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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Puritani - opera in three Acts
Elvira, Maria Callas (sop); Arturo, Giuseppe Di Stefano (ten); Riccardo, Rolando Panerai (bar); Giorgio, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass); Bruno, Angelo Mercuriali (ten); Gualtiero Valton, Carlo Forti (bass); Enrichetta, Aurora Cattelani (sop)
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
Recorded March and April 1953 in the Basilica di Santa Eufemia, Milan
Bargain Price
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 85647 2 3 [2CDs: 68.59+73.04]


For a critique of this performance please refer to my review of the recent issue on the Naxos Historical label elsewhere on this site . In that review I commented in some detail about the background to the original recording. It was the first issued, albeit the second recorded, under Callas’s new contract for EMI’s Columbia label. I also narrated my experience of the recording going back to its initial LP days and including its first appearance on CD where I found the original excessive reverberation and muddy orchestral and choral textures little improved. To my ears Mark Obert-Thorn’s re-mastering for Naxos had made the performance easier to listen to with the voices clearer, lifted as it were, out of the muddy background. I also noted the more open orchestral sound of Act III against that of Acts I and II. However, I didn’t labour the issue that Obert-Thorn specifically mentions as to the change in perspective during CD 1 tr. 5 when, as he states, ‘Riccardo and Bruno seem to have been transported to the bottom of Jokanaan’s cistern’ (i.e. in Strauss’s Salome). On the Naxos the restorer has smoothed out some of these differences, which are more obvious on the EMI issue with its overall cleaner sound. Of course EMI have the master tapes, and if they have taken as much trouble as Obert –Thorn in transcribing from LP copies, then the consequences should be audible. Listening to CD 1 tr. 11, ‘Ad Arturo onore’ (the same track number on both issues, although prefaced as ‘Scene 3’ on the EMI) the Naxos can do nothing with the overloaded entrance of the chorus, and EMI little better. Where the latter does score is in the recording of Callas’s voice as in Elvira’s ‘Vien, diletto’, (CD 2 tr. 6; tr 7 on Naxos) when the voice is caught to better advantage ... significantly better. There is more of an impression of openness and the singer’s tone sounds lighter and more rounded. In the very hot seat of comparison this is the crunch. Without the opportunity of the present direct comparison I found the Naxos more ‘listenable’ than the earlier issues. Now, set side by side with this EMI re-issue, at roughly the same price, I find the Naxos has a marginally more flattened aspect to the sound when compared directly with the EMI. However, the differences are slight. If you have already purchased the Naxos I do not think the differences justify having two copies of such a generally mediocre performance on your shelves, but if you are a Callas addict then maybe! Just to complicate matters the essay by David Padmore for Naxos is superior to that by the doyen J.B. Steane for EMI; dated 1986 it was perhaps prepared for the original CD issue. Likewise the track-related synopsis on Naxos is superior too.

The differences of presentation and recording quality are marginal. Rather than ‘caveat emptor’ it’s a case of ‘make your choice’. At the price, if you want this performance in your collection, you are a winner whichever you decide.

Robert J Farr

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