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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 5

Decca: The Singers

by Philip Anson / February 1, 2002

Version française...

Decca’s The Singers is an artist-driven series of compilations touted as “the most significant and beautiful gathering of great singing on disc.” Each generously-filled disc contains up to 73 minutes of music, some of it never before available on CD.

The main selling point is the extra “interactive” CD-ROM content accessible via your Mac or PC computer. This includes liner notes, song texts, a Photo Gallery, and Discography. The song texts, unfortunately, are not printed in the CD booklet. All notes and song texts are offered in English, German, and French.

The unsatisfying liner notes by various opera pundits rarely amount to more than short hagiographical sketches of each singer larded with “I heard her when...” reminiscences. Only writer JB Steane refers to specific recordings and repertoire. There’s no excuse for this when the vast space on a CD could have held hundreds of pages of biographical and critical information, opera history, sheet music (as on Deutsche Grammophon’s CD Score Plus series), bibliographies, essays on vocal styles, technical glossaries with sound clips, and interviews.

The Photo Galleries contain up to two dozen printable photos of each singer. The discography is, however, restricted to CDs issued by Universal labels (Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips).

Now to the music. Determined to offer material “never before available on CD,” the series editors have included some insignificant stuff (see my thumbnail critiques of each disc below). The project suffers from the exclusion of music from RCA/BMG, EMI, Columbia-Sony, and other labels. The content is digitally remastered to the new 96kHz 24Bit Super Digital standard, so the sound is exceptionally clear. This is thrilling on a good home stereo, but it can mean distortion and splitting if you listen on lo-fi headphones, Walkman, or computer.

Conclusion: The Singers presents opera in a user-friendly format that may appeal to computer buffs and would have been good for schools had the educational content been greater. But the extra features on the CD ROM are minimal. Serious and semi-serious opera collectors will already have the vast majority of this material in a more attractive format (even old LPs have similar pictures, discography and liner notes). Let’s hope the next 30 issues in this series are more carefully prepared.

To access the complete list, see www.deccaclassics.com/music/singers/ Other reviews of this series can be found at www.scena.org.

Brief reviews of the best albums follow.
Female Singers

Beverly Sills (Decca 467.906). American soprano Beverly Sills is at the height of her powers in these eleven arias and art songs recorded between 1964–1974. Mozart’s Martern alle arten shows off her exquisite trill. Six arias from French operas such as Louise and Robert le Diable are warmly sung in an amazingly clear, precise high soprano.

Teresa Berganza (Decca 467 905). Six Mozart arias and five Rossini arias recorded in 1959 and 1962 give a treasurable sampling of Berganza’s delicious high, silvery mezzo.

Birgit Nillson (Decca 467.912). Savour the Swedish soprano’s famous Fidelio, Agathe, Isolde, and Sieglinde, plus a few Italian rarities such as Nabucco and the Forza Leonore.

Jennie Tourel(Decca 467907). 3 stars. This mixed recital of French mélodies by Ravel and Poulenc and Russian songs by Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, et al., drips with passion and authenticity. But Tourel often sounds dry and strained. She was in her 50s when she made these Decca recordings.

Erna Berger (Decca 467917). 3 stars. German soubrette soprano Berger is a pert and engaging singer. These archival recordings from the 1930s, complete with surface noise, are an interesting snapshot of opera and recital fare in war time Berlin. Everything including Puccini and Verdi is sung in German. For hard core opera fans only.

Suzanne Danco (Decca 467 909). 3 stars. Belgian soprano Danco has a firm, accurate, technically secure voice that lacks personality. These mono recordings from 1948-1953 of eight opera arias, five Strauss lieder and Debussy’s Ariettes oubliés make a nice program that fails to catch fire.

Gundula Janowitz (Decca 467 910). 3 stars. Arias from Freischutz, Oberon, Tannhauser and Lohengrin, lieder by Schubert, and Strauss’s Four Last Songs conducted by her mentor von Karajan show the Austrian-German soprano at her best. Yet one may prefer Nilsson and Flagstad for German opera, and Schwarzkopf, Fleming, or Norman for the Strauss cycle.

Male Singers

Luciano Pavarottit(Decca 467 920). Pavarotti’s greatest hits including Nemorino’s aria with nine high C’s, beautiful selections from Aïda and Otello, favourite canzone like attinata, and naturally, Nessun dorma.

Nicolai Ghiaurov (Decca 467 902). A superb 73-minute album of French and Russian opera arias sung by the Bulgarian basso cantante. His rich, mellow sound is matched by linguistic accuracy and dramatic fervor.

Hermann Prey (Decca 467 901). This compilation showcases German baritone Hermann Prey’s strengths in opera and lieder, with arias from Rossini’s Il barbiere, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Nozze, and songs by Schubert, Strauss, Schumann, and Brahms.

Franco Corelli (Decca 467 918). 4 stars. Corelli’s full-throated, passionate singing is thrilling in arias from Tosca and Faust, and in duets from Otello (with Zylis-Gara), Gioconda, Manon Lescaut, and Francesca di Rimini (with Tebaldi).

Marti Talvella (Decca 467 903). 3 stars. The great Finnish basso applies his warm, expressive voice to Schumann’s Kerner lieder Op. 35, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, and Rachmaninov songs. A treat for song recital fans.

Mario del Monaco (Decca 467 919). 3 stars. Del Monaco’s crisp Italian diction, clear delivery and warm, natural sound are the gold standard in hit arias from Andrea Chenier, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, La Juive, Norma, MacBeth, and Ballo. The Wagner arias, hymns and crossover tunes are less admirable.

Giuseppe di Stefano (Decca 467 908). 3 stars. The old magic glimmers through, but even the liner notes admit di Stefano is past his prime in these 13 opera arias recorded in 1962. Six extra Sicilian songs add little.

Philip Anson

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