When Formative Recordings Set the Bar

A Polycarbonate (or Vinyl or Digital) Affair to Remember

Friday, June 08, 2012 - 04:09 PM

This morning was partly spent trying to remove my fingers from my skull, having accidentally embedded them in there after much head scratching over the inscrutable wording to describe a new Grammy category: "Best Classical Compendium."

Over at NPR, Anastasia Tsioulcas did the rest of us a favor by calling the Recording Academy for clarification (for those of you playing the home game, it is, in Tsioulcas’s words: "meant for new albums and boxed sets that encompass more than one compositional form — for example, an album that includes both a symphony and a concerto”).

All this calls to mind a piece I wrote around the time of the last Grammy Awards, considering the nominees to question why we need yet another recording of Traviata, or even one of Bill Budd. Fortunately, a new work—Adams’s Doctor Atomic—rightfully won Best Opera this year. In that article, I asked you the reader to name which operas you thought warranted new recordings, and many of you answered, complete with cast picks.

But on the flip side, there are many operas that people simply don’t need to hear re-recorded. I was once told by a friend that the Callas-Di Stefano-Gobbi Tosca had ruined them for any other incarnation of the opera with a totally open mind, particularly Tito Gobbi’s chillingly-crafted “Va Tosca.” Such an adoration was so extreme that even seeing Tosca live failed to live up to Callas’s mid-century standard.

Admittedly, I felt similar at last week’s Carmina Burana at the Philharmonic. As many elements as there were to love in that concert, I felt myself itching to revisit a striking 2010 recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon by Daniel Harding and the Bayerischen Rundfunks orchestra. If such a thing as perfection is unthinkable in performing arts, then Harding and company nevertheless get pretty darn close in moments like the unbridled joy of the “Uf dem Anger” dance, Christian Gerhaher’s devastatingly Teutonic “Estuans interius” and Patricia Petibon’s sublime “In trutina.” I hadn’t enjoyed a recording of Carmina that much since James Levine’s take on it for the same label in 1985. Some people pride themselves on owning as many recordings of a work as possible, but in the case of this piece, I'm fine with just the two.

It’s not hard to divorce yourself from these moments and push those thoughts out of your head when you’re in the concert hall, especially when you realize that comparing singers against one another is a zero-sum game (contextualizing them in relation to other singers, however, is a different story). But it’s still natural and bound to happen. In a way, it’s a lot like dating: You never want to think about your exes when with your current partner, but you invariably carry all of the lessons you’ve learned from past experiences and often apply what you learned from those situations to your current relationship.

And there may always be that first love that inhabits a recess of your memory. Perhaps you let it live there, smiling at what you shared with it but knowing that you had to move on: I recently re-listened to the first Turandot I owned, an unknown Romanian recording that I bought because it was $10 and I, as a teenager, was broke and thought the then-average price for full opera recordings may as well have been the debt we currently owe China. It’s embarrassingly, excruciatingly bad, but that didn’t keep me from getting my “Nessun Dorma” (or, as the tenor on that recording sang it, “Nessun-y Dorma”). Or, it’s possible, that the specter of your first Don Carlo cannot be matched by any subsequent fling.

Sometimes, open relationships just don't work.

What recordings have ruined you for all other versions of an opera? Confess your affairs of the ear in the comments below.


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Comments [10]

Amy Martin

Tito Gobbi's Simon Boccanegra!

Jun. 16 2012 09:08 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

Although not an opera, the Pavarotti, Sutherland, Horne, Talvela, Solti recording of the Verdi Requiem ruined any other performances for me. I compare all Mezzos to Horne in that performance, and her voice is unique!

Jun. 12 2012 11:39 AM

Peter Grimes, with Jon Vickers conducted by Colin Davis

Jun. 11 2012 01:46 PM

Guilini's Don Giovanni

Jun. 11 2012 12:01 PM
Steve Kur from Jersey City

I have a few operas here to mention...the Fischer-Dieskau "Falstaff" with Bernstein conducting--that's the only one I need. As for the Ring, the '60's Solti recording is enough Ring for me to own. For Strauss, the Solti "Frau Ohne Schatten is my favorite, although I have a couple more on my IPOD; "Salome" with Nilsson is the best; the same goes for "Elektra;" as for "Daphne," I prefer the Bohm recording (although I do have the Haitink one too) because of the conducting and James King's Apollo.

Jun. 11 2012 10:28 AM
Silversalty from iBrooklyn

Don't you have someone there who can edit a digital image? Look at the upper lip of the guy. It looks like he's had too much coffee and can't keep it down anymore.

Jun. 10 2012 08:30 PM
Biff Strongarm from Murray Hill

Miss Giovetti is right about the Callas Tosca. It's one of the best there is.

Jun. 09 2012 02:42 PM
lotta from San Diego CA

La Boheme with de los Angeles, conducted by Beecham

Jun. 09 2012 12:33 PM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

"Manon Lescaut" with Albanese, Bjoerling, Merrill and Perlea conducting the Rome Opera forces (1954), "Macbeth" with Warren, Rysanek, Bergonzi and Leinsdorf conducting the Metropolitan Opera forces (1959), "Die Walku"re" with Mo"dl, Suthaus, Frantz and Furtwa"ngler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (1954), "Falstaff" with Valdengo, Nelli, Elmo, Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra (1950), and "Don Giovanni" with Pinza, Bampton, Novotna and Sayao with Walter conducting the Metropolitan Opera forces (1942). The last two are, of course, recordings from broadcasts, so I don't know if they count if the question's a literal one. I tried to hold my preferences to one Puccini, Wagner, Verdi and Mozart. This is one of the hardest questions I've ever tried to answer in my life! If allowed only one, I'll choose the "Manon Lescaut".

Jun. 09 2012 11:26 AM
Cathryn D'Arcy

Dear Olivia,

I quite agrre with your feelings about Callas' TOSCA. I would also say that her "Lisbon Traviata" has also spoiled me. My first cat loved to listen to Maria Callas!

Jun. 09 2012 09:51 AM

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