Opera Special Feature: 101 Best Opera CDs
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101 Best

Bach: Cantatas (complete)
Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductors

One of the great monuments of the recording industry, the complete Cantatas were recorded over most of the 1970s and 1980s, with both conductors sharing the responsibilities, each in his own way. Made during a period in which the old instrument movement was making headway and gaining facility, as were the singers, this set remains a touchstone for musical and spiritual attainment.

Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Eleanor Steber, soprano
Dumbarton Oaks Orchestra
William Strickland, conductor

Leontyne Price, soprano
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Thomas Schippers, conductor

Two masterly recordings for Samuel Barber: Steber commissioned the work and her performance has the ardor only a creator can bring; Price's unique qualities are brilliantly set off by Barber's music. Each disc includes Price in a different interpretation of the "Hermit Songs", the RCA performance being the world premiere, while CBS also gives us Fischer-Dieskau's "Dover Beach" and Arroyo in "Andromache's Farewell" which she created.

Beethoven: Fidelio
Kirsten Flagstad, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Julius Patzak, Paul Schöffler, Josef Greindl, Anton Dermota
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor

Christa Ludwig, Ingeborg Hallstein, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry, Gottlob Frick, Gerhard Unger
Philharmonia Orchestra
Otto Klemperer, conductor

Furtwängler and Flagstad live at Salzburg in 1950 are a legendary experience, she much warmer than we are often told. EMI has somewhat cleaned up the sound which used to be part of the pirate essence, but for those who don't like it Klemperer offers an alternative, quite different as the marmoreal quality is there from the beginning, even in the singspiel scenes (which have a lighter quality in many of the newer versions). Ludwig's first attempt at a soprano role is convincing, and then there is the essential Vickers in one of his many great roles.

Bellini: Norma
Maria Callas, Ebe Stignani, Mario Filippeschi, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Tullio Serafin, conductor

Other recordings will give you better performers in the other roles, but here is Callas at her peak, reasonably well partnered and in excellent voice throughout. Individual moments may be more intense on any of the live recordings but stay with this one. Listen also to Sutherland and Horne in the duets for something approaching perfection.

Berg: Wozzeck
Eileen Farrell, Mack Harrell
New York Philharmonic
Dmitri Mitropoulos, conductor

Many have tried but none has yet succeeded in duplicating the Mitropulous electricity in a recording yet to be reissued on CD. Harrell and Farrell are exceptional but we are used to exceptional performances in these roles nowadays. If you want a recording now, the choice falls on either the romantic Böhm (DGG) or the strictly modern Kegel (Berlin Classics), both with excellent casts.

Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict
Josephine Veasey, April Cantelo, Helen Watts, John Mitchinson, John Cameron
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Contrary to received opinnion, I find Davis' earlier still-to-be-reissued recording (without dialogue) superior to the remake with Baker and Eda-Pierre, the rhythms that much snappier and Veasey a bit more into the character than Baker. The French may be more elegant in the later version but, all in all, it lacks punch. I would prefer the Erato to Davis II of the available versions.

Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
Christiane Eda-Pierre, Jane Berbié, Nicolai Gedda, Roger Massard, Jules Bastin, Roger Soyer
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Davis once again shows how to get the measure of a difficult piece, and his command of Berliozian rhythms remains intact. A cast for whom the French language is natural increases our enjoyment of this piece of insanity.

Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust
Josephine Veasey, Nicolai Gedda, Jules Bastin
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Davis strikes again, finding exactly the right accents for Berlioz' most diffuse work. Bastin may not be the paragon of elegance but is more than acceptable, while Gedda and Veasey are among the best to have recorded their roles.

Berlioz: Les nuits d'été
Régine Crespin, soprano
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Ernest Ansermet, conductor

There have been other exceptional recordings over the years (Steber/Mitropoulous, Baker/Barbirolli, de los Angeles/Munch) but none has come as close as this to perfection. Crespin's instincts are allied with Ansermet in what may be the soprano's most distinguished work on disc.

Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette
Regina Resnik, André Turp, David Ward
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Monteux, conductor
MCA Westminster

Monteux shows us that he too was a major Berliozian; unfortunately his official legacy is limited (Damnation is on a pirate); this Roméo is one of the most classic ever recorded but Monteux gets to the heart of the matter. One might wish for more idiomatic French but the problem is recurrent on almost all versions.

Berlioz: Les Troyens
Josephine Veasey, Berit Lindholm, Jon Vickers, Peter Glossop, Roger Soyer, Ian Partridge, Ryland Davies
Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

A neglected masterpiece brought to life by a major Berliozian, largely responsible for spreading the gospel. Vickers is unsurpassable, not for his French but for his understanding of the music. Veasey has challengers but she more than holds her own, and I have never understood the general disdain for Lindholm's granitic Cassandra.

Bizet: Carmen
Tatiana Troyanos, Placido Domingo, José van Dam, Kiri te Kanawa
London Philharmonic Orchestra
George Solti, conductor

Solange Michel, Raoul Jobin, Michel Dens, Marthe Angelici
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra-Comique
André Cluytens, conductor

Much as we adore Teresa Berganza, her unusual view of Carmen is not ours; Troyanos is much closer to the mark, without the touches of vulgarity which disfigure so many of the available recordings. Solti's dynamic touch is not out of place, and he also lightens up in the many places where necessary. For a truly light version, one which perpetuates a certain tradition, it is necessary to hear Cluytens.

Brahms: Deutsches Requiem
Elisabeth Grümmer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Rudolf Kempe, conductor

Two soloists in peak form and a much forgotten and underrated conductor combine to bring us a devotional reading of Brahms' most devotional work, perhaps too much so for some listeners who will prefer the statuesque Klemperer or the pared-down Gardiner or the dynamic Karajan. For me this is the classic performance.

Brahms: Alto Rhapsody
Maureen Forrester, alto
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ferenc Fricsay, conductor

One of the most sumptuous contralto voices of our time, allied with a textual and musical comprehension beyond doubt, a conductor whose work is now gaining renewed lustre: a dream performance.

Britten: Les Illuminations, Serenade, Nocturne
Peter Pears, tenor; Barry Tuckwell, horn
London Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten, conductor

Three key works by England's best-known 20th century composer in performances which leave nothing to be desired. Pears' poetic response is never in doubt, and his presence during the gestation and composition of the two English cycles lends his interpretations even greater authority.

Britten: Billy Budd
Peter Pears, Theodore Uppman, Frederick Dalberg, Michael Langdon, Hervey Allen, Geraint Evans
Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
Benjamin Britten, conductor

The world premiere in execrable sound but undeniably exciting. This is also the only chance you'll have of hearing the original version, as Britten revised it in 1960, omitting a stirring choral scene, "The Captain's Muster". Britten's later recording is not to be sneezed at, with Pears still in remarkable form although it is difficult to surpass Uppman. Bonuses on the Decca set include the Holy Sonnets of Donne (Pears) and the Blake Songs and Proverbs (Fischer-Dieskau).

Britten: Peter Grimes
Heather Harper, Elisabeth Bainbridge, Patricia Payne, Jon Vickers, Jonathan Summers, Thomas Allen, Forbes Robinson
Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Vickers' interpretation (which Britten refused to see or hear) may miss some of the poetry which Pears brought to the role but the surrounding cast were the habitués of their roles at Covent Garden, as was Davis in the pit: a sympathetic reading of one of the masterpieces of our time.

Britten: Turn of the Screw
Jennifer Vyvyan, Peter Pears, Joan Cross, Arda Mandikian, David Hemmings
English Opera Group Orchestra
Benjamin Britten, conductor

Recorded in the wake of the Venice world premiere, Britten's version of James' thriller loses none of its impact, with the regulars of the period all delivering the goods. David Hemmings, later to star in Antonioni's Blowup, almost steals the show as Miles.

Britten: War Requiem
Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
London Symphony Orchestra
Benjamin Britten, conductor

Britten's own interpretation of his unusual combination of elements of the mass with chamber settings of war poetry by Wilfrid Owens has not been surpassed since the first recording with the intended interpreters, although Rattle has come close.

Busoni: Doktor Faust
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, William Cochran, Hildegard Hillebrecht
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio
Ferdinand Leitner, conductor

Another early 20th century masterpiece which the indefatigable Fischer-Dieskau has labored to bring to our attention. Leitner matches him every step of the way, closely followed by Cochran, despite an unpleasant voice; only the squally Hillebrecht is out of place but her role is small. Some cuts, but the only version until someone has the courage to record it with Anthony Beaumont's textual revisions (the work was unfinished at the death of the composer).

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