Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sony/BMG Dips Into the Archives

Puccini: Madama Butterfly: Price, Tucker, Maero; RCA Italiana Orchestra and Chorus, Leinsdorf, cond. (Sony BMG 82876-82622-2)

I haven't been able to hear this on my SACD player yet--which means I don't yet have the full measure of its sonics--but as a regular CD, it's really lovely: richer, with a fuller, less treble-happy balance than the older Living Stereo CD's, and minus some tape hiss. In fact, this is so free of background noise that I'm inclined to suspect that either it was removed via computer--a no-no in my book--or else it just was sourced from higher-level source material lower in hiss. It's also missing the occasional soft electronic click evident in the older transfer, which leads me to lean toward the second scenario: better source.

Even in its regular (redbook) CD format, this set sounds very close in tonal balance and general presentation to my old open-reel tape version, which still comes off best of all, in spite of its obviously higher level of tape hiss and occasional dropout. Ultimately, this one is a trifle short on sparkle and air--the top is very slightly attenuated--meaning if you have the older Living Stereo version, this one doesn't cry out to replace it.

A mild disappointment, though my general preference toward a brighter frequency balance my differ from yours. If it's significantly more impressive in its SACD guise, I'll follow up to that effect.

This is still my favorite Butterfly, BTW, edging out Scotto, Bergonzi, Barbirolli. Price is glorious, and so is Tucker, in spite of the occasional corny over-emphasis. This was the recording that made me an opera fan. And had, say, Merrill been engaged in place of the barely adequate Philip Maero (Sharpless), its critical reception might well have been even greater.

Original notes included, and libretto available via BMG on the net. The packaging is a slim SACD double jewel case, similar to the other issues in this series.

Verdi: La traviata--Moffo, Tucker, Merrill; Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Previtali, cond. (Sony BMG 82876-82623-2, Hybrid SACD)

Again, I haven't heard this in SACD yet, just regular old redbook CD. So my comments are preliminary.

The remastering work on this set is is first-rate. Extended on top (listen to the detail in the flutes in the introduction to "Sempre libera") and bottom, transparent, and impactful. It is so far superior to any other version of this performance I've ever heard that it sounds like a different (and better) recording. Furthermore, the peak distortion that used to plague this recording seems largely to be gone--no doubt thanks to the use of superior source material (probably the studio masters, since the recording may also be played in three-track on capable systems).If you already have and like this set, you need this new remastering, so far superior does it sound. A technical triumph.

I like the performance very much, though I can't say I'm a big Moffo fan: she strikes me as a moderately talented but wan lyric soprano, one you might be happy to encounter on an average night at, say, the NY City Opera. Joined with voices like those of Tucker and Merrill, she sounds seriously out of her depth. Compared to a Violetta like Callas--not even in the same league (or the same sport, for that matter). Alfredo is not the ideal role for Tucker--he's a tad heavy-voiced, especially at this point in his career--but in the event, he makes a positive impression. Merrill recorded the role of Germont three times. This is as good as any of them: big-scaled, gorgeous singing.

Previtali conducts a nice, alert, middle-of-the-road performance, less frantic than Toscanini's, but with a lovely orchestral sound and energetic bounce. It's not the best or worst-conducted Traviata on disc, but it'll do.

If you already have this performance, buy the new discs for the sound. If you don't, run, don't walk.

Puccini: Turandot--Nilsson, Bjoerling, Tebaldi, Tozzi; Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Leinsdorf, cond. (Sony/BMG 82876-82624-2)

This one's another disappointment. While in redbook (regular CD) format, it sounds fine--the best of this title in digital I've ever heard, and competitive with, though not quite in the class of, the LP's--it still is nowhere in the class of the superlative open-reel tapes. Those are noticeably more open and extended on top *and* bottom, and seem better able to convey the "stage movement."

I do still enjoy the performance very much, and consider it on approximately equal footing with the 1973 Decca recording (Sutherland, Caballé, Pavarotti and Mehta). Richard Mohr--who produced the RCA--stated on a Met intermission feature of the '70s that he considered this the greatest opera recording ever made. I don't know about that, but I think I'd place it in my top 20 or 25.

As to why the extreme highs and lows might be missing, I'm afraid we now have to consider the possibility that the master tapes are irreparably damaged in some way, since all CD's of the performance have been so afflicted. Truly a pity, because in its original form this was a demonstration-quality recording.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

A "New" Reiner Meistersinger: Conducting "Ja," singing mostly "Nein"

At the end of the Entrance of the Meistersinger in Act III of Orfeo's recent first authorized issue of Fritz Reiner's 1955 Vienna State Opera performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger, the audience goes wild, almost stopping the show--extended cheering and applause...frankly, I've rarely heard anything like it. While I still think the greatest performance of this scene I've ever heard was Furtwaengler at Bayreuth in 1943, Reiner's orchestra (the VPO) is superior--the brass is especially magnificent, and we all know what Reiner could do with brass. It's one of my favorite scenes in all opera, and while Furtwaengler's is one of the most thrilling things I've ever heard in a live performance, Reiner runs a very respectable second.

Unfortunately, the singing is variable throughout. Paul Schoeffler's Sachs (though not at his best vocally) and (especially) Gottlob Frick's Pogner are both superb (this may be one of the finest pieces of work in Frick's recorded legacy--he sings with great intelligence, and is in his absolute vocal prime). Irmgard Seefried's Eva is very fine if a tad lightweight, and Hans Beirer's Walther (pun intended) is unbearable; the rest are a decidedly mixed bag. Rosette Anday's Magdalene is awful--almost ruining the performance at times, and the chorus--so central to this work--is not at its best; a bit sloppy.

Paul Schoeffler as Hans Sachs

The sound--another one of those excellent 1955 Vienna festival tapings--is vivid and alive, almost miraculous, given the date. (Rule out Furtwaengler only because of the singing [which, all told, is really better than the Reiner] and the missing Quintet, not the sound. M&A has rendered it more than listenable--it's stunning for a 1943 tape [and yes, it is tape].)


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ring Musings

I've got an unreasonable affection for the Böhm Ring which perhaps relates to imprinting: it was my first Ring back in the days when Philips had cut out the LP's for $3.49 a disc--a godsend for a student. Not only are the sonics--particularly on vinyl--among the best of all Ring recordings (and to my ear superior to the Keilberth), but the singing is of a uniformly high standard. Yes, there are exceptions: Rysanek is in not particularly good vocal form in Walküre, and oldies like Mödl, Windgassen and Greindl have their rough and ready moments. Still, it's hard to get everything right in a piece as vast as the Ring, and while Böhm's conducting can be prosaic, this one makes as good a case for the work as most.

I've thus far invested in only the Siegfried from the Keilberth. (And let me assure you that after a long and diligent search, I haven't been able to find it more cheaply than at MDT.) The only problem I have with the sonics, which are otherwise superb, is that the stereo stage is annoyingly narrow. Whether this jibes with the actual Festspielhaus acoustics I do not know, but it doesn't make for particularly grand or enveloping stereo reproduction.

A disaster recently forced me to re-purchase the '56 Kna Ring, this time on Orfeo, after owning it on M&A. The sound--still mono--is very noticeably improved, with more low end and more resonance. A much greater pleasure to listen to than before, and a better buy than the Keilberth, my only real objection is the conducting of Kna, which can at times be so slow as to practically grind to a halt.

I'm still waiting for a good-sounding issue of the Solti Ring. Should it be issued (as rumored) in their new Originals series, which has produced some stunning dubs (like the Price/Karajan Tosca and the Britten War Requiem--the latter of which is a slightly earlier transfer), we might finally have a CD issue worthy of the recording.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A vivid Don Carlo at long last issued in definitive (read "legal") form

The German "live performance" label Orfeo d'Or (not to be confused with the dreadful "Opera d'Oro" from which it couldn't be more dissimilar, and on which this performance was also issued, adding to the confusion), recently issued this 1970 Don Carlo from Vienna. It had previously seen the light of day on various private labels, but these CD's appear to have been dubbed from the original ORTF tapes--the sound is magnificent, one of the best-sounding live performances it's ever been my privilege to hear. It's in genuine stereo, and for once it really enhances the recording's live ambiance, bringing the soundstage forth with great immediacy and realism. This also may be the most realistic recording of the voice of Franco Corelli, though unfortunately it captures him a few years past his prime.

Horst Stein's conducting is superb--Germanic conductors seem to have a "thing" for this score. (It was Karajan's best Verdi opera, IMO.) Corelli is nearing the end. The voice still has plenty of bite and ring, but seems to have lost fullness and some of the dark-hued timbre of yore. (He obviously sensed this when he began to gravitate toward lighter roles in the last few years of his career.) Still, in the duet with his Elisabetta, Gundula Janowitz, he nearly stops the show with his "O maledetto io son!" For her part, Janowitz makes for a better Verdi soprano than one would expect, with more fullness in the middle and a dark edge to the tone--there's only a hint of chest voice, however, and it shows in the big duet with Corelli, where the music fits *him* like a glove. Eberhard Wächter (Posa) is at that stage of his career where he's beginning to lose steadiness, which causes his singing to be a bit more loosely-bound than ideal. As Eboli, Shirley Verrett's Veil Song and "O don fatale" are both magnificent, as is Nicolai Ghiaurov's Filippo--thriling not only in his great aria, but in the scene with the Grand Inquisitor, no less than the superb Finnish bass, Martti Talvela.

This is a much livelier affair than the best-known studio set, the roughly contemporaneous Giulini, and would be up there among my favorite Don Carlo sets (of which my absolute favorite is my off-the-air tape of the '76 Karajan Salzburg performancem with Carreras, Freni, Cossotto, Cappuccilli, Ghiaurov, and Bastin), if it weren't for the big hole where the role of Posa/Rodrigo should be. Insert, say, Cappuccilli or Milnes into that slot, and you've got it. The big surprise is Horst Stein. Who knew? The Vienna Philharmonic plays as stunningly as one would expect, however.

The sound is really grand, in every way the equal of Karajan's live '58 Salzburg performance on DG (mono only). Not without a blemish, but an exciting, entertaining night of opera to be sure. Recommended.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

How I Got Hooked on Fantasy Tennis and What Happened Then

What It's All About

I love tennis—men’s tennis anyway—and it is hard for me to believe that I could be more enthusiastic about the sport than I already was, but then I got hooked on fantasy tennis. The ATP has done a couple of smart things this year. The first is that nearly every tournament features a player blog (these can be accessed on the ATP website, so that we armchair warriors can get a little insight into how the athletes prepare for their matches and what they do during their “off” time during a tournament. The second is that they have made fantasy tennis free this year. Considering that thousands of people are taking part, the interest in men’s professional tennis must have increased.

I know that lots of people play fantasy baseball and other sports. For example. my cousin Patrick routinely wipes the floor with a bunch of local fantasy “managers” in Oswego, NY. The fantasy managers pore over the copious statistics available and choose their players, with due deference to the salary cap and whatever other considerations are relevant. And of course, every possible kind of statistic is kept in baseball. In addition to such mundane things as e.r.a. and r.b.i., there are on-base percentages, slugging percentages, how pitchers do in day games versus night games, etc., etc., ad nauseum. If you like numbers, fantasy baseball must be heaven, and I do hope it's more interesting than the actual games, which are bo-ring, in my humble opinion.

Not being particularly interested in statistics (or baseball, for that matter, although I think Derek Jeter is adorable), no one would ever find me playing fantasy baseball, but the ATP Fantasy Tennis is easy to play and not particularly statistics-driven. Every week, you get to pick 8 singles players and 1 doubles team for the tournament(s) being played. If your players do well and win money, you do well. Each team (mine is called the Gremlins, don't ask me why) is ranked based on the amount of prize money its players win for the week. There are over 11,000 teams, and mine is ranked 513 at the moment, which is pretty good for an amateur, if I do say so myself.

The great thing about fantasy tennis is that you have to pay attention to players you might not normally root for and tournaments that might not be among your favorites. I like grass court tennis (shortest season of all, worse luck) and indoor tennis best, although I am beginning to find a place in my heart for the summer hardcourt season, but clay? Other than Roland Garros, I never used to pay it much heed. But this year I have been poring over the results at smaller tournaments in Valencia, Barcelona, Casablanca, and Munich, as well as the big tournaments in Monte Carlo, Rome, and Hamburg. Next week I have a tournament in Poertschach, Austria, of all places! (Not much money there, but there are big bucks on the line at the ARAG World Team Cup in Duesseldorf) By the time Roland Garros rolls around, I will have so much clay on my socks they'll never get clean.

The catch in fantasy tennis is that you can only use each player or doubles team 5 times. With an 11-month tennis season, you can't use up the big guns early and expect to have much success. True, I have been prodigal with Rafael Nadal during the claycourt season, but I have not even used Roger Federer yet, and I am saving Andy Roddick for grass and the summer hardcourt season. Federer has played well on clay this year, and I am going to use him for Roland Garros, just in case the Roger-Slam becomes a reality, but otherwise it would be a waste to use him now. In fact, I haven't used any American players yet for obvious reasons.

Learning to Love Spanish Players

Strange as it may seem to some, there are Spanish players other than Nadal. During the clay court season I have used a number of Spanish and South American players with varying results, not to mention the odd Eastern European or two. When it comes to winning on the clay, you can get to love guys like David Nalbandian and Tommy Robredo. But in addition to those players, whose names were relatively familar to me before I started playing fantasy tennis, I have used David Ferrer, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicholas Massu to good effect. I haven't had much luck with Gaston Gaudio, and I have given up entirely on Guillermo Coria, but what's a game without some ups and downs? Soon we will be on the grass, and the Spaniards will disappear from my team to be replaced with Federer, Roddick, Hewitt, Henman and Rusedski (maybe), and a new discovery for me, Mario Ancic. So I'm being prodigal with the Spaniards while the claycourt season lasts.

Probably my biggest frustration so far has been having to root for Rafael Nadal when my heart is with Roger Federer, as was the case in Monte Carlo and Rome. But soon it will be Roger's turn, and Rafa has come through for me, although I wish I had used him in Barcelona. One nasty little catch about ATP Fantasy Tennis is that if you use a player and he withdraws because of an injury, you can't replace him and you have lost one of your 5 opportunities to use him during the season. That happened to me with Rafa this week in Hamburg, but considering that I have ended up with two players in the finals (Robredo and Stepanek), I can't complain too much.

If it sounds like I am having fun, you're right, I am. However, I have already learned that betting on sports would not be a good career for me. I have backed too many losers to be optimistic about my chances. But that's all part of the fun of it, isn't it?

"Players, time!"

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Billie Holiday: The Box

Billie Holiday: The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (6 CD's Verve 000429102) is a really terrific set. It gathers her recordings for the various Verve labels (Clef, Norgran, and Verve), culled from singles and albums--in chronological form from 1952 to '59, by and large her last period of recording activity. The sound of the transfers is excellent, even the mono. (Actually, though the few stereo cuts sound better on an absolute basis, the mono are better mono than the stereo are stereo, and the stereo are at least very, very good. That said, many of the tracks from albums like Body and Soul and Songs For Distingue Lovers, which were recorded in stereo and mono form, are presented in mono, and there seems to be no logic to the choices.)

It's true that by the time of the last CD here, Billie's singing was mostly pretty poor from the technical standpoint (though I'd still have to say that the Columbia album, Lady in Satin is even worse). But there's very little that isn't worth hearing, and the soloists--including Charlie Shavers, Sweets Edison, Ben Webster, et al.--are all wonderful, and in the case of the aforementioned, right up there at the level of those from her Columbia years--speaking of which, though the Columbia (Vocalion and Brunswick, mostly) recordings of 1933 to '44 are among the most highly-regarded jazz records ever made, these are at an exalted, albeit somewhat lower, level. There are no embarrassments here, either artistically, interpretively, or yes, vocally as well.

Frankly, I find these generally superior to her Decca recordings, especially the later ones, where they mostly tried to relegate Billie to pop status (or should I perhaps say "Pops" status--a kind of female Armstrong). At least Norman Granz recognized her unique genius, and backed her with great jazz musicians and--this is a big one--blessed her with the great American songbook as her material. There is nothing less than excellent music to be found here.

I do harbor some reservations about the packaging, regarding which I'm of two minds: I love the big, chunky tin box, which is not only gorgeous, but is an attractive and effective way to store and protect the discs, but I hate what they've done inside, which is a long, longer, longest accordion of digipaks. It was fine for the Charlie Parker set of Verve masters, which was only three discs, but ridiculous for this, which is six.

Excellent discography and annotation are included, and for once they've taken it easy on the eye-straining overprinting of the text and the pictures. But the booklet and text are still too small for easy handling and reasonable readability. Furthermore, they've die-cut the first section of the accordion in such a way as to guarantee that it'll be defaced every time you grab it and try to open it. Oh, and the CD labels are fugly: they should've used reproductions of the original labels.

Those are relatively minor complaints, however. This is a box set that was sorely needed: the essential portion of Billie's recordings for the Verve labels, all gathered chronologically in a mostly beautiful package in superb sound.

My advice: run, don't walk.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Tales of Hoffmann: How to Make Opera Into a Movie?

Criterion has issued the 1951 Powell-Pressburger film of The Tales of Hoffmann on DVD. The movie doesn't succeed on all levels in its intended synthesis of various of the arts, but it's nonetheless a fascinating attempt: a qualified failure.

First, let's cut to the chase: how does the new disc look? The picture--one of the peak examples of three-strip Technicolor--looks more deeply colorful and has better contrast via Apple's DVD software than the screen captures at (one of which is reproduced below) would seem to indicate. There are some color misregistration problems resulting in "fringing," most seriously in the last half hour or so, and worse in some segments than others.* The high-definition transfer emanates from the negatives stored at the British Film Institute, and is not likely to be bettered in the here and now. (As for hi-def, we shall see.)

Nothing is likely to ever make me care for the opera, which for some reason I've never cottoned to, but the film--which combines opera, dance, film, and visual effects in a way that would not be possible on stage--makes a reasonably good case for it. It's presented in an English translation which is not always easily intelligible. The performers are all dubbed with the voices of opera singers; the technique here is less distracting than it can be, in spite of the fact that it's often ballet dancers who are miming the soundtrack.

Tenor Robert Rounseville (the only one of the opera's principals to appear onscreen) may not rise to the level of the best tenors in the part, such as Tucker, Kraus, and Domingo, but in the event, he sings prettily and acts acceptably well in an operatic way. There's also some attractive dancing by the film's ostensible star, Moira Shearer, and an excellent commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and director Martin Scorsese. (Your film education is not complete until you've heard Scorsese draw parallels between The Tales of Hoffmann and Taxi Driver.)

Musically, the film has one unbeatable asset: Sir Thomas Beecham,** who finally appears on-camera in the final frames, vigorously conducting the Royal Philharmonic. Those moments alone are priceless.


* Lowry Digital Imaging, the firm that has been responsible for many of the most prestigious transfers of vintage Technicolor films for Warner (Gone With the Wind, Singin' In the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, et al.), has developed a system to correct for misregistration, but Criterion tends to do better with its own transfers (The Red Shoes, The River, Black Narcissus) in terms of color accuracy and the authentic look and feel of three-strip Technicolor. If only the best points of each technique could be combined...

** whose original preference, according to Eder, was to film either Carmen or La boheme, both of which were rejected by director Michael Powell as not fitting properly into his conception.