Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa, Piero Cappucilli; Herbert von Karajan, Choir of the Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 0946 3 81877 2 1 (3-disc set).
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? Interestingly, both Decca and EMI chose to reissue their recordings at about the same time a few years ago, 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 listeners will argue the point. The Decca is also quite fine, and has a marginally better cast. The knock against this EMI version is that Jose Carreras doesn't have a big enough voice for the part of Radames, but it's hard to make that statement after listening to it. In any case, the music dwarfs the singers, and certainly one cannot fault Mirella Freni as the doomed princess Aida or any of the other cast members.
And you can hardly fault the EMI sound, either. It may be a trifle bright (sometimes almost glaring) in the upper registers during big climaxes, which are many, but it is also spectacular in the extreme. Those horns, which sound good in the Decca version as well, sound even more splendid here, their placement in the balconies giving them an extra-resonant dimension.
What did disappoint me, however, is that EMI did not bother to remaster the recording for this latest release. It's the same 1986 digital rendering they've used for three successive CD sets: first at full price and now in a second mid-price box. I would love to have heard what their Abbey Road Technology could have done to smooth out the rough patches.
Another minor annoyance is that EMI chose to repackage the set in a cardboard box, with separate paper sleeves for the three discs, rather than use a double jewel box. I really dislike having to pry discs out of those little sleeves and worry about fingerprints.
A further annoyance is that EMI no longer offer a libretto, just a scene summary. It seems a little chintzy of them. And a last annoyance is that the EMI folks appear to want to advertise the fact that this is a mid-price set by giving it some inexpensive-looking cover art. Inside the set's booklet we find a picture of the original cover art for the LP set, and it is quite rich and striking in appearance. Why not have used that artwork instead of what looks like a cheap pen-and-ink drawing on the current cover? But do they ever ask?
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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