Collection: Heroes

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: EMI
PERFORMER: Beniamino Gigli (tenor)various orchestras & conductors
CATALOGUE NO: CDM 5 66809 2 ADD mono Reissue (1933-50)

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Some of these heroes were flawed, perhaps, but all offered much in their great days. Giuseppe di Stefano’s were in the late Forties and early Fifties with a vocal decline then setting in whose cause is disputed, though not its effects. It’s occasionally apparent here in recordings (most of them deriving from complete sets in which he partnered Callas) that nevertheless testify to the extraordinary vivacity of his interpretations, his assertive, engaged diction and eager manner.

Listening to Jussi Björling straight after di Stefano is to be made instantly aware of his more contained mode of singing, though one regularly peerless in line and musical attentiveness: he might have been born to sing ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and his ‘Au mont Ida’ from Offenbach’s La belle Hélène is something of a miracle in its lightness and lift.

Where Björling offered shining silver, Gigli’s tenor was Latin gold; Latin, too, his emotional directness in the operas of Puccini and his contemporaries, whose heroes he personifies with a natural sense of identification. If some find his additional dramatic effects at such heady moments as Des Grieux’s ‘No! Pazzo son’ excessive, others, like me, will surrender to them completely. With so many recordings from which to choose, however, the inclusion of postwar discs showing Gigli in obvious vocal decline seems odd.

The least known of these artists today, at least outside Germany, is the versatile tenor Rudolf Schock (1915-86), who manages everything from Mozart’s lyric roles to Wagner’s Lohengrin and Walther von Stolzing with impressive conviction. He also proves an idiomatic exponent of some operetta classics, and ventures a creditable account of the Cherry Duet from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz with the vibrant-toned Joan Hammond.

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In the Callas-di Stefano recordings, the third party was often Tito Gobbi, whose collection might just as properly be called ‘Villains’, for such is so often the lot of the Italian baritone. Though others of his kind may have had grander, richer voices, none showed a finer artistic intelligence. This collection demonstrates a diversity of vocal characterisation and a wealth of musical insight that remain exceptional.