Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Giulietta Simionato, Cornell MacNeil; Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca Originals 289 475 824-03 (2-disc set).
It wasn't long ago that I wrote in the $ensible Sound magazine, "Was there ever a grander grand opera than Verdi's Aida, and have there ever been any grander recordings of it than Karajan's two stereo performances on Decca and EMI? Coincidentally, both Decca and EMI chose to reissue their recordings at about the same time, in 2007, and while the earlier Decca interpretation may in some ways be the grander of the two, it's the later, 1979 EMI recording that has the slight sonic advantage."
Some people may wish to argue the point. The Decca is very fine, and it has a marginally better cast, the knock against the EMI version being that Jose Carreras didn't have a big enough voice for the part of Radames, even though it's hard to make that statement after listening to it.
Anyway, I had fully intended to listen straight through this 1959 Decca recording, but it wasn't ten minutes in that I could not resist putting on the '79 EMI recording for comparison. From that point on, I would play a section of one, pause, and then play the same section on the other disc. I had never actually done this before, and the results were enlightening.
For one thing, I hadn't remembered how slowly and deliberately Karajan conducted the earlier Decca performance. While the singers are splendid and the chorus is even more intelligible than on the later EMI recording, Karajan's odd, calculated tempos and sometimes hesitant direction tend to stand out. Twenty years on, he had lightened up, and the EMI reading sounds more spontaneous.
Interestingly, it's also good they could fit the opera onto two discs rather than three.
Sonically, there is much to like about the Decca recording. The audio engineers remastered it on this "Originals" set from the 96kHz/24-bit Super Digital mastering the company did in 1999 for their "Legends" series. It is clean and taut, with noise reduction making it almost as quiet as the EMI set. What you get with the EMI, sonically, is a little more air, more ambience, more bloom, more impact, and more bass. But for that matter, the Decca produces an enormous dynamic range.
So, I'll still take the EMI recording overall, although I wish they had remastered it using their Abbey Road Technology and released it in their "Great Recordings of the Century" series instead of just reusing their old 1986 digital master. Oh, well....
Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.
About the Author
I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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