Verdi: Aida (CD review)

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.

JJP

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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