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Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875)
Carmen (sung in German)
Christa Ludwig (mezzo) - Carmen; Melitta Muszely (soprano) - Micaëla; Ursula Schirrmacher (mezzo) - Frasquita; Ursula Gust (soprano) - Mercédès; Rudolf Schock (tenor) - Don José Hermann Prey (baritone) - Escamillo; Leopold Clam (baritone) - Dancairo; Karl-Ernst Mercker (tenor) - Remendado; Iwan Rebroff (bass) - Zuniga; Georg Völker (tenor) - Moralès
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Schöneberger Sängerknaben, Berliner Symphoniker/Horst Stein
rec. September 1961, Grünewaldkirche, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 9123002 [71:44 + 75:02]

EMI is currently issuing large portions of the Electrola back-catalogue, not least many operas of the Biedermeier era including Flotow, Nicolai and Lortzing and the legendary operetta recordings of the 1960s and 1970s. Singers like Anneliese Rothenberger, Rita Streich, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey frequently took part and among conductors the veteran Robert Heger and the then young Heinz Wallberg were prominent. I have already invested in several of these, many of them good old friends from the LP era that now get a new lease of life in digital shape. There have also been some non-German operas and the custom then in German houses was to sing them in German, whatever the original language. So was the case with Les contes d’Hoffmann, in the same series, which my colleague John Sheppard recently reviewed here. That was a rather late set, recorded in 1979.
 
This Carmen was originally issued in 1962 but the recorded sound is excellent, rather closely balanced but still atmospheric. The orchestra plays splendidly under Horst Stein, who was a fine opera conductor and chooses sensible tempos. The chorus of the Deutsche Oper sings well and in the changing of the guard the Schöneberger Sängerknaben are charming street urchins. Let me also mention that there is no spoken dialogue but Guiraud’s recitatives are used.
 
So far so good, then but the language? Was it really a good idea to record it in German? Firstly these recordings were made with the German-speaking public in mind and 30-50 years ago this was a very important market. Secondly an all-German cast singing in the vernacular is likely to make the most of the text. It may take some time for non-German listeners to get used to the different sounds and it is an advantage to know the opera fairly well and, preferably, have some familiarity with German. It is also true that a language so rich with consonants and Ach-lauts can sound clumsy. Morales, for instance, the first solo voice we hear, has an excellent voice but the language still makes his reading four-square. Other comprimario singers are much better in that respect, Mercédès and Frasquita are fine and the young Ivan Rebroff - he had just turned 30 when the recording was made - is a stylish Zuniga. This was before his international breakthrough as a popular artist.
 
Carmen herself is Christa Ludwig and she is absolutely stunning. The Habanera is as seductive as anybody else’s, her mocking laughter afterwards is theatrical but in style. The Seguidilla is light and airy and conversational. She is superb, vocally and dramatically in the long second act duet scene with Don José, doom-laden in the card scene in act III and magnificent in the finale.
 
Rudolf Schock may have been a good Don José some ten years earlier, and he acts convincingly, but his voice here is dry and charmless. He is at his best in the Flower song, tender initially and careful over nuances. He ends the aria softly.
 
Hermann Prey on the other hand has charm in abundance and his Escamillo is excellent. He has the required low notes that elude so many baritones and boasts all the virility of a true toreador as well as glowing top notes.
 
Maybe the great surprise for many will be the Micaëla of Melitta Muszely. She was an important coloratura soprano, for many years belonging to the ensemble at the Hamburg State Opera. She also guested in Vienna, Berlin, Zürich and also internationally in Paris, Venice, Lisbon and Edinburgh. She excelled as a Richard Strauss heroine. I suspect though that for the non-German, record-buying public she was primarily an operetta singer, often partnering Fritz Wunderlich. She sings with such enticing beauty in the duet with Don José in act I that one totally forgets that it is the ‘wrong’ language. Her aria in act III is one of the very best things on this recording, again beauty and feeling combined.
 
Though hardly a first choice for anyone, except Germans who want Carmen in the vernacular, this is an enjoyable set in many respects and admirers of Christa Ludwig should contemplate a purchase.
 
Göran Forsling
 


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