need be but also be able to explode brightly when required, but the main problem is that it is often presented as a series of discrete scenes that somehow do not fit together, the worst of them being the “light” scenes featuring the gypsy singer Preziosilla and the muleteers. The music is bright but often lacks real sparkle. Then there is the comic scene with Fra Melitone and the beggars, which also seems to be a misfit in the score.

Despite the fact that tenor Franco Bonisolli sings too loudly in some passages (particularly in “Solenne in quest’ora”), he is exact in his note values and acquits himself well. The rest of the cast is without flaw and perfectly suited to their roles, particularly soprano Gilda Cruz-Romo who in my estimation puts both Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price in the shade as Leonora. More importantly, Riccardo Muti knits the loose ends of this sometimes rambling score together in a way I’ve not heard anyone else accomplish. You will hear things in this Forza from the orchestra that you probably didn’t even know existed. A true masterpiece of a recording.

VERDI: I Lombardi: Act 3 scene – Prelude; Qui posa il fianco; Qual volutta trascorrere / Cristina Deutekom, soprano; Placido Domingo, tenor; Ruggero Raimondi, bass; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Lamberto Gardelli, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

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This is by far the greatest music from I Lombardi and one of the greatest integrated scenes that Verdi ever wrote, and for me this is THE most beautifully, accurately, and emotionally sung performance of all time. Every time I listen to it I have tears in my eyes, and believe me, friends, I am FAR from being a sentimental sap. A shame that they had to break it up into three sections on YouTube.

VERDI: Macbeth / Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Macbeth); Fiorenza Cossotto, mezzo (Lady Macbeth); Ruggero Raimondi, bass (Banquo); José Carreras, tenor (Macduff); Giuliano Bernardi, tenor (Malcolm); Maria Bargata, mezzo (Lady-in-Waiting); Carlo del Bosco, bass (Doctor); John Noble, bass (Assassin); Nielsen Taylor, bass (Herald); Christopher Keyte, bass (Apparition 1); Sara Grossman, mezzo (Apparition 2); Timothy Sprackling, mezzo (Apparition 3); Ambrosian Opera Chorus; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Riccardi Muti, conductor / EMI Classics 67128 or available for streaming in small bits on YouTube

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Everyone loves Maria Callas as Lady Macbeth, and I’m no exception, but as an overall performance this one wins hands down. As one astute observer once said, Sherill Milnes sang “like Leonard Warren but without Warren’s voice,” meaning that he produced as dark a tone as possible and gave 100% of the character he was portraying. There are those who prefer the Abbado recording with Shirley Verrett and Piero Cappiccilli, but in my view this one is better. I’ve never heard Fiorenza Cossotto sing with so much drama in her voice, her trills are flawless, and the whole thing has the feel of a live performance.

VERDI: Messa da Requiem

Zinka Milanov, soprano; Kerstin Thorborg, mezzo-soprano; Helge Rosvaenge, tenor; Nicola Moscona, bass; BBC Choral Society; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / download for free at http://www.abbajustlikethat.comyr.com/1_18_Free-Great-Music.html or https://archive.org/details/VerdiRequiem16LiberaMe

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Herva Nelli, soprano; Fedora Barbieri, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor; Cesare Siepi, bass; Robert Shaw Chorale; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck9TVzw3bDk (mono) or on Pristine Classical PACO048 (stereo – https://www.pristineclassical.com/paco048.html)

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Montserrat Caballé, soprano; Bianca Berini, mezzo-soprano; Placido Domingo, tenor; Paul Plishka, bass; Musica Sacra Chorus; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Zubin Mehta, conductor / stream at https://www.mixcloud.com/Jungfer_Marianne_Leizmetzerin/verdi-requiem-caball%C3%A9-berini-domingo-plishka-new-york-philharminic-mehta-1980-live/ or on Sony Classical 88765456722

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In my humble opinion, and I realize it is just mine, the Messa da Requiem is Giuseppe Verdi’s greatest work. Nothing else even comes close, not Otello, not Falstaff, not Simon Boccanegra, and I love all three of those. We have almost an embarrassment of riches here, four great performances, and this list doesn’t even include the very fine 1948 performance that Toscanini gave with Herva Nelli, Nan Merriman, William McGrath (then just 20 years old!) and Norman Scott. One thing they all have in common, at the time of writing, is that they are all available for free for streaming online, at least the mono version of the 1951 Toscanini. I much prefer the sonics of the stereo version sold by Pristine Classical, but there is one big drawback: in the live performance, Herva Nelli suddenly went flat during the soft section of the “Libera me” and then stopped singing entirely for a bar or two before resuming on key. This mishap was covered in the commercial issue by splicing in that section from the dress rehearsal, but the dress rehearsal wasn’t recorded in stereo, so if you really want to hear it done well you’ll have to buy the stereo recording and then splice in the offending mishap from the mono version.

Many critics and collectors dislike the 1951 Toscanini performance because it is taken somewhat too fast in places (particularly in the “Ingemisco,” which di Stefano complained about to his dying day), but I honestly find it a terrifically exciting performance. Toscanini must have liked it, too, because it was the only Requiem of his he would allow to be issued commercially, but I’m not sure if he ever heard a cleaned-up tape of the 1938 BBC Symphony performance which is simply the most magnificent Requiem ever recorded. Period. And the sound is actually superb for its time; you almost feel as if “you are there.”

The 1980 New York Philharmonic concert captured here was a Requiem I passed over when it was first released because I really don’t much care for Domingo (his voice too often sounds tight and dry to me) and, in my mind, Caballé was about as dramatic as a bowl of stewed prunes. Imagine my surprise, then, to find all four soloists deeply involved dramatically, Caballé included. Before hearing this, I would have bet a week’s salary that she couldn’t sing the “Libera me” dramatically if she tried. Glad I didn’t make the bet. Bianca Berini was one of my favorite Italian mezzos, vastly underrated and under-recorded. I’m not even sure if she’s on any other commercial recording, but she’s great here. Paul Plishka is a little gruff in the opening “Kyrie eleison,” but he warms up by the time he has to sing “Mors stupebit” and is excellent from there on. And for once, Mehta seemed to be channeling Toscanini and not Furtwängler, because his tempos and energy are spot-on.

You might notice, however, that this is where my recommendations stop. I haven’t heard any other digitally-recorded Requiem that comes within a mile of the Mehta performance, and that was a looooonnnggg time ago. But who cares when you have these four to go by? Obviously, if modern sonics are what you’re after, the Mehta is the one you’ll want, but I still say that 1938 Toscanini performance can’t be beat. Milanov, in particular, just soars in the upper range, her high notes gleaming like a silver sword. It was a sound she had already lost by the time she did it again with Toscanini in 1940 in New York. And the sheer energy and continuity of this performance will have you hanging on every note. Even the Toscanini-bashers among British critics at the time couldn’t get over this performance. That’s how good it is. Note that only Toscanini and Mehta achieve that incredible “mushroom cloud” effect, with the tympani and brasses thundering away under the soloists and chorus, at the end of the “Rex tremendae.” Everyone else sounds weak and ineffective by comparison.

VERDI: Nabucco / Leo Nucci, baritone (Nabucco); Csilla Boross, soprano (Abigaille); Dmitry Beloselsky, bass (Zaccaria); Antonio Poli, tenor (Ismaele); Anna Malavasi, mezzo-soprano (Fenena); Goran Juric, bass (Gran Sacerdote); Erika Grimaldi, soprano (Anna); Saverio Fiore, tenor (Abdallo); Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Chorus & Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor / no commercial issue; see and hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzOKMYHBmL0 or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyEEB9jFwGE (live, May 12, 2011)

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Nabucco was not only Verdi’s first big hit, it was his most interesting and complex opera before Macbeth. Aside from the implied patriotism of the famous chorus “Va, pensiero,” the plot’s complex handling of such issues as a nation under siege, personal jealousies, lust for power and the betrayal of those closest to you as well as an entire nation makes this a truly fascinating opera. Moreover, Verdi poured some of his most intricate and inventive music of his early days into the score. Where else in his first five operas is there anything as subtly written and scored as the bass aria “Veni, o Levita” or the Abigaille-Ismaele-Fenena trio? The justly famous trio from I Lombardi is practically a mini-cantata, superbly conceived and scored, but it is a 12-minute isolated moment of brilliance in an opera that is otherwise disjointed and lacking focus. In Nabucco, both the libretto and the composer carefuly craft the up, downs, and betrayal of the title character by his adopted daughter, his sudden, surprising conversion to Judaism and his eventual emergence as a heroic figure. For this reason, the character of Nabucco is one of the most complex in the entire Verdi canon before the emergence of Simon Boccanegra.

Yet almost all of the attention of operagoers focus on Abigaille, the strong, willful daughter of slaves who destroys the evidence proving this, imprisons her feeble-minded adopted father, and rules Babylon with an iron fist. The reason for this is the recitative, aria and cabaletta that open the second part of the drama, one of the most fearsome vocal pieces ever written for soprano. Even the convoluted filigree of Mozart’s “Martern aller arten” cannot hold a patch on this set-piece, which has ruined more soprano voices (including that of Verdi’s second wife, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi) than even Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene.

I will grant you that no one I’ve ever heard comes close to the recorded performance of 23-year-old Elena Suliotis in the 1967 Decca-London recording of the opera, but the overall performance is weak. I ascribe this to Tito Gobbi’s aging voice and resources in not giving a really commanding performance of the title role, the generally unsympathetic singing of Bruno Prevedi as Ismaele, and the cool, uninvolved conducting of Lamberto Gardelli. Bottom line, it just doesn’t click. But most other sopranos who sing (sang) Abigaille seem to want to make her another Lady Macbeth, which she really isn’t, with the result that the ugliest voices (Callas, Dimitrova) and most vicious vocal attacks (Scotto, Dimitrova) seem to rule the roost. I prefer an Abigaille who sounds strong, determined, even iron-fisted, but not mad or demonic. Remember, she wants Ismaele, who loves her younger sister Fenena, to love her instead, and in her trio with them the ugly and/or forced voice is not going to blend with them. For that reason, too, I didn’t like the 1977 live performance with Cristina Deutekom—one of the greatest lyric-dramatic sopranos who ever trod the stage—as Abigaille. She sang the aria splendidly, but didn’t really build a character, and her unusual, fly-away vibrato simply didn’t and couldn’t mix with anyone else in the cast.

Leo Nucci is not my favorite Italian baritone—far from it. Most of the time he sings with an incipient wobble and, worse yet, slides into his high notes, but for whatever reason he clicked into gear in this performance. More importantly, he interprets this complex role beautifully. Dmitry Beloselsky has a splendid bass voice (despite one slightly hoarse note in “Veni, o Levita”) and does well in a role that really doesn’t call for much more than a splendid bass voice. But the singers who really impressed me tremendously were tenor Antonio Poli as a young, passionate yet likeable Ismaele and the little-known Csilla Boross as a splendid Abigaille, one very much in the mold of Leonie Rysanek (or Deutekom but with a voice than blends better). Yet in the long run, the glue that holds this entire performance together is the conducting of Muti, who really does “own” this opera. Every moment is alive with feeling and meaning, and the whole holds together brilliantly. It is a tour-de-force performance.

So why isn’t it available on CD or DVD? Don’t ask me. Possibly because, aside from Nucci, none of these singers are big names and therefore can’t compete commercially with Muti’s earlier versions of Nabucco. Beloselsky is on only two recordings, one of Shostakovich’s 1933 cartoon music for Balda Sanderling on DG and the other Grigory Alfeyev’s St. Matthew Passion on Melodiya. Boross, Poli and Malavasi have made no commercial recordings. But I’m not interested in someone because of their pedigree. Matteo Managuerra, one of my all-time favorite baritones, is the Nabucco on Muti’s studio recording of the opera, but then we get stuck with Renata Scotto. Siegmund Nimsgern is the Nabucco of the 1977 telecast with Deutekom. Neither one of those early performances are, overall, as fine as this one. So I’m sticking with it. So there!

VERDI: Otello / Ramon Vinay, tenor (Otello); Herva Nelli, soprano (Desdemona); Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone (Iago); Virginio Assandri, tenor (Cassio); Leslie Chabay, tenor (Roderigo); Nan Merriman, mezzo (Emilia); Nicola Moscona, bass (Lodovico); Arthur Newman, bass (Montano); Chorus directed by Peter Wilhousky; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Naxos 8.111320-21, available for CD or download purchase HERE; alternate version available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits beginning HERE

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Originally my recommendation was for the 1932 Carlo Sabajno recording with Nicola Fuasti as Otello, Maria Carbone as Desdemona and Apollo Granforte as Iago, but upon relistening to it I found a few mistakes where the singers jumped the beat and some sections that were played and sung too fast in order to fit it onto the original 78s. Toscanini’s performance has long been considered a gem, but he made a big mistake in retirement by insisting that the pedal organ note underneath the opening scene be dubbed in at an amplified volume level, far greater than you would hear it in live performance. (Many of those who bought this Otello on LP, including myself, thought that the overloud organ note was an electronic hum created by a mastering error.) The version of the opera issued by Urania, which is the preferred version for streaming online, retains this louder organ note but minimizes it a little.

The Naxos issue, however, was made from a pristine copy of the original acetates. The organ note is receded in the soundspace, as it should be, and the overall recording has a natural ambience lacking from both the RCA and Urania issues, but it is a little deficient in the bass and midrange. I would recommend boosting these by a couple of decibels to rectify the situation. This live feed also does not include the inserts that Toscanini demanded from the dress rehearsal, but that is a small matter. By and large, the sound is terrific, almost natural compared to many Toscanini broadcasts from the notorious Studio 8-H.

As for the performance, I find it lacking a little in the menace of the Iago. Although Giuseppe Valdengo was a fine baritone with an excellent voice, and though Toscanini coached him in the role like a drill sergeant (remember, Toscanini played cello in the orchestra of the world premiere!), Valdengo sounds here, as he does in the Toscanini Falstaff, like an actor trying to sound menacing. He comes close, but he just doesn’t have a real feel for menace as Apollo Granforte (for Sabajno) and Peter Glossop (see below) did. Other than that, this is a magnificent performance. Ramón Vinay does not sing softly enough in the Act 1 love duet, but otherwise is a perfect Otello (Toscanini called him “a real animal,” and both Rafael Kubelik and Toscanini rival Sir Thomas Beecham used him in this role during the 1950s). If you can live with the overloud organ note in the beginning minute of the opera, you’ll enjoy the free streaming of the Urania issue, but I still recommend the Naxos release more strongly.

VERDI: Otello / Jon Vickers, tenor (Otello); Mirella Freni, soprano (Desdemona); Peter Glossop, baritone (Iago); Stefania Malagú, mezzo (Emilia); Aldo Bottion, tenor (Cassio); Michel Sénéchal, tenor (Roderigo); Mario Macchi, baritone (Montano); José van Dam, bass (Lodovico); Berlin Deutsche Opera Chorus; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Herbert von Karajan, conductor / Warner Classics 56450; alternate live performance available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits

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With all the things I said about the Toscanini-Vinay recording, this 1972 studio version is also one for the ages, but in this case it’s Jon Vickers and Glossop who steal the show. Freni sings beautifully but doesn’t really present much of a character. Karajan, like Toscanini, pulls all the stops out, and there is a nice bonus in the fact that the great flautist James Galway was a member of the Berlin Philharmonic at the time, and you can hear him play all those great little flute bits in act one.

VERDI: Rigoletto / Marcelo Álvarez, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Peter Autry, tenor (Borsa); Paolo Gavanelli, baritone (Rigoletto); Dervia Ramsay, soprano (Countess Ceprano); Graeme Broadbent, baritone (Count Ceprano); Giovan Batista Parodi, bass (Monterone); Eric Halvarson, bass (Sparafucile); Christine Schäfer, soprano (Gilda); Elizabeth Sikora, mezzo (Giovanna); Quentin Hayes, baritone (Marullo); Graciela Araya, mezzo (Maddalena); Royal Opera, Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus; Sir Edward Downes, conductor / Opus Arte 6005 (DVD)

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Except for Eric Halvarson’s slightly infirm Sparafucile, you cannot find a more perfectly sung, conducted and acted Rigoletto anywhere else on earth. The visual production, though not really “Regietheater,” tends to overdo the debauchery in the Duke’s court, particularly in Scene 1, but for the most part I like the fact that the director pretty much stuck to period and brought out the dark gloom of the piece. Too many people tend to think of Rigoletto as a rollicking tune-fest, and to an extent it is, but there’s a really, really black-hearted story under all that surface glitter and this production and cast bring it out.

Happily, the stars of this show really are the stars of the show. Gavanelli doesn’t have anywhere near the vocal resources of a Leonard Warren, Piero Cappuccilli or Giuseppe Taddei, but he manages his voice with great sensitivity and intelligence. Álvarez has never sung with a more suave line or ingratiating tone: his performance is, except for the interpolated high B in “La donna me mobile,” sheer perfection. Yet it is Christine Schäfer who so completely molds her voice to the many demands of the role of Gilda that one is left speechless at her achievement. Here, at long last, is a Gilda who sounds young but not insipid (pace young Lina Pagliughi in 1927), touching but not blubbering sobs, and for once showing the audience that the reason she sacrificed herself was not for altruistic purposes but becaue she didn’t believe in killing someone for her own gullibility. Gilda is willing to sacrifice herself not to save the “handsome Duke” but because she now feels that her own life means nothing. You can hear it all in her “Lassu in cielo,” singing her farewell to her father as she hastens to join her mother in heaven. The dark, grimy life she and her father have had to lead are anathema to her, and she simply wanted to end it all.

And then there is the late Edward Downes, surely one of the most underrated Verdi conductors who ever lived. His pacing and shaping of this “simple” yet difficult score is perfect, and that’s saying something. The only other conductor who came close to this achievement was Richard Bonynge, and he failed because he had to keep slowing down to allow his klunker of a wife muddle her way through the role of Gilda. If you love this performance as much as I do, you may want to do what I did, which was to also rip the audio and burn audio CDs to play when you don’t feel the need to watch it too. The performance is that good. The reason I only gave it 4 ½ fish was because of Halvarson, nothing else.

By the way, honorable mention goes to a splendid and little-known 1977 film performance with Margarita Rinaldi as Gilda, Franco Bonisolli as the Duke and Rolando Panerai as Rigoletto with Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducting. The pacing and shaping of the opera isn’t quite on the same level of intensity as Downes, but it’s still very good, and to watch Panerai crawl around the stage like a huge human spider is at once stunning and a bit chilling. Bonisolli is a real SOB of a Duke—the best acting job I’ve ever seen in this role—and Rinaldi is almost as touching as Schäfer. You can see it for free here.

VERDI: Rigoletto / Bidú Sayão, soprano (Gilda); Leonard Warren, baritone (Rigoletto); Jussi Björling, tenor (Duke of Mantua); Thelma Lipton, mezzo-soprano (Maddalena); Norman Cordon, bass (Sparafucile); Richard Manning, tenor (Borsa); George Cehanovsky, baritone (Marullo); Thelma Altman, mezzo (Giovanna); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Cesare Sodero, conductor / Naxos 8.110051-52 (2 CDs, mono, live performance, December 29, 1945)

4-fish

This is not normally the kind of performance I find musically valid or interesting. For one thing, it’s heavily cut, missing not only “Posente amor mi chamo” but several little cuts in the duets and scenes. For another, the tempos are occasionally pulled back to allow the singers to be “expressive,” particularly tenor Jussi Björling who apparently loved to indulge in decelerandi and tempo rubato when the mood hit him to stretch out a high note and show off his breath control. Moreover, Björling was no actor and thus doesn’t present a character; all he does is sing, mostly loudly and enthusiastically. But what a gorgeous voice he had back then! And how gratefully his tone strikes the ear after decades of listening to Placido Domingo strain and struggle his way through most of the tenor (and baritone) repertoire!

More to the point, as odd as it sounds, everything that is done in this performance works. The only other point when I said to myself, “That tempo is just plain wrong” was the beginning of “Si, vendetta,” which Warren takes very, very slowly, but then gradually increases until it reaches the proper speed. By the end of the duet I realized that what he did was dramatically effective: he gave the impression that the idea of revenge slowly came to Rigoletto, that Gilda realized this and, in shock, tried to dissuade him, but as the duet goes on and the tempo increases so too does his resolve. It’s a bit stagey, I admit, but Leonard Warren was such a great artist that I gave him a pass on this (by the way, he sang the duet exactly the same way about a decade later in a performance with soprano Mado Robin). Just listen to the way Warren shape and molds Rigoletto’s emerging personality, from the bluff, cynical jester of Act 1, Scene 1 to a man frightened of being cursed, then listen to the way he colors both “Pari siamo” and especially “Cortigianni, vil razza dannata” with the sensitivity of a lieder singer and a dramatic interpretation worthy of Chaliapin. I am an inveterate Warren fan, and I’ve heard him come close to this kind of brinkmanship on some of his commercial recordings, but really nothing quite as dynamic and “alive” as he sounds here.

The other surprise to me was Bidú Sayão, whose singing I generally find overly coy and precious. In her performances as Mimi, Zerlina, Juliette et al, I find her capricious tempo-stretching and little “ah-hoo” sobs that break up the vocal line not merely calculated but annoying. Not so here. Surprisingly, her very alive and realistic-sounding response to the changing dramatic situation perfectly mirrors the mind and psyche of a 16-year-old yong woman who has been sheltered all her life but has now been defiled and, for the first time in her life, deceived and betrayed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the orchestral passage immediately following the “Cortigianni” when she runs out to join her father onstage. Sayão’s crying at this exact moment sounds theatrically valid and natural, and she does us the favor of not overdoing it or continuing to do it throughout her duet or in “Tutte la feste.” I give credit for a lot of this to Warren, who (as reputation has it) simply would not abide overly-precious or stretched-out performances.

Sodero’s conducting, though allowing Björling (and, very occasionally, Sayão) to stretch the tempo, is surprisingly taut. Moreover, he captures perfectly the dark, menacing mood of the opera, which so many conductors miss. (Others who captured it well were Tullio Serafin, Richard Bonynge and Edward Downes). I discovered that Sodero had been a pupil of the famed Italian composer-conductor Giuseppe Martucci, that when he came to America he became Thomas Edison’s “house conductor” for his operatic records between 1913 and 1925, and then spent several years working in radio. He came to the Met when Ettore Panizza retired in the early 1940s, but didn’t live to enjoy his success too long, as he died in 1947, aged only 62.

I listed the Naxos Historical issue here because it seems to be the one most easly available, but it is also available on a Sony Classical release…but, I think, only in the boxed set “Verdi at the Met,” since I have not been able to locate any independent issue of Rigoletto. This is a shame, as the official Met-Sony release has the clearer sound.

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra / Leonard Warren, baritone (Paolo); Louis d’Angelo, bass (Pietro); Lawrence Tibbett, baritone (Simon); Ezio Pinza, bass (Jacopo Fiesco); Elisabeth Rethberg, soprano (Amelia/Maria); Giovanni Martinelli, tenor (Gabriele Adorno); Angelo Bada, tenor (Captain); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Ettore Panizza, conductor / Immortal Performances IPCD 1031-2 (live, 1/21/1939)

5-fish

Here’s a very rare case where an ancient mono broadcast is by far the best performance of this opera. Ettore Panizza, one of Toscanini’s assistants at La Scala in the 1920s, was head of the Italian wing of the Metropolitan from the mid-1930s until 1941, and although he sometimes had a penchant for roller-coaster tempos (now too slow, now too fast, now just right), his conducting here is spot-on and dramatic from first note to last. And this cast simply cannot be beat, not in any of the roles…just imagine, Leonard Warren as Paolo! It’s not even that the voices themselves are excellent. Everyone interprets his or her part superbly, possibly the biggest surprises being Ezio Pinza’s highly dramatic Jacopo Fiesco and Rethberg’s on-the-edge Amelia. You almost never hear Amelia sung with this kind of penetrating dramatic thrust and flawless technique. I know there are many out there who despise Martinelli’s voice, which bloomed in the house but almost always sounded tight and pinched when captured by a microphone, but to me he is splendid. And in my view, this was Tibbett’s greatest role, bar none. Richard Caniell of Immortal Performances has done a good job of cleaning this up as much as is possible to provide a relatively (but not entirely) noise-free listening experience, so it gets 5 fish despite being mono and sub-par mono at that.

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra / Vassily Gerello, baritone (Paolo); Richard Bernstein, bass (Pietro); Thomas Hampson, baritone (Simon); Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass (Jacopo Fiesco); Angela Gheorghiu, soprano (Amelia/Maria); Marcello Giordani, tenor (Gabriele Adorno); Rosemary Nencheck, mezzo (Maid); Roy Cornelius Smith, tenor (Captain); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Fabio Luisi, conductor / try to find it yourself (live, 3/3/2007)

5-fish

VERDI: Simon Boccanegra / Felice Schiavi, baritone (Paolo); Giovanni Fioani, bass (Pietro); Piero Cappuccilli, baritone (Simon); Nicolai Ghiaurov, bass (Jacopo Fiesco); Mirella Freni, soprano (Amelia/Maria); Veriano Luchetti, tenor (Gabriele Adorno); Milena Pauli, mezzo (Maid); Gianfranco Manganotti, tenor (Captain); Teatro alla Scala, Milan Orchestra & Chorus; Claudio Abbado, conductor / available free at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s89cFWVDGeE (part 1) & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zctoMumwRrg (part 2) (live, 1978)

4-fish

The stereo and digital recordings of Boccanegra are more of a problem. Considered critical opinion says that the DG studio recording with Piero Cappuccilli, Mirella Freni, José Carreras and conductor Claudio Abbado is the berries, but to me it’s just unrelentingly loud, and as I once argued for many moons with an ex-friend of mine, shouting and yelling is not an interpretation. Unfortunately, many Verdi-lovers want big, brassy voices in these roles to the expense of subtlety of acting and interpretation, so if that is your thing go for it. Personally, I prefer the live 1978 performance with almost the same cast except for the major replacement of the great Veriano Luchetti as Gabriele in place of Carreras. I still, however, only give it four fish because to my ears it’s still mostly loud, monotonous singing, although Abbado’s conducting is splendid.

So why is it listed second here? Because I taped the live Met broadcast of March 3, 2007 with singers that everyone else hated, Thomas Hampson as Simon and Angela Gheorghiu as Amelia/Maria. The reason they were hated was that their voices were relatively small for their roles—and, in addition, Hampson’s soft-grained baritone lacks ring or “squillo.” Yet these two great artists give, for me, the finest interpretations of their roles since Tibbett and Rethberg (although Gheorghiu lacks a real trill, as do most Amelias). Moreover, Marcello Giordani and Ferruccio Furlanetto sing their hearts out as Jacopo and Gabriele, and Fabio Luisi’s conducting—criticized by some listeners as being too fast—sounds just right to me. But since you might not be able to find a copy of it anywhere (even such famous pirate companies as Premiere Opera didn’t bother to issue it because so many Verdi fans carped about Hampson and Gheorghiu) it remains, for many, a “phantom” recording. You can hear the Amelia-Boccanegra duet here, however.

VERDI: La Traviata / Licia Albanese, soprano (Violetta); Jan Peerce, tenor (Alfredo); Robert Merrill, baritone (Giorgio); Maxine Stellman, mezzo (Flora); Johanne Morland, soprano (Annina); John Garris, baritone (Gastone); George Cehanovsky, baritone (Baron Douphol); Paul Dennis, bass (Marquis d’Obigny); Arthur Newman, bass (Dr. Grenvil); NBC Symphony Orchestra; Chorus directed by Peter Wilhousky; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / Music and Arts CD 4271, available for order HERE

4-fish

I find Toscanini’s actual issued performance of La Traviata hard-driven, overly fast and difficult to take, but these dress rehearsals are simply wonderful. Most of the tempi are more relaxed, and the conductor draws a superb performance out of his singers and orchestra. A few moments of Toscanini singing along with the artists or shouting a couple of invectives do not detract from the magnificence of this performance.

VERDI: La Traviata / Ileana Cotrubas, soprano (Violetta); Stefania Malagú, mezzo (Flora Bervoix); Placido Domingo, tenor (Alfredo Germont); Helena Jungwirth, mezzo (Annina); Sherrill Milnes, baritone (Giorgio Germont); Walter Gullino, tenor (Gastone/Giuseppe); Bruno Grella, baritone (Baron Douphol); Giovanni Foiani, baritone (Dr. Grenvil); Bavarian State Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Carlos Kleiber, conductor / Deutsche Grammophon 415132 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

6-fish

Clearly the finest stereo and/or digital recording of the opera ever made. You want Callas singing at miserably slow tempi? Or Scotto? Go right ahead and waste your money. For me, this is THE stereo Traviata, and Cotrubas even plays to the philistines by singing the unwritten high E-flat at the end of “Sempre libera.”

VERDI: Il Trovatore / Giorgio Tozzi, bass (Ferrando); Leontyne Pricde, soprano (Leonora); Laura Londi, soprano (Ines); Leonard Warren, baritone (Count di Luna); Richard Tucker, tenor (Manrico); Rosalind Elias, mezzo (Azucena); Mario Carlin, tenor (Ruiz); Leonardo Monreale, bass (A Gypsy); Teatro dell’Opera di Roma Orchestra & Chorus; Arturo Basile, conductor / Urania WS 121198, available as physical CDs or downloads HERE or available for streaming in small bits on YouTube

4-and-a-half-fish

Like the live Warren Rigoletto listed earlier, this recording has a lot going against it, most notably the fact that conductor Arturo Basile allowed numerous cuts in the score, the worst being the little duet by Leonore and Manrico between “Ah si, ben mio” and “Di quella pira,” a horribly abridged version of the latter aria, and Leonora’s second cabaletta, “Tu vedrai.” But I just can’t stop enjoying this recording because everyone sounds so wonderful in it, particularly baritone Leonard Warren who outclasses his own 1952 self on the mono recording of the opera with Milanov and Björling. Just to hear Price and Warren rip through “Mira, d’accerbe lagrime…Vivra! Il contend il giublio” is a pleasure one simply must experience in one’s lifetime. No one I know has ever pointed out that this is the only studio recording of any opera made by those two close friends, Warren and tenor Richard Tucker, the latter also sounding wonderful, and young Rosalind Elias gives us a glimpse of what might have been had she not pushed her voice far too hard during her Met career.

VERDI: Il Trovatore / Evgeny Nesterenko, bass (Ferrando); Rosalind Plowright, soprano (Leonora); Anna di Stasio, mezzo (Ines); Giorgio Zancanaro, baritone (Count di Luna); Placido Domingo, tenor (Manrico); Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo (Azucena); Walter Gullino, tenor (Ruiz); Alfredo Giacometti, bass (A Gypsy); Aldo Verrecchio, tenor (Messenger); Santa Cecilia Coro e Orchestra; Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor / digitally modified to match Verdi’s written tempi and score instructions, available for free streaming on the Internet Archive

6-fish

This is my gift to you: the only recording of Il Trovatore, digitally modified, that matches what Verdi wrote. A few moments will surprise you because they are slower than you are used to (particularly the “Miserere” and “Di quella pira”), and ALL unwritten high notes are omitted, including in the last-named aria, but many scenes are much faster than you’re probably used to them, particularly “Stride la vampa” (with its 20 trills!) and “Mira, d’accerbe lagrime” etc., which takes off like a house on fire. And yes, I had the score and a metronome at hand when I double-checked all these tempi. They are what Verdi wrote, no faster, no slower.

Viardot-Garcia, Pauline

VIARDOT-GARCIA: Mein Fluss. Der Gärtner. Er ist’s. Nixe Binsefuß. In der Frühe. Das Verlassene Mägdlein. Die Soldatenbraut. Agnes. Morgenlied. Im April. Zwei Rosen. Der Gefangene. Auf die Rose. Die Meise. Auf Grusiens Hügeln. O Sing, du Schöne, Sing mir Nicht. Märchen. Verlangen. Des Nachts. Die Kapelle. Die Klagende. Rätsel. Das Blümlein. Das Vöglein. Allein. Die Sterne. Die Beschwörung / Miriam Alexandra, soprano; Eric Schneider, pianist / Oehms Classics OC 1878 or available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

5-fish

VIARDOT-GARCIA: Hai luli. Havanaise. Les filles de Cadix / Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; Myung-Whun Chung, pianist / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

6-fish

VIARDOT-GARCIA: Alter Mann, Schrecklicher Mann. Auf Grusiens Hügeln. Aus Fremden Lande. Das Blümlein. E Che t’ho Fatto. Der Gärtner. Der Gefangene. Im April. In der Frühe. Der Jungling und das Mädchen. Die Meise. Moriro. Der Nächtliche Zephyr. Des Nachts. Die Nacht und der Tag. Nixe Binsefuss. O Wenn es Wahr ist, Dass zur Nacht. Räthsel. Die Sterne. Das Vöglein. Vor Gericht. Zwei Rosen / Julia Sukmanova, soprano; Elena Sukmanova, pianist / Fontenay Classics FC 1006 or all but two songs available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking on titles above

5-fish

VIARDOT-GARCIA: At Dawn. The Crag. The Flower. For Distant Shores of Homeland. I Loved Him. Invocation.  Midnight Phantoms. Old Man, Harsh Husband. Quietly Fades the Evening Light. Separation. The Solution. Stars. Tell Me Why. Upon the Hills of Georgia. The Willow Tree / Ina Kancheva, soprano; Ludmil Angelov, pianist / Toccata Classics 0303, or all but one song available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

6-fish

Pauline Viardot-Garcia, the youngest child of legendary tenor-patriarch Manuel Garcia, was not only a great singer in her early years but an exceptionally fine song composer. The examples listed above will prove to you that she was clearly on a par with Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Mussorgsky as one of the finest song composers of the 19th century.

Vierne, Louis

VIERNE: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Hans-Eberhard Roß, organist / Audite 92674 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

5-fish

VIERNE: Symphony No. 6: Finale / Virgil Fox, organist / available for free streaming on YouTube

6-fish

Louis Vierne’s rich organ symphonies are seldom heard in concert due to their musical complexity and technical difficulties, but these recordings are astounding.

Villa-Lobos, Heitor

VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 4, 5*, 7 & 9. Córos No. 10+ / *Renée Fleming, soprano; +BBC Singers; New World Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor / RCA Red Seal 68538 or available for free streaming in short bits on YouTube

6-fish

VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5: Aria (Cantilena) / Bidú Sayão, soprano; Ensemble of Cellos; Leonard Rose, solo cellist; Heitor Villa-Lobos, conductor / Forest of the Amazon / unidentified orchestra; Heitor Villa-Lobos, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

4-and-a-half-fish

Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is his most famous and popular work, particularly the Aria-Cantilena in the middle which is sung as a mostly wordless vocal with the final phrase hummed by the soprano. Bidú Sayão’s 1945 recording, though boxy-sounding, is justly praised as a classic, but Tilson Thomas’ traversal of four of these pieces plus the even more exciting Córos No. 10 is also a masterpiece. Less known, but equally excellent, is Sayão’s superb singing of the songs from Forest of the Amazon.

VILLA-LOBOS: Canção do Carreiro. Desejo. Xango / Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano; Harold Lester, pianist / available free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

5-fish

These three songs by Cathy Berberian are, in my view, also classic recordings.

VILLA-LOBOS: A Prole do Bebe / Elena Gaponenko, pianist / part of Genuin 15376 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

5-fish

A little-known but superb piano suite by Villa-Lobos, played to perfection by the multi-talented Elena Gaponenko.

VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartets (17) / Cuarteto Latinoamericano / Dorian Sono Luminus 90904 or available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

6-fish

Stupendous recordings of Villa-Lobos’ string quartets by this highly gifted group.

VILLA-LOBOS: Symphonies Nos. 1 (“O Imprevisto”) & 2 / Sào Paolo Symphony Orchestra; Isaac Karabtchevsky, conductor / Naxos 8.573829 or available for free streaming in small bits on YouTube

5-fish

VILLA-LOBOS: Symphonies Nos. 8, 9 & 11 / Sào Paolo Symphony Orchestra; Isaac Karabtchevsky, conductor / Naxos 8.573777 or available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual numbers above

5-fish

Compared to the string quartets, Villa-Lobos’ symphonies are a bit splashy and not as technically interesting, but still wonderful to listen to.

Vivaldi, Antonio

VIVALDI: Bajazet / David Daniels, countertenor (Tamerlano); Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, bass (Bajazet); Patrizia Ciofi, soprano (Idaspe); Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano (Irene); Marijana Mijanovic, mezzo (Asteria); Elina Garanca, mezzo (Andronico); Europa Galante; Fabio Biondi, conductor / Erato 45676 or available for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE

6-fish

Vivaldi wrote something like 50 operas, but only this one really works on CD because everyone is in overdrive and they sing and play it with tremendous fervor. At the time of recording, only soprano Patrizia Ciofi and countertenor David Daniels were well known singers, but one will also note the presence of Vivica Genaux, Marijana Mijanovic and Elina Garanca, all of whom became famous afterwards.

VIVALDI: Cantata, “All’ombra di sospetto” / Randall K. Wong, male soprano; Elizabeth Blumenstock, violinist; Leta Miller, flautist; Michael Dollendorf, bassoonist; Paul Hale, cellist; Linda Burman-Hall, harpsichordist / available for free streaming on YouTube

6-fish

After listening to David Daniels and all the other male falsetto countertenors, your ears will be shocked by Randall K. Wong—he really does sound like a soprano, and his singing is unfailingly musical and rhythmically lively. A real treat!

VIVALDI: Cantata, “Amor, hai vinto.” Cantata, “Cessate, omai cessate”: pt. 1, pt. 2 / Sara Mingardo, contralto; Concerto Italiano; Rinaldo Alessandrini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking links above

6-fish

Two more superb Vivaldi cantatas, sung by the phenomenal Italian contralto Sara Mingardo.

VIVALDI: Cello Concerti / Guy Fishman, cellist; Members of Handel and Haydn Society / Olde Focus Recordings FCR907, or available for free streaming on YouTube starting HERE

6-fish

An absolutely astounding recording that will literally stun you, despite Fishman’s use of straight tone.

VIVALDI: Concerti for 2 Violins & Orchestra / Florian Deuter, Monica Waisman, violinists; Harmonie Universelle / Accent 24266

5-fish

Another stunning recording of Vivaldi concerti.

VIVALDI: Farnace: Gelido in ogni vena.  La Fida Ninfa: Alma oppredda. Dite, oimé. Giustino: Sventurata navicella. Griselda: Dopo un’orrida procella. L’Orlando Finto Pazzo. Olimpiade: Tra le follie…Siam navi all’onde algenti / Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking links above

6-fish

Few singers in our lifetime have done as much for Baroque and Classical-era music as Cecilia Bartoli, and these examples are beyond reproach. The last aria, from Olimpiade, will leave you breathless in disbelief as to what this woman can do with her voice.

VIVALDI: The Four Seasons / Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violinist/conductor; Orchestra of St. Luke’s / EMI 49767, or available for free streaming on YouTube in small bits

6-fish

Well, this is the one you’ve been waiting for, right? Are you disappointed that it’s not a pure historically-informed performance? I’m not. Salerno-Sonnenberg and the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra tear into these concerti in a way that will have you on the edge of your seat. An absolutely inspired and inspiring reading!

VIVALDI: Gloria, RV 589 / Ann Monoyios, Ariel Harwood-Jones, sopranos; Matthew White, countertenor; Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins, director; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Jeanne Lamon, director / CBC 5244 or available for free streaming on YouTube in two parts

5-fish

An exceptional performance, despite the ahistoric use of a countertenor, of one of Vivaldi’s finest orchestra-choral works.

VIVALDI: Orlando Furioso / Marilyn Horne, mezzo (Orlando); Victoria de los Angeles, soprano (Angelica); Lucia Valentini-Terrani, mezzo (Alcina); Carmen Gonzales, contralto (Bradamante); Lajos Kozma, tenor (Medoro); Sesto Bruscantini, baritone (Ruggiero); Nicola Zaccaria, bass (Astolfo); Amixi della Polifonia; I Solisti Veneti; Claudio Scimone, conductor / Erato 67926 or available for free streaming on YouTube

5-fish

Orlando is certainly furious in this barn-burner of an opera, and this 1977 recording—though flying somewhat in the face of the burgeoning HIP movement by including such big-voiced opera singers (and of conventional opera, no less) as Horne, de los Angeles, Valentini-Terrani, Kozma, Bruscantini and Zaccaria (some of them had been around since the 1950s!)—comes off with surprising fire and idiomatic style. The biggest surprise here is de los Angeles, who after singing since the late 1940s without a trill (even in operas that required it, like Faust), suddenly pulled a few of them out of thin air for this performance.

VIVALDI: Stabat Mater / Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Ensemble Matheus; Jean-Christophe Spinosi, conductor / Naïve 30453 or available for free streaming on YouTube

5-fish

Canadian alto Lemieux, whose voice sometimes rattles like dice in a box, here pulls back on her breath pressure to produce an absolute gem of a performance of this deeply-felt work by Vivaldi.

VIVALDI: Violin Concerto in B-flat, RV 370 / Mischa Mischakoff, violinist; NBC Symphony Orchestra; Arturo Toscanini, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube

4-fish

Here’s a real rarity: the American premiere of a then-newly-discovered Vivaldi violin concerto. Toscanini’s orchestral reduction and style clearly preface the HIP movement of the late 1970s-early ‘80s (this performance does not compare badly at all to such later recordings as the one by Adrian Chandler from 2005), except this was in 1947!

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