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Reviews for Aida Berlin 1937 IPCD 1034-3
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Reviews for IPCD 1034-2

Verdi AIDA

Victor de Sabata, cond; Gina Cigna (Aida); Beniamino Gigli (Radames); Ebe Stignani (Amneris); Ettore Nava (Amonasro); Tancredi Pasero (Ramfis)

La Scala Orchestra and Chorus, 22 June 1937, in Berlin

Bonus: Ponchielli: La Gioconda: Excerpts, Act One Tullio Serafin, Herman Heller, conds; Gina Cigna (Gioconda); Beniamino Gigli (Enzo); Mario Basiola (Barnaba); Gianna Pederzini (Laura)

And Gigli Recital: Eugene Ormandy, cond; Detroit SO


Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine,
May/June 2014

This is not for the casual listener, or anyone with a limited tolerance for the inconsistencies that will be found in “historic” live performance recordings. And there are some particularly unusual aspects of this recording that I will come to in due course. But the bottom line is this: if you are seriously interested in Verdi and in Verdi performance tradition, and if you can hear through the sonic inconsistencies, this is a truly remarkable document, one we are fortunate to have. Richard Caniell, the driving force behind Immortal Performances, has certainly put a huge amount of work and effort into assembling this release, and into improving the sound quality from various sources and making it as consistent as possible. The result is quite impressive.

It is important to make clear that this is not a complete live performance of Aida as given on June 22, 1937 by the touring La Scala company in Berlin, because significant chunks of that performance no longer exist in recorded form. Most crucially, the entire fourth act was either never broadcast, never recorded, or has been lost. Clearly Immortal Performances did not want to issue an Aida without its final act; if you dislike the fact that what ends this set is not a part of the original performance, you certainly have the option of not listening to it. Using the Met 1937 Aida with Cigna and the Covent Garden 1939 performance with Gigli, Caniell was able to assemble a fourth act by editing back and forth. What is astonishing is how seamless it is. I knew what he had done, where the edits must be, and still I found a natural flow to the performance despite its going back and forth from one to the other. In the one, very brief place where Aida and Radamès sing together, in “O terra, addio,” Gigli is joined by Caniglia instead of Cigna (the former being the Covent Garden Aida). Because the tenor’s voice is more forward in the miking, one doesn’t really notice. Although the fourth act is the most significant intervention that Caniell had to make, there are others, and he writes about them in a very good essay included in the superb booklet that accompanies the set. I see no need to further detail them here. (The only new information that I did provide is that Caniglia was the “other” Aida for a brief moment).

There are so many important components of this Aida that it is hard to know where to begin. One might think that Gigli’s Radamès is the key reason for obtaining this performance, and it certainly is a magnificent achievement, marrying beautiful tone to deep emotional commitment and involvement. And while it is more spontaneous and free than the tenor’s studio recording, and it is a performance to treasure, it is not, in my view, the most significant aspect of this release. Ditto for Cigna’s Aida, great though it is. Her 1937 Met Aida, with Martinelli (on a stunning remastering by Immortal Performances) is very similar to this performance. What is unique about this recording is the extraordinary conducting of de Sabata. Collectors of course know his genius from the first Callas Tosca, and a few other recordings, but his recorded legacy is small, and there is no other Aida. Even though this represents an incomplete performance that Caniell had to patch together (including using a Polydor studio recording for the Prelude, which is missing), we get enough to feel the shape and thrust of the de Sabata performance, and to realize what a truly great conductor he was. Power and drive in the music’s exciting passages (the end of the second act takes off and practically goes into orbit) are combined with sensitivity and flexibility in the more tender scenes. And it is all stitched together with a completely natural sense of how to get from one tempo or color or mood to the next. There are no gear shifts in his conducting at all, and surprisingly few even when there are insertions. (The final scene, where Caniell had to alternate between Cigna and Gigli from different performances, of course has no de Sabata in it; instead it alternates between Panizza and Beecham, with none of it jarring us).

I do not wish to minimize the importance of the singers in the success of this performance in my focus on de Sabata. Cigna is a magnificent Aida, as she was in the 1937 Met broadcast referred to earlier. She is a bit more vocally steady here (the 1937 broadcast was her Met debut, and one would expect some nerves, though they were rarely in evidence), and she has taken an already fully integrated dramatic portrait of the character and deepened it with a few more subtle touches. Her full-voiced C at the climax of “O patria mia” rings out gloriously, and the dilemma of Aida that is explored by Verdi in the third act is brought vividly to life. There are many details, individual felicities of phrasing or dynamic shading, that go into making this such a great and individual performance. Gigli also combines power and tempestuousness with tenderness and a lovely lyrical voice, to which he manages to add power without sounding as if he is damaging it. Stignani and Pasero are also magnificent in their roles. Only Nava, a provincial Amonasro, is below the level of the all-star cast. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but there is little about it that one remembers, either vocally or dramatically. The timbre itself is ordinary.

What I find astonishing when I listen to this Aida, and I have played it through four times for the purpose of this review, is the sense of direction and inevitability that it has, despite its mongrel nature. That is of course a testament to all of the performers involved in all of the sources, but it is also a testament to the ears, musical judgment, and technical abilities of Richard Caniell. It is difficult to imagine the degree of patience it took to assemble this and have a result at this level. Although by the third and fourth hearing I began trying to imagine what touches de Sabata might have added to his fourth act, it was intellectual curiosity on my part, not a weakness in the performance in front of me, which led to that. Despite the fact that history has not preserved intact a Gigli/Cigna/de Sabata Aida, we are fortunate to be able to get this close. Despite sound that varies in quality, that can be gritty and distorted at times, and is never at the standard of good studio recordings from that era, what comes through clearly enough is the grandeur and power of this remarkable performance.

By contrast, much of the La Gioconda filler is difficult to listen to even for those of us with patience for this kind of material. The broadcast from Cremona suffers from very gritty, cramped sound, and despite wonderful singing from Gigli, Cigna, and Basiola I found it less than gratifying. However, the big tenor aria, “Cielo e mar” is taken from a Vitaphone recording that Gigli made in 1927 (Herman Heller conducting an orchestra) with much clearer sound and with some very beautiful singing possessing the kind of individual personality mostly missing from today’s operatic stages.

There are also four arias taken from The Ford Hour, a 1938 radio broadcast from Detroit, and the sound here is much cleaner. Ormandy’s sensitive accompanying is an asset, and Gigli is in splendid voice. The arias are the standards you would expect from L’elisir d’amore, Martha, and Pagliacci, and one of the standards (“Questa o quella”) from Rigoletto. Some will object to Gigli’s occasionally verismo-oriented approach to some phrases of Donizetti, but just as you are about to get annoyed there comes along a honeyed passage of such supreme elegance and vocal beauty that you just can’t be angry. The truth is that Gigli was one of the greatest Italian tenors of the first half of the 20th century, and having these live arias from a radio concert given in his prime (and yes, this was still his prime despite his being 48 years old) is an invaluable treasure.

As usual, the production values of Immortal Performances are at a significantly higher level than most companies that deal in historic material. This starts, of course, with Caniell’s engineering achievements, but it extends to the booklet too, with superb notes on the performance by London Green, a detailed plot synopsis, and notes on the recording itself by Caniell. The booklet also includes wonderful photos.

Verdi AIDA

Victor de Sabata, cond; Gina Cigna (Aida); Beniamino Gigli (Radames); Ebe Stignani (Amneris); Ettore Nava (Amonasro); Tancredi Pasero (Ramfis)

La Scala Orchestra and Chorus, 22 June 1937, in Berlin

William Russell
September 2014

This Berlin performance of Aida has been circulating for a number of years on a number of different labels. This performance was originally broadcast from Berlin, while the La Scala company toured Germany in 1937. However, the transcriptions are both incomplete and in poor sound. Missing are the prelude and opening scene of Act 1, the second scene of Act 1, the opening of Act 2, scene 2, and the whole of the last act. Whether they weren't broadcast, not recorded, or simply missing is immaterial. Here was a marvellous performance that was frustratingly incomplete.

Once again we can thank Richard Caniell for rescuing and restoring a treasurable performance that would, otherwise, have continued to circulate in bits and pieces. Using various sources, he has restored the parts that survive in the best sound possible and completed the performance by seamlessly and sonically-matching parts from recordings as well as the 1937 Metropolitan Opera and 1939 Royal Opera, Covent Garden, broadcasts.

Four of the principal soloists, Gina Cigna, Ebe Stignani, Beniamino Gigli and Tancredi Pasero, as well as Maestro de Sabata, are all at the peaks of their careers and I don't need to take up space to detail their vocal excellence. Their intense, committed performances, great voices and strong conducting are certainly the reason for acquiring this release. Another is a rare opportunity to hear the Amonasro, baritone Ettore Nava, who left few commercial recordings. According to the notes, Nava had a long career lasting 30 years but does not appear to have performed outside Italy. He had a dark, lyric voice, which made him hard to cast. While he had the sound for Verdi roles but not the power he gives a remarkable performance here.

The first of the bonus selections are five tracks from the 1934 Cremona performance of Ponchielli's La Gioconda under Tullio Serafin's strong, fluid conducting (plus two tracks from a Gigli Vitaphone soundtrack of 'Cielo e mar'), which makes us sorry that more of this broadcast doesn’t exist or that this wasn’t among the complete operas recorded by Gigli for HMV. He and Basiola give a hair-raising performance of the Act 1 duet 'Enzo Grimaldo, Principe di Santa Fi or'.

In 1932, Metropolitan Opera artists were asked to take pay cuts because of the Great Depression. Gigli, who had made his Metropolitan debut in 1920 and was heard in four broadcasts in early 1932 (of which no transcriptions are known to exist), was the only Metropolitan star to refuse to take the cut and he left both the Metropolitan Opera and the US to return to Italy. Five years later, 1937, he returned to the US for concerts. In January and February 1939, he would appear in five performances at the Metropolitan and one of those, Aida with Zinka Milanov, would be broadcast on 4 February 1939. Sadly, only excerpts appear to have survived and it was too bad that those couldn't have been included on this set. The Ford Hour programme broadcast of i938 would mark his return to the American airwaves. Gigli was reportedly nervous about the return but he need not have been because he is in peak form, singing with his customary honeyed tone, vocal beauty, richness and warmth (as well as his mannerisms). Strangely enough, Gigli appears not to have made a commercial recording of 'Questa o quella', one of the arias including in this concert and a worthy addition to his discography as he sings it with fine breath control and infectious humour.

This set is enthusiastically recommended.

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