Music Reviews

Classical Music - Part 12 - April, 2000

Jason Serinus




"Valentino Dances: Music of Dominick Argento"

Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra

Reference Recordings; RR-91CD

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Rarely does one encounter a state-of-the-art audiophile recording that combines astounding sonics with definitive performances of finely crafted, contemporary classical music. Such is the case with this outstanding disc. Recorded with the 24-bit HDCD process developed by Reference’s brilliant recording engineer Keith O. Johnson, it is so full and rich, so realistically large and resonant, even on a system that lacks HDCD decoding, as to force this reviewer to reevaluate previous sonic ratings given to CDs designed to play on conventional 16/44.1 CD systems.

American-born Dominick Argento (b. 1927) currently serves as both composer laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra and Regents’ Professor at the University of Minneapolis. He won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his song cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Wolf, which was premiered in Minneapolis by Dame Janet Baker. A prolific composer known especially for his operas, Argento synthesized two of the orchestral pieces on this disc from his operatic scores.

The disc opens with its most engaging and instantly likeable piece, Valentino Dances, a 1997 extraction of original tangos from the 1994 opera, The Dream of Valentino. This is followed by Reverie, Reflections on a Hymn Tune, a 1998 Minneapolis Orchestra commission that reflects upon the 1784 German hymn, Ellacombe. This composition depicts, in the composer’s words, “a sort of spiritual progression from doubt, through indecision - from dimness to brightness.” It is a distinctly 20th century brightness, commenting upon the hymn’s final words, “Our joy that hath no end,” via a tremendous climax. This is music that can remind one of the many ways in which technological advances could in fact end the joy of life as we know it. Le Tombeau d”Edgar Poe, a suite from the opera, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, features several fragments from Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” sung at offstage distance by the adorable tenor, Chad Shelton, and ends with the death of the narrator. The gentle but hardly upbeat Valse Triste follows. The disc concludes with the 27-minute, four movement A Ring of Time: Preludes and Pageants for Orchestra and Bells. This work, another Minneapolis Orchestra commission, offers a sonically-stunning array of gongs, bells, and percussion. It begins with a “Spring” holiday pageant representing youth, but sounding far more eerie and ominous than any pageant I’ve ever attended. The wedding procession of “Summer” is lighter, but this is no picnic, as the war march of “Fall” attests. The piece ends with a “Winter” funeral procession, a musical portrayal of the passage of a lifetime, in which death, after a big and dark fortissimos, manages to end on a sweet note.

This is accessible, intriguing contemporary with many moments of beauty. If you don’t hear a remarkable difference in the sound of this disc compared to others you play, it is time to visit an audiophile store or high-end website and give yourself the gift of a soundsystem upgrade. Even incremental changes make a difference. I just transformed the sound of someone’s system by lifting their ancient speakers off the floor, moving them a few feet from the back wall, and replacing their stock interconnect between disc player and surround sound processor with 0.5 meter wires listing for over $110. If you love music enough to read this review, you owe it to yourself to be able to truly hear the heart and soul of the fine  music showcased by this superb recording. 

- Jason Serinus -


"Caruso 2000: The Digital Recordings"

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra

RCA Victor; 174321-69766-2

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Audio: Unclassifiable

The recordings of Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) provide a legacy by which every other tenor on record has since been judged. Caruso tapped into the heart of both America’s immigrant population and the soul of every opera lover. With an unforgettable voice aimed toward the poor people in standing room, his cutting tenor embodied the hopes, dreams, and fantasies of several generations. Caruso’s supreme intelligence allowed him to bend tempo and phrasing at will, creating a performance both unique and uniquely “right.” The strict-time singing of most modern tenors, when compared to Caruso’s flexibility, frequently seems boringly prosaic. Contrast Caruso’s “Celeste Aida” with Placido Domingo’s beautifully-voiced 1970 performance on the just-released AIDA told by Leontyne Price – With Selections from the Opera to hear what I mean.

All that was available for recording Caruso was the acoustic process, in which everything was played and sung into a horn. The intensity of air moving in the horn would cause a metal needle to engrave the sound on a revolving cylinder of wax. No microphones back then. When a singer or instrument swelled in volume, one had to move back from the horn to avoid overload; when pianissimi were produced, forward movement was necessary. Vocal quartet recordings often involved people literally jockeying for position close to the horn. Accompaniment, recorded by attaching little megaphones to violins etc., was faint and edgy. Because this process favored baritonal timbre over higher frequencies, Caruso’s progressively darker voice recorded quite well. But there is no pretending that, when compared to modern recordings, it sounds anything but primitive. Remember, we are talking about a time when Gabby Hayes got the girl.

I was weaned on Caruso records, breaking a fair number before I was two. I still have some in the closet. Until I was in my teens, I had no idea what opera accompaniment really sounded like. But I did know and whistle to every one of Caruso’s most famous recordings. His sound lodged itself deep in my being, as it did for so many others. For us, Caruso is king, not Elvis.

In this recording, a digitally-reprocessed Enrico finds himself accompanied by a modern orchestra. The booklet claims the process is unique, ignoring the fact that RCA issued a slew of such recordings in the ‘30s, way before digital recording was possible.

While I do not wish to speak in a tone as harsh as that of the New York Times, which categorically trashed this venture, I must admit that it feels very strange to first encounter a beautifully-recorded orchestra on a huge soundstage, only to find a constricted voice rising out from its belly. Because the orchestra sounds so good, Caruso lamentably comes off as second best. While his reprocessed voice may sound fuller than it has ever sounded on records before, the need to cover over the original orchestral accompaniment has led to an orchestra sounding fuller and richer than the singer it accompanies. In an effort to show what a good job it has done, RCA even provides a comparison between the reprocessed and original versions of Caruso’s “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, but doesn’t even bother to cut out the clicks and pops from the original (which it of course has done on the digital remake) to give it a fighting chance.

I don’t blame RCA for trying to find a way to modernize the recordings of a man whose voice has bankrolled the company for over 90 years. And I think it very important to make Caruso accessible to ears accustomed to modern sound. This, alas, is not the way. The king has been dethroned by the very forces who wish to restore him to his former glory.

- Jason Serinus -


"Jussi Bjoerling: Opera Arias"

Royal Orchestra, Nils Grevillius - Conductor

Naxos Historical; 8.110701

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Jussi Bjorling (1911-1960) has often been called the Swedish Caruso. His absolutely gorgeous lyric voice, which was miraculously able to encompass heroic and dramatic roles without damaging its youthful, warm timbre, was produced with a heart-aching tone that seems exactly right for the Italian operatic repertoire.

Naxos’ reissue of recordings made in Bjorling’s youthful prime (1936-1948) have been restored by Mark Obert-Thorn, an engineer whose name often appears on Romophone and other recordings when Ward Marston is not at work. The ’78 sound remains, but, among other things, a subtle beefing-up of the midrange compensates for deficiencies in early recording practice. The result, quite simply, is the best reproduction of Bjorling’s voice ever heard on the planet.

These 23 tracks sound simply superb. Bjoerling rings out in a manner so convincing and mesmerizing that mere adjectives do not suffice. Duplication with Caruso of four of the Verdi tracks, plus one each by Ponchielli, Meyerbeer, Leoncavallo, Massenet, Flotow, and Puccini, makes for illuminating comparison.

The disc ends with “Nessun dorma,” the aria from Puccini’s Turandot written after Caruso had died. Bjorling stretches the high notes as only a heroic lover sung by someone blessed with such a glorious shower of sound would dare. It is a fantastic performance. If you play this version after hearing Pavarotti’s, you may be tempted to steal Luciano’s handkerchief and use it to cover your face in shame. This is what lyric tenor singing is all about.

 - Jason Serinus -


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