Monday, 24 September 2012

Maria Callas in Norma

7th December 1955. Antonino Votto is in the pit at La Scala. On the bill: Bellini's opera Norma. With Mario Del Monaco (Pollione), Giulietta Simionato (Adalgisa). Fortunately someone, somewhere was making some kind of recording of the evening. The Italian audience was noisy and ecstatic.

There are few real golden classics of recorded music. The Busch Quartet in Beethoven and Schubert; Edwin Fischer in Bach's 48; Casals in the Bach suites for solo cello … and a good handful of others including Maria Callas in Tosca and … Maria Callas as Norma.

I have had the December 1955 Norma for some years (Hunt CD). I am eternally grateful to Andrew Rose (Pristine Audio) for having taken the fragile and imperfect recording in hand and having produced something to which one can listen without wincing too often. Bellini's music is sublime. Del Monaco has been bettered, as has Simionato. But Norma is about Norma, and on 7th December 1955 Norma was Maria Callas. Here, she is simply without any equal whatsoever. This is one of those recording where you forget the sound quality, you do not judge the other singers; you simply concentrate on Norma. And you throw out any other versions you may have (including two other Callas versions).

So many real golden classics of the recorded era date from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. This was the age before the itinerant musical stars took to the air to sing or play on one continent on Monday and another on Tuesday. Germans performed Wagner and Bruckner in a way that does not compare with today. Italians sang Puccini and Verdi … and Bellini, in performances such as you no longer find when the principal tenor flies in from New York and Norma flies in from Moscow. But listen to Callas as heard on 7th December 1955 in Milan and you understand fully and completely why she was so revered and why, to this day, she still has no equal whatsoever.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Rachmaninov and Pletnev

Good food day today, with two excellent plaice for lunch and, for dinner, a plate of smoked salmon followed by (slightly too many) langoustines, perfectly cooked by me. To complete the gastronomy, I felt like a rich, orchestral diet and gravitated towards one of my favourite orchestral works: Rachmaninov's second symphony. I have many versions of this work but always end up with: Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestral. It sounds: so Russian, in this recording and I have always loved it, and the music. This is music in which one can wallow.

Maria Yudina

My recent purchases of CDs have been heavily slanted towards pianists, and sopranos. Violinists have taken the back seat, for the moment. I already have a very extensive collection of violin recordings, and, alas, the immensely talented new generation is steered almost exclusively towards the same old 9-10 concertos and 9-10 violin and piano sonatas. Even the very highly esteemed – by me --Alina Ibragimova is about to appear with … the Mendelssohn violin concerto of which I already have 74 recordings, the earliest being Fritz Kreisler in 1926. To make things worse, Ibragimova couples the concerto with Mendelssohn's juvenile concerto that Yehudi Menuhin exhumed. Alina won't get my money this time round.

So I've spent my time with sopranos, and currently with the Russian pianist Maria Yudina playing Bach, Liszt, Beethoven and Brahms (Melodiya recordings from the 1950s). 3 ½ hours of Yudina is intensely pleasurable. What comes over (apart from complete technical mastery) is the passionate convinction with which she plays. No feminine delicacy with Yudina; at times she sounds a bit like a Russian T34 tank. She was an eccentric artist (and person) but played as she thought the music should be played; not to make an impression, not just as she was taught. Her sincerity and convinction are completely credible.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Simone Kermes: Drama

I find to my surprise Рand delight Рthat I now have no less that six recital CDs featuring Simone Kermes. The latest, Dramma, is unalloyed delight. Kermes is in her speciality repertoire Рopera from the first half of the eighteenth century. She has a lovely voice, she is technically secure in even the most virtuoso arias (such as Giuseppe de Majo's Per trionfar pugnando with which the CD opens). She can also sing softly and beautifully (Porpora's Alto Giove). The band, La Magnifica Comunità, fully lives up to its name. The recording and balance are exactly right. All twelve tracks feature music that is either excellent, or superb. Even the liner notes, by Kermes herself, are highly interesting. All in all, one of those (somewhat) rare discs that is a 100% winner. I think Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga is taken too slowly, as usual. But I had to cavil at something.