Verdi: Aida (CD review)

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.



  1. Interesting -- this is the only version I've ever owned on CD, and I was always under the impression that it was note-complete. Listening to II.ii now, I realize that it has exactly the same amount of music before the triumphal march as the Price/Domingo/Leinsdorf version I used to have on LP (the first opera recording I ever owned, purchased when I was 15). What am I missing?

  2. James, I'm afraid I cannot locate my own source for the information mentioned. I adapted the current review from a very old LP review I wrote for the $ensible Sound magazine long ago. I no longer have the LP set, but I can only figure I must have found (or misunderstood) the info in the LP notes. In any case, thanks for the heads up, and I have amended the review.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa