Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (excerpts; Lohengrin (excerpts); Rienzi (excerpts)

LABELS: Sony Masterworks Heritage
WORKS: Tristan und Isolde (excerpts; Lohengrin (excerpts); Rienzi (excerpts)
PERFORMER: Lauritz Melchior, Helen Traubel, Herbert Janssen; New York PO/Artur Rodzinski, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Fritz Busch, Columbia SO/Erich Leinsdorf
Performances recorded via radio broadcast dominate this batch of historical opera recordings. The oldest (featuring surprisingly good sound but a few pitch discrepancies) preserves the 1934 world premiere of Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount at the Metropolitan Opera. This shipshape performance led by Tullio Serafin would still fail to make Hanson’s artful but stilted score memorable were it not for the committed, inventive singing of Lawrence Tibbett as the preacher Wrestling Bradford. Tibbett’s gripping portrayal is at least the equal of such legendary Met impersonations (all recently reissued by Naxos) as Lotte Lehmann’s Marschallin, Rosa Ponselle’s Violetta and Lauritz Melchior’s Siegfried.


The last of these graces the 1936 Met Götterdämmerung for which Naxos has discovered improved source material. Although the sound is still brutal enough to preclude casual listening, Marjorie Lawrence’s bright-toned, temperamental Brünnhilde matches Melchior’s exuberance (if not his astonishing expressive range), and Artur Bodanzky’s brisk but intense conducting abets his principals’ approach; one lapse is his tempo at the end of the Immolation Scene, which evokes images of Grane’s gallop rather than apocalyptic grandeur. Melchior’s prevailing heartiness suits Tristan less well than Siegfried, and by 1942-3, when his contributions to the Sony set were recorded, his voice had thickened, although extroverted moments remain thrilling and other spots sound heartfelt if musically slapdash. Helen Traubel’s is a fine Isolde voice, but her readings sound more well-coached than personally involved. Other singers who appear in tandem with Melchior and Traubel on this set (Astrid Varnay, Herbert Janssen, Kurt Baum and Torsten Ralf among them) are not always a balm to the ear, but Sony’s remastering discovers more atmosphere in these recordings than I would have thought possible.

Still in the German realm, Helge Rosvaenge and Margarete Teschemacher impress in a 1937 Berlin broadcast of Weber’s Oberon, he through technical daring and brilliance of tone (though fuzzy, filtered recorded sound dims this quality), she through utterly charming verve and grace in the Act I finale. Joseph Keilberth conducts with zest, and the performance includes entertainingly rewritten and produced dialogue. Unfortunately, editing extends to a few abridgements and a shuffling of the sequence of numbers; further, the last several minutes of this performance have not survived.

Some releases are prompted by the longstanding unavailability of recordings originally made by major companies. Thus VAI Audio offers a 1952 New Orleans Rigoletto, featuring Leonard Warren, as a stopgap until BMG sees fit to reissue its commercial recording with Warren in the title role. Even in this sometimes provincial stage performance Warren’s strong Rigoletto is worth hearing; unfortunately, his partner is the vocally fluent but (in this role) dramatically complacent Hilde Gueden; her knowing self-assurance obscures any hint of Gilda’s anguish over divided loyalties. On another set, Preiser does EMI’s duty by releasing Thomas Beecham’s abridged Faust from 1947-8. Beecham inspires infectious swagger in the soldiers’ chorus, but more often proffers understated elegance that suits the approach of this pleasingly Gallic cast. Georges Noré brings a smooth-spinning tone to the title role, and Géori Boué adapts her tangy, little-girl sound to create a multifaceted portrayal of Marguerite.

Not always is idiomatic French singing so slender-toned. The 1930 HMV Faust with César Vezzani, Marcel Journet, and Mireille Berthon (Malibran-Music’s serviceable transfers mark at least the fourth CD incarnation of this famous set) achieves a more big-boned and visceral account of the drama. Likewise, the characters in the 1911 Pathé Carmen issued by Marston also seem strongly demarcated – Henri Albers virile as Escamillo, Marguerite Mérentié cool but elusive as Carmen, and Agustarello Affre bluntly passionate as Don José – but stylishly delivered spoken dialogue substantially enriches these apparently straightforward personalities. The Gallic style is at its most persuasive in Vintage Music Company’s program of Massenet excerpts recorded by Odeon in 1927-30; here, accomplished singers with bright, pointed tone – notably Roger Bourdin, Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur, Charles Friant, Germaine Cernay, and David Devries – establish vivid character without resorting to overstatement.


Finally, Romophone has issued its first compilation disc (at a very low price) featuring Puccini recordings from its complete editions of famous singers. Although it’s an interesting collection on its own, if only because these selections contradict the notion that verismo singing in the early decades of our fast-vanishing century tended to be crude, the classic recordings it contains will surely whet the newcomer’s appetite for more exposure to the singing of Claudia Muzio, Lucrezia Bori, Beniamino Gigli, Edith Mason, and numerous others.