Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade - Beecham/RPO

To be week sometime.

Man, I am glad I did this one. I hadn't gone over all those recordings in a while.


Album: RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade; BORODIN: Polotsvian Dances

Artist(s): Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Beecham Choral Society

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a wonderful, intoxicating piece of music. Standing as the composer’s most beloved composition, its picturesque Orientalism—realized through brilliant, inventive orchestration and an outpouring of exotic melody—lends itself perfectly to conductors’ varied styles. Listeners adore comparing performances—invariably, Reiner’s recording is extolled for its technical excellence, Stokowski’s for its mysticism, and Svetlanov’s for its 100% genuine Russian bombast.

Yet, even in such a crowded field, this present performance by Sir Thomas Beecham is perhaps the most universally admired recording of Scheherazade. In fact, it is so admired that even the colossal ego in Herbert von Karajan initially declined to record the work, remarking that Beecham’s interpretation could not be improved upon.

Frankly, the praise is bit overdone. This is not to say that this is a bad recording—by no means! Beecham was one of those conductors who could seemingly do no wrong, and there is certainly nothing wrong here, per se. But for comparison, let us draw upon one of Scheherazade’s very best performances—Ernest Ansermet’s lamentably rare 1954 recording with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.

Take the opening few bars. The Sultan’s theme roars out of the brass, and Scheherazade’s voice—symbolized by the haunting violin solo that unifies all four movements—responds, spinning the first of her tales, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. Beecham’s opening shows the maestro in classic form, smoothly propelling the metallic, ominous sound of the brass with a very musical and masculine snap. And his violinist is very good, depicting our heroine with seductive style. In contrast, Ansermet’s sultan is bit less forceful, a bit warmer and more balanced with the strings and reeds. His sultan has just a little more weight around the middle and strides in purposefully. Ansermet’s violinist plays swiftly, with considerable freedom and feeling—in his hands, Scheherazade’s’ feminine voice coyly convinces the sultan to pause and listen.

In the second movement, The Story of the Kalendar Prince, Beecham’s bassoon soloist is really very good, aptly injecting a bit of awkward character into his solo without sacrificing rhythm. The strings are very elegant. And the maestro’s same, classy, snappy phrasing works wonders in the faster parts of the music, particularly in all those wonderfully rousing orchestral strikes towards the end where his wide dynamic range really comes to bear. Clearly, Beecham has the superior orchestra and they play the pants off this music. Yet, Ansermet somehow makes his comparatively sloppy ensemble sound more appropriate—the fluttering, less precise winds are the voices of his characters, and the lighter, thinner strings are the dust and air they breathe. With them, he takes full advantage of Rimsky’s colorful and atmospheric orchestration, defining each melodic line with unerring clarity.

And these trends continue. In the third movement, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, Beecham is all elegance and charm, making a tasty “Beecham bon-bon” of this romance. And his clarinetist depicts a lovely princess indeed. But Ansermet’s is a lighter, sweeter, and more innocent pair of lovers—by comparison, Beecham has too little fairy tale and a bit too much Tchaikovsky. Is that such a bad thing? Well, no, actually it’s great, and no one could ever say that Beecham’s conception lacks character. But Ansermet’s storytelling is second to none.

The last movement, The Festival of Bagdad – The Sea – The ship goes to pieces on a Rock surmounted by a Bronze Warrior, with its mad dash to finish line and final moments of redemption, suits both conductors just fine. Beecham displays typical panache and energy, galloping through with a palpable sense of fun and arriving at a most sensuous conclusion. Here, his superior orchestra really does give him an edge. Still, Ansermet handles himself well, with the Baghdad festival coming off as quite a ragtag affair and the orchestra’s bright, blaring trumpet intruding in a wonderfully impetuous way.

In short, both recordings are excellent, but neither is the end-all performance. Beecham provides a vivid musical picture of a far away, exotic, spice-filled fantasy world. Ansermet provides a threadbare magic carpet and takes you there.

The “filler” of Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances are hard hitting and very exciting, demonstrating essentially the same qualities as Beecham’s Scheherazade but in music even better suited to them. The appearance of the Beecham Choral Society is a plus. The sound is typical 50’s—clear and very closely miked. The bass is a little weak, but not unacceptable.

Recommended, but don’t limit yourself to just this recording of Scheherazade. Get several different ones and argue over them. It’s fun!

Rating: A-

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Verdi: Rigoletto

Written in Missouri, of all places. Under my own extreme duress.

Published in the October 21st issue of the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Verdi: Rigoletto
Artist(s): Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Alfredo Kraus, Rosalind Elias, Ezio Flagella, David Ward, Georg Solti, RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Rigoletto has had many excellent recordings over the years. In the beginning of the LP era, it was one of the first complete operas produced, with the incomparable Leonard Warren in the title role. When stereo emerged, each label dutifully churned out its own star-studded Rigoletto, featuring such luminaries as Ettore Bastianini, Carl Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, and the like. And this trend has continued to the present. Rigoletto is one of the strongest warhorses of the recorded repertoire and will likely continue to be. Yet, surprisingly, in almost every recording of the opera, there is some obvious weak link.

Not so here. In Robert Merrill, we have the most glorious baritone voice of the postwar period—a dark and resonant instrument with ringing top notes and an unfailing sense of legato. Often criticized for ‘just singing’ and not adequately portraying his characters, Merrill’s performance here sweeps all such criticisms aside. His scenes with Gilda are tender, warm, and affectionate—entirely contrary to his nasty antics at the court of Mantua. Then witness his Cortigiani and Si, Vendetta, in which he unleashes his voice in righteous, paternal fury. And the moment when his daughter dies is crushing, not in the voice of a pathetic and deformed clown, but as a man overcome by grief in failing his greatest duty. To him, the hunchbacked jester is an almost noble character, twisted into viciousness by his infirmity. More than any other singer who has portrayed Rigoletto, he is utterly believable as a loving and vengeful father. It is truly his finest role.

Gilda is admirably cast as well. From a purely musical standpoint, Anna Moffo’s Gilda about as good as anyone could expect, with lovely, even tone from top to bottom, a seemingly perfect sense of phrasing, and not the slightest hint of vocal strain. Luckily, Gilda requires more musical skills than interpretive ones, though Ms. Moffo is not without some insight. Her Caro Nome is full of girlish longing. Similarly, her Tutte le Feste al tiempo tugs at one’s heart strings in just the right way—she is just so perfectly naïve and angelic, it seems nearly inevitable that someone will murder her.

Merrill’s Rigoletto and Moffo’s Gilda have few if any challengers, but the role of the Duke is another matter. Most every great tenor has taken a shot at the role, whether he was suited to it or not. Kraus succeeds admirably, though not without reservations. Frankly, his main weakness is that his reedy voice is not the equal of Pavarotti or Björling. But such comparisons are unfair—on his own terms, Kraus is a perfectly rakish Duke, full style, and may be summarized as an insightful study in shallowness. He is perhaps the most flippant Duke on record—in Ella mi fu Rapita, his ‘ardent’ longing for Gilda is expressed in almost irritated terms, like he’s lost a toy. La donna è Mobile is full of verve and swagger, clearly conveying the Duke’s irreverent attitude.

The chorus is handled very well, and the smaller parts are consistently well cast. Ezio Flagello’s Sparafucile is less illustrious than some (most notably Cesare Siepi), but serves very well, particularly in the final scene. David Ward is perhaps the best and most convincing Monterone on disc, in sonorous, commanding voice. And Rosalind Elias is very good indeed, injecting a great deal of character into the otherwise small role of Maddalena.

Solti’s conducting is very typical of the maestro. From beginning end, it’s loud, blaring hell on wheels, indulging in dynamic extremes and delivered with an orchestral sledgehammer. In Solti’s hands, Verdi’s claims of serving drama through music are well borne out. A lighter, more lyrical hand might be preferred in the opening party scene, but otherwise, it serves the taut drama of the opera perfectly.

RCA’s sonics are brain splitting. The balance between voices and orchestra is pleasingly theatre-like, so much that the performance sometimes sounds like an unusually good live recording.

In all, this is perhaps the most consistent and dramatic reading of Rigoletto ever committed to disc.

Highly recommended.

Rating: A