Verdi: Rigoletto

COMPOSERS: Verdi
LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Rigoletto
PERFORMER: Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, Bidú Sayão, Norman Cordon, Martha Lipton; Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Cesare Sodero
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110051-52 AAD mono
Pearl’s CD set devoted to the surviving recordings of heroic soprano EVA TURNER (1892-1990) is a treasure trove. Turner’s sound, a gleaming, powerful, high soprano without a hint of shrillness, was one of the vocal glories of the inter-war period, and her considerable emotional intensity is matched by her vocal ability to project it (a few moments of bumpy line notwithstanding). Turner’s recorded legacy includes many duplications of repertoire (among them no fewer than five accounts of Turandot’s ‘In questa reggia’), and stems from commercial, unpublished and radio recordings. To have it all in one place, in expert transfers, makes this an important and welcome set.

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JULIA CULP (1880-1970), the great Dutch concert singer active in the first quarter of the 20th century, cultivated rich, smooth, magically intimate effects within a relatively limited mezzo-soprano range. Romophone’s collection, a complete edition of her Victor and Electrola recordings, gives ample evidence of her virtues both in great Lieder and in lighter fare, but her consistency of approach and tendency towards slow tempi means that this set should be savoured one performance at a time so that Culp’s bejewelled artistry will not come to seem monotonous and predictable.

ROSA PONSELLE (1897-1981) thought that broadcast recordings captured her voice more accurately than commercial ones, and Marston has issued its first volume of her Chesterfield Hour broadcasts from 1934-6. However, these recordings are less than enticing: the condition of source material varies widely, and the spoken introductions to each selection (rarely by Ponselle herself) are lamentably corny. There’s a perplexing range of repertoire, including everything from ‘O divina Afrodite’ (from Pizzetti’s Fedra) to ‘The Big Brown Bear’. And while Ponselle is beyond doubt a great singer in the right repertoire, her imperious vehemence bludgeons the charm out of light-hearted material.

Naxos has issued a 1945 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of RIGOLETTO featuring Bidú Sayão, Jussi Björling and Leonard Warren under the vibrant direction of Cesare Sodero. The full sound is not always smooth, but the performance is exciting, moving and impressively sung. Two of the principals are the subjects of recent recital discs: BJÖRLING in a selection of his HMV recordings from 1936-48, transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos, and SAYÃO in an intriguing selection of early commercial recordings (mostly Brazilian songs) and late radio broadcasts (opera arias and duets, mostly from the lyric repertoire) on VAI. Björling needs no more encomia for these celebrated recordings, especially since the expressive vulnerability that makes them attractive derives in part from an involuntary technical flaw: at some points in most phrases he aims or holds the voice, marginally compromising intonation and line. Sayão is a coloratura soprano with a difference: she may not give quite so effortless an impression in passages of agility as, say, Lily Pons, but she has more temperament and vocal intensity – and thus a greater capacity for heart-rendingly expressive singing.

It’s sometimes bemusing to hear historical recordings that feature ‘legends’ who were little known in their own day. Is pianist ERNST LEVY really a ‘forgotten genius’ as the subtitle for Marston’s second volume of his commercial recordings claims? He might be. For all his apparent rhapsodic freedom, Levy’s account of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata is one of the most astonishingly insightful and immediate I’ve heard: listen to the way in which the finale takes shape from the pauses with which it commences. Passage after passage in four Haydn sonatas seems freshly elucidated, and although Levy sometimes forces the search for crucial issues in late Beethoven, these are performances worth grappling with.

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Unlike Levy, Hungarian violinist JOHANNA MARTZY (1924-79) gave many concerts to enthusiastic audiences, but her recordings were disappointingly few in number. To compensate, Coup d’Archet has issued seven discs of Martzy’s radio broadcasts spanning the years 1951-72. Sound quality is highly variable and none of the discs offers generous playing time, but they reveal a strong player who achieves a unique blend of poise and piercing, ecstatic rapture. Martzy does not beguile with intimate half-tints (thus potentially magical parts of Ravel’s Sonata seem a bit burly), and it’s difficult to know how good she could have been when her pianist on three of these discs is the prosaic Jean Antonietti. But the coupling of Mozart and Bach concertos with Eugen Jochum (COUP CD 002) and the pair of unaccompanied Bach works (COUP CD 007) provide stellar performances by an underrated violinist – and the latter disc adds a valuable perspective to her famous Bach recordings for EMI..